Author Archives: Mike Belliveau

Executive Director, Environmental Health Strategy Center
avatar Mike Belliveau, Executive Director

When will Dow Chemical get off the toxic couch?

Mike Belliveau, Executive Director for the Environmental Health Strategy Center and Senior Strategist at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families

When Herbert H. Dow tapped the bromine salt deposits beneath Midland, Michigan, he launched a major chemical company and the chemistry that, more than a century later, still haunts our homes and bodies with toxic flame retardants.

Scientists shed new light on this growing chemical threat just last week, with two research teams reporting results in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.

One study found that 85% of couches sampled have high levels of brominated and chlorinated flame retardants known to cause cancer, hormone disruption or reproductive harm. Some are long-lived in the environment, building up to high levels in wildlife and people.

Jenny Rottmann, a pregnant study participant who provided a foam sample from her couch cushion, responded this way: “It’s something that I’d be concerned about no matter what, but finding this out a couple days before I’m about to deliver a baby really is infuriating to me.”

The other study revealed that people are exposed to flame retardants in their homes everyday, often at levels that exceed federal health guidelines. Researchers found 44 flame retardant chemicals in household dust, which people breathe and ingest, especially small children with their frequent hand-to-mouth contact.

The chemical industry has aggressively covered up the dangers and exaggerated the effectiveness of toxic flame retardants in slowing the spread of household fires. Three small chemical companies have drawn the most heat. According to the Chicago Tribune, Albemarle, Chemtura, and ICL used misleading testimony, phony front groups and distorted science to expand and protect their chemical markets.

Little noticed so far has been the role that heavyweight chemical corporations such as Dow Chemical play in propping up the toxic flame retardant industry. Dow places a heavy thumb on the toxic scale in two ways.

First, they sit at the base of the supply chain, producing the chemicals needed to make a broad class of chlorinated flame retardants. Dow Chemical is the world’s largest producer of chlorine and epichlorohydrin, and also makes phosphorus oxychloride. These three chemicals are essential raw materials for the production of chlorinated tris (also known as TDCPP) and related chlorinated flame retardants.

In the recent science studies, TDCPP was found in 42% of all couches, more often than any other flame retardant chemical, and in 100% of household dust samples. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers TDCPP a hazard for “cancer, reproductive harm, developmental toxicity, systemic toxicity, and genotoxicty in humans; and ecotoxicity and environmental persistence.” Last year, California concluded that TDCPP was known to cause cancer.

That’s why Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families asked Dow Chemical today to show its commitment to truly sustainable chemistry by agreeing not to sell its chemical raw materials for use in the manufacture of chlorinated tris. As the SCHF letter said:

… from your powerful position at the base of the supply chain, you would send an important signal to the marketplace that fire safety goals should be met with safer alternatives to the use of TDCPP.”

Hopefully, Dow Chemical will respond more quickly and positively to this leadership opportunity than they have on a second, more systemic front.

The major chemical companies, including Dow Chemical, have perpetuated our broken federal chemical safety system for thirty-six years running. The obsolete Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) keeps the public in the dark about chemical hazards and handcuffs the federal government from restricting known chemical dangers.

Last year, Dow Chemical management broke off negotiations that were heading toward a compromise TSCA reform agreement. The company has maintained steadfast opposition to the Safe Chemicals Act, despite widespread public and political support for tighter regulation of toxic chemicals in everyday products.

Dow Chemical, which spouts “solutionism” and “sustainability” as marketing mantra, has been trying hard to shake off the toxic legacy of Agent Orange and dioxin. And despite their positive spin, Dow remains wedded to chlorine chemistry (some call it ‘Pandora’s Poison’), which it uses to make more than one-quarter of more than 5,000 Dow products.

No one expects Dow Chemical to transform itself into a green chemistry company anytime soon. Dow’s current goal remains extremely modest – at least 10% of their sales will consist of products highly advantaged by sustainable chemistry, broadly defined, by 2015.

Yet, Dow does have a chance to be a real leader on the path to more sustainable, inherently safer chemistry. It’s time for Dow Chemical to get off the toxic couch by actively opposing the home invasion by chlorinated tris, and supporting the Safe Chemicals Act.

Take action NOW!

avatar Mike Belliveau, Executive Director

Stop Playing with Fire

Several years ago I had a front row seat to the deceptions and distorted science of the bromine chemical industry, which the Chicago Tribune documented so well this past week.

Then, former Maine Speaker of House Hannah Pingree proposed legislation to ban all brominated flame retardants. The PBDEs in our couches and TVs had turned our homes into virtual Superfund toxic waste sites, contaminating everything from breast-feeding babies to harbor seals with brain damaging chemicals.

The chemical industry followed the tobacco industry playbook, buying the national fire marshals’ loyalty and running TV, radio and print ads claiming that babies would burn up if the bill passed. Their heavy-handed tactics backfired. The Maine fire services united with health advocates, and the Maine Legislature banned PBDEs, the most notorious flame retardants, by an overwhelming margin.

