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A similar bill has been introduced in previous years. Advocates are hoping this year they will be more successful.

By Gabe Rivin

Children’s-health advocates are pushing a bill at the General Assembly that would restrict several industrial chemicals in children’s products, an effort that has failed in recent years, but one the groups hope will advance in a narrower form.

Advocates, from groups including NC Child and Toxic Free NC, are rallying to support SB 81, a bill introduced in February by Sen. Stan Bingham (R-Denton). The bill would place restrictions on bisphenol A, or BPA; phthalates; and chemical flame retardants.

Chemical structure for bisphenol A (BPA)

The bill’s advocates say the chemicals present a risk to human health and in particular to young children. While Bingham’s bill would only limit the chemicals in children’s products, advocates say this is a good first step, even if it doesn’t eliminate children’s exposure to these chemicals from other sources.

Still, the bill faces a potentially large hill to climb toward passage. Similar versions of the bill were introduced in 2013 and 2012, but neither made it through the committee process. In both of those bills, the state would have barred the manufacture and sale of children’s products containing the chemicals. Both bills had bipartisan sponsors.

This year’s bill, however, would only restrict the sale of children’s products that contain the chemicals. Manufacturers would not be barred from producing the chemicals.

Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Hendersonville), a co-sponsor of the 2013 and 2012 bills, said that Republican members of the General Assembly have not had an appetite for increased environmental regulations.

“Republicans have mostly been about regulatory reform, and I think some of my colleagues viewed this as the type of things that we should not be about,” he said.

This bill, in particular, could be controversial, Bingham said.

“I expect there may be a firestorm about this,” he said, noting that North Carolina would be among a small number of states that have passed this kind of legislation. “As always, nobody wants to be the first to do anything, especially if it relates to industry and jobs.”

Still, Bingham argued that the bill was an important, “common sense” piece of legislation to improve children’s health, and that he was willing to compromise over its final shape.

He said one problem facing previous bills was a lack of time for consideration. Since the General Assembly is meeting in a long session this year, the bill won’t necessarily be shunted because of a lack of time, he said.

Bingham said he can’t assess the stance of Republican leaders because he hasn’t yet talked with them about the bill. Yet he admitted he’ll need to work hard to build support; the bill currently has one co-sponsor, Sen. Mike Woodard (D-Durham).

An aide to Sen. Phil Berger (R-Eden), president pro tempore of the Senate, did not respond to questions about the senator’s support for the new bill.

Effects on children’s health

SB 81 bill would restrict the use of nine industrial chemicals in children’s products. These products include toys, car seats and personal-care products.

One of the substances addressed in SB 81 is bisphenol A, a common component of many plastics, such as sippy cups and other children’s utensils. Photo courtesy Kris Gabbard, flickr creative commons

The chemicals are BPA, six types of phthalates and two types of chemical flame retardants. Tom Vitaglione, a senior fellow at NC Child and a supporter of Bingham’s bill, said that these chemicals are potentially dangerous for children.

“Children, and particularly small children, are more susceptible to exposures,” he said.

BPA, for instance, would be banned from children’s products under Bingham’s bill. BPA is used to make hard plastics and epoxy resins, the latter of which are used to line metal cans. The chemical can leach into food from this lining, as well as from other consumer products, such as water bottles. Some 93 percent of Americans 6 years and older have detectable levels of BPA in their bodies, according to a 2003-04 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

BPA’s use is widespread, and public worries about the chemical have escalated.

But in a recent review, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded that BPA’s use in food products does not pose a risk to human health The U.S. Environmental Protection notes that, worldwide, standardized toxicity tests have revealed BPA to not be a risk to human health.

Heather Patisaul, a researcher at NC State University who studies BPA, disagrees. She said federal agencies often discount large numbers of health studies. They also tend to discount research that comes out of universities and the National Institutes of Health, she said.

“EPA, FDA and to some degree CDC are hugely biased in the way that they look at data,” she said. “And that’s really unfortunate, because it leads to a false sense of safety and it doesn’t do public health a good service.”

But, she said, there is “pretty reasonable evidence” that BPA can harm human fetuses, given what researchers know from animal studies. These studies have looked at low levels of BPA exposure – similar to levels in humans – and have found the chemical can potentially cause early puberty, neurological damage and problems with uterine development, among other issues associated with changes to the endocrine system.

Phthalates are potentially harmful too – though, once again, they’re a source of disagreement among researchers. The chemicals are used in numerous consumer products, including shampoo, perfume, plastic wrap and shower curtains. Humans can be exposed to phthalates by breathing dust in the air, eating food wrapped in plastic or drinking water.

Under Bingham’s bill, children’s products could not contain six phthalates in concentrations greater than .1 percent by weight.

One phthalate, di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, or DEHP, is “reasonably considered to be a human carcinogen,” according to the National Toxicology Program’s 13th Report on Carcinogens. The report notes though that epidemiological studies offer “inadequate” data to evaluate the relationship between human cancer and exposure to the chemical.

The CDC also notes that children may be exposed to DEHP by sucking on toys, but that “there is no conclusive evidence of adverse health effects after such exposures.”

NC State’s Patisaul argues health research shows that phthalates may be a problem for human health. Phthalates can block hormones that are vital for male sexuality, she said, raising concerns that they can harm male fertility.

Flame retardants’ health impacts are up for debate too. The chemicals are used to limit fires in many kinds of consumer products, including the foam in baby strollers. Yet flame retardants can escape from these products and attach to airborne dust, which humans can inadvertently ingest.

One flame retardant, tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate, is potentially neurotoxic, according to recent research.

Bingham’s bill would limit the amount of the chemical in children’s products.

Still, addressing the kinds of flame retardants the bill would restrict, the CDC says, “Almost no information is available regarding health effects in members of the general population” who have been exposed to them.

Bait and switch

Bingham’s bill doesn’t address the possibility that manufacturers could swap one scrutinized chemical for something novel and unknown.

At least in the case of BPA-free plastics, that can be an issue. One study found that BPA replacements exhibited estrogen-like properties, raising the issue that they could also affect human hormones.

Vitaglione acknowledged the possible use of new, untested chemicals. He also acknowledged that the bill would not eliminate other sources of children’s exposures to the nine restricted chemicals. But the bill’s passage offers other benefits, he said.

“Part of this movement is an awareness movement,” he said.

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Gabe Rivin

Gabe is our former environmental health reporter from 2014-2016. He is a former editor of The Cooperative Business Journal, and a former reporter for Inside Washington Publishers, where he covered federal...