MONTPELIER -- A House panel Friday passed legislation to regulate toxic chemicals found in children's products despite strong opposition from industry representatives who say it will impose unnecessary costs on manufacturers and provide only minor public health benefits.
"Overall, we still don't believe we should be having this legislation in the first place," said Bill Driscoll, vice president of the trade organization Associated Industries of Vermont.
The House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee voted 6-3 Friday in support of S.239, a bill that would give the health department the authority to require manufacturers to label or ban chemicals from children's products sold in the state that it considers harmful.
Businesses this month lobbied against the legislation in a national effort to "harmonize" it with other emerging state programs to avoid adding costs and regulations on manufacturers.
Driscoll and others were successful in narrowing the bill to only children's products, but it includes a provision allowing it to expand to other consumer products in time, alarming many manufacturers.
"It's fair to look at it as the skeleton or the infrastructure of what this sort of law will be if the scope is ever expanded in the future," Driscoll said. "So the ground rules, if you will, that we set here today are not probably going to change much if the scope is changed.
He said he wants the bill to set higher scientific standards for the health commissioner to prove a chemical's risk before handing down a regulatory decision. Like other business groups, he also wants lawmakers to have veto power - a proposal the committee rejected.
Public health advocates fended off these attempts to strip what they say are critical components of the bill.
"The fact that the department still has the authority to act is the crux of this bill for us," said Taylor Johnson, a lobbyist for the Vermont Public Interest Research. "Simply listing and acknowledging what we already know - that there are dangerous chemicals out there and our children are being exposed to them - is not enough."
VPIRG and others will push to expand the scope of the children's products definition to include products for all ages because the committee did not finalize the definition. Johnson said this is the "biggest battleground left."
Some committee members support expanding the current definition to other products children frequently come in contact with, such as rugs and other flooring, and will work with other committees on the open question.
"This becomes a second question of how I get to my issue of rugs," said committee Chair David Deen, D-Putney.
The commissioner will use biomonitoring, sampling, research and other scientific techniques to determine the risk of a child's exposure to toxic chemicals before deciding on regulatory action.
Businesses questioned this scientific method and recommended higher standards.
But the committee rejected these concerns. If the bar were set too high, the program could never lift off the ground, according to the committee vice chair, Rep. Jim McCullough, D-Williston.
"We want to have chemicals listed. And if we're setting a bar that can't be obtained because scientific evidence is not available then we're setting the program up for failure," McCullough said.
The health department said the process of linking harm to exposure relies on a long list of comprehensive scientific criteria.
"This is actually a very complex scientific process," said Sarah Vose, a toxicologist with the health department, referencing Washington state's program that Vermont used as a model.
The health department said it has the resources and staff to compile a list of chemicals considered a risk to public health. But to issue regulations by 2017, the department said it would need more resources.
The department would collect a $2,000 fee from manufacturers for each chemical they are required to report to support the program. Businesses say the fee is too high.
The bill sets up a working group to recommend regulatory action on chemicals. Sitting on the working group are three business representatives, including two from Vermont and one from the toy industry, two public health advocates, two scientist and others appointed by the governor.