It turns out that Rep. Pingree’s original call for a more sweeping phase-out was right. The PBDE replacements aren’t safe either. Chemtura replaced the Penta mix of PBDEs in couch cushions with a different mix of new and old brominated flame retardants under the brand name Firemaster 550.

The final Tribune investigative report today exposes the badly broken chemical safety system that plagues public health in the United States:

“At a time when consumers clamor for more information about their exposure to toxic substances, the chemical safety law allows manufacturers to sell products without proving they are safe and to treat the formulas as trade secrets. Once health effects are documented, the law makes it almost impossible for the EPA to ban chemicals.”

Under EPA’s flawed new chemicals program, the agency gave secret approval to TBB, now known to be a key chemical ingredient to Firemaster 550, despite red flags about its safety raised by its own scientists. Now, TBB is routinely found in household dust and the environment, and scientific concerns about its toxicity are growing stronger.

When the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) was passed, 62,000 existing chemicals were grandfathered in, including the brominated phthalate TBPH used in Firemaster 550. That means no mandatory health and safety testing or safety decisions are required. The agency must demonstrate harm and justify costs. While the chemical industry gets a free ride, we get preventable disease and disabilities.

No wonder the chemical industry has lobbied so hard to maintain the status quo in opposition to the Safe Chemicals Act and meaningful TSCA reform.

The toxic flame retardant scandal should be a wake up call for Congress. Similar toxic disasters in the past – like thalidomide in the 1960s, PCBs in the 1970s and Bhopal in the 1980s – spurred badly needed chemical reforms in their day.

It’s time to stop playing with fire and fix our broken chemical safety system.

This blog is re-posted from the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Campaign blog. Mike Belliveau is a Senior Advisor to the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Campaign &
Executive Director of EHSC

avatar Mike Belliveau, Executive Director

Gov. LePage shifts the venue but NOT the attacks!

The fight has only just begun! The Governor’s Office and his DEP Commissioner told the Legislature and the media on Monday that they have NOT backed off of any of their proposed environmental rollbacks. It’s true that the the Governor did not include the BPA repeal and gutting of Kid Safe Products Act in the legislative language he proposed to the Regulatory Reform Committee on Monday. Make no mistake however – the Governor has pledged to continue to advance the chemical industry attacks on the health of Maine children. The only change is that the debate has simply shifted to a different venue, the Environment and Natural Resource Committee.

Read our full statement here.

While we’re confident that the Maine legislature, which approved the Kid Safe Products Act in 2008 by an overwhelming bipartisan margin, will stand up once again to protect the health of Maine’s children from unnecessary and dangerous chemicals in children’s products, we cannot take this for granted. We call on all Maine citizens – parents, grandparents and all others concerned about protecting the health of Maine children – to take action in the fight against the Governor and the out of state chemical industry.

avatar Mike Belliveau, Executive Director

Testifying at the Bangor Hearing of the Joint Select Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform

Yesterday afternoon I testified before of the Joint Select Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform at their last hearing in Bangor. As with most all the other hearings, a majority of speakers railed against the Governor’ proposed rollbacks of numerous environmental regulations, including the Kid Safe Products Act and the associated BPA ban rule. I added to those voices, saying that contrary to the claims of Governor LePage, environmental rollbacks will not create jobs or boost the economy. In fact many authoritative studies have demonstrated that strong environmental protections equate with a strong economy. I concluded my testimony with this:

In order to create jobs and improve Maine’s economy, the Legislature should:

1. Pass a research and development bond bill to replenish the Maine Technology Asset Fund to invest in commercializing clean technology based on Maine’s natural resources;

2. Oppose the rollback of environmental regulations that are essential for a healthy Maine economy and to remain competitive with other states; and

3. Approve the BPA rule and advocate for strengthening of Maine’s Kid Safe Products Act and for new federal legislation to overhaul the broken Toxic Substances Control Act.

Check out a couple of clips from the hearing by clicking on the links below.

MB Testimony opening

MB Testimony – env reg job creation clip2

See my entire testimony here.

avatar Mike Belliveau, Executive Director

BPA and green chemistry: Sweeping rules and market demand drive safer alternatives to toxic chemicals

I was in Boston yesterday promoting a good chemical known as PLA (short for polylactic acid). Meanwhile, back home, the rest of the Maine team campaigned effectively against a bad chemical, namely BPA (also known as bisphenol A).

My presentation at EPA’S New England Green Chemistry Networking Forum highlighted the benefits of PLA, the biodegradable plastic that’s inherently safer than petrochemical plastic. We’re working with a coalition of businesses and researchers to develop the technology to make PLA from Maine potato waste and wood chips. Such locally sourced feedstocks offer greater health and sustainability benefits than the corn-based PLA that’s commercially available today.

