The past year has shown us, in so many ways, that when our state faces a challenge or a crisis, it is the communities with lower incomes that are hit the hardest. It was promising to see the Oregon Legislature make inequities of this kind a stated priority in 2021.
But unfortunately, our legislators failed to take an easy action to meet that priority when they failed to pass House Bill 2495, the "2021 Toxic Free Kids Modernization Act" this legislative session.
Originally passed in 2015 with bipartisan support, the Oregon Toxic Free Kids Act requires all major children's products and toy manufacturers to report toxic chemicals in their products and ultimately phase them out in 2022. This is critical to protecting children's health because tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals are used today in millions of products.
Government testing of many of these chemicals for safety has not occurred, and research shows that toxic chemical exposures cause health impacts in children at exposure levels far lower than in adults. Heavy metals like lead at even very low levels can cause IQ loss, and toxic additives like phthalates disrupt the endocrine system, which in turn can impact the immune system. Children are especially susceptible to toxic chemicals because their bodies are growing, their activities and their metabolisms are different from adults, and they are more sensitive.
Requiring these toxics to be phased out of kid's products from all major manufacturers increases protections for all Oregonians. These protections are especially important for lower income families and communities of color who tend to be disproportionately impacted by toxic chemicals and who may not be able to shop at specialty stores for alternatives.
The Toxic Free Kids Modernization Act was revolutionary for its time, but due to new scientific and policy developments over the years, we learned of common sense ways that it could be implemented more efficiently, and be more protective of children's health.
HB 2495, spearheaded this year by Rep. Courtney Neron, would have allowed the Oregon Health Authority to include whole chemical classes, those with similar toxic properties, to be regulated. It would have also created new reporting requirements to include brand name and product model, which would make it easier for everyday consumers to identify and avoid harmful products.
And, it would have removed the current arbitrary limit on the number of chemicals the OHA could regulate, so that chemicals would be regulated based on the scientific evidence of their adverse effects.
HB 2495 gained bipartisan sponsorship and passed the House Energy and Environment Committee in April, and also passed the full House of Representatives by an overwhelming bipartisan majority (47-8) that same month. However, the Senate Energy and Environment Committee failed to advance the bill despite broad support and its strong basis on science and health concerns.
If the Legislature wants to prioritize protecting health and equity, it must address toxics in products and support the expansion of the act. Legislators should bring this bill back and pass it in 2022 to confirm their commitment to prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable.
Dr. Theodora Tsongas is an environmental health scientist with more than 40 years' experience evaluating the adverse health effects of exposure to environmental contaminants. She volunteers as a member of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. Jamie Pang is the environmental health program director at Oregon Environmental Council with more than a decade of environmental advocacy, law and policy experience.
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