There’s tremendous growing market demand for more sustainable materials and safer chemicals. Investment in bioplastics will boost Maine’s rural economy and create good, green jobs in manufacturing. Stronger regulation of old hazardous chemicals also levels the playing field in favor of safer alternatives, creating new business opportunities for innovative new safer chemicals and products.

That positive regulatory driver played out back in Maine, where the Board of Environmental Protection voted unanimously to adopt sweeping rules to promote safer alternatives to BPA. (See below for the extensive coverage of this story). That toxic substance was designated the first priority chemical under Maine’s landmark chemical policy reform, the Kid Safe Products Act of 2008.

BPA wreaks hormone havoc that threatens cancer, brain damage, reproductive harm and obesity, especially for the developing fetus or child. BPA escapes freely from two petrochemical plastics, as an essential ingredient in widely used polycarbonate and epoxy-based resins.

The Maine BPA rule sets a new high bar for driving safer alternatives to BPA and models the essential elements of a safer chemicals management system:

PHASE-OUT. By January 1, 2012, the use of BPA is banned in all reusable food and beverage containers. Nine other states, Canada and other countries have already banned BPA in plastic baby bottles and sippy cups. Washington state added a ban on BPA in plastic sports water bottles. Maine goes farther by also banning BPA in thermoses, food storage containers, 5-gallon water bottles and for any other similar polycarbonate plastic use.

ALTERNATIVES ASSESSMENT. By January 1, 2012, the manufacturers of infant formula and baby food must determine the availability of safer alternatives to BPA in food packaging for infants and toddlers. The epoxy-resin linings of food and beverage cans and jar lids cause significant BPA-contamination of infant formula and baby food. Two states, Connecticut and Vermont, have enacted prospective bans on BPA in food packaging for babies. However, the availability of safer alternatives has posed a stumbling block to food packagers wanting to make the switch to BPA-free linings more quickly. Maine’s rule requires a systematic search for alternatives that are not only safer but also effective, affordable and commercially available.

CHEMICAL USE REPORTING. Within six months, manufacturers of toys, child care articles and tableware must report to the State of Maine their use of BPA (or polycarbonate plastic) in any of their products that may expose the developing fetus or child. A child is defined as anybody up to age 18 except that regulation of food packaging is limited to children age three years old and younger, and BPA reporting is limited to toys intended for children up to age 12. Incredibly, under our broken chemical safety system, no one knows what dangerous chemicals are used in which common products. Maine’s rule takes a bold step to filling that data gap on BPA, which may likely be used in some plastic toys, teething rings, pacifiers, plates, bowls, spoons and other household items. BPA exposure results from sucking or handling the product, from contaminated food and drink, and from ingesting or breathing household dust that absorbs BPA shed from the plastic.

By requiring alternatives assessments and chemical use reporting, chemical policies like Maine’s send a strong signal to the marketplace – invest in safer alternatives. Without even resorting to a ban, an honest search for safer chemicals prompts business decisions to make the switch. Chemical use reporting also incentivizes the development of greener chemistry. Once disclosed to the State, consumer and investor discover that companies are using inherently dangerous chemicals like BPA in their products. Then they vote with their dollars. That’s how the free-market works when there’s adequate information available about a product.

The two events yesterday in Boston and Augusta, Maine illustrate different but related drivers to a greener, safer future. Smart businesses are riding the cresting wave of green chemistry to seize economic opportunity and market share far ahead of any regulatory requirements. The toy and chemical industries that fight against positive change will be slammed instead by a wave of regulation, their products discarded in the market by savvy customers and investors wanting safer, more sustainable goods.

Either way green chemistry and safer alternatives are on a roll. Business opportunity and firm regulation means a healthier economy and healthier people.

BPA News Coverage

Maine Public Broadcasting Network Headline News

Maine Public Broadcasting Network Update

Bangor Daily News

WABI TV (Bangor)

WMTW TV (Portland)

Boston Globe

New England Cable Network

Bloomberg Businessweek

MSNBC

Canadian Business Online

avatar Mike Belliveau, Executive Director

Riding the Wave toward Healthier Maine People

Republicans swept into power across Maine state government this month.  The same wave election that surged nationwide carried the day in Maine.  Some folks have asked me what these election results mean for safer chemicals policy reform.

Fortunately, there’s no partisan divide when it comes preventing prostate cancer, breast cancer, infertility, learning disabilities and obesity.  Reducing toxic chemical exposure, especially during early childhood and fetal development, will prevent such harm.

In fact, Maine legislators have consistently shown strong bipartisan support for protecting children’s health from dangerous chemicals in everyday products.   Maine’s actions place us in the center of the chemical reform effort nationwide.

A new national report, which I authored, shows that 18 states passed 71 chemical safety laws by an overwhelming margin in the last eight years.  Maine lawmakers enacted nine of those laws.  Of the 836 roll-call votes tallied in Maine, 78% of Republicans and 99% of Democrats voted in favor of protecting children’s health from toxic chemicals.

In a clear example of the bipartisan consensus, the Maine Legislature passed the Kid Safe Products Act in 2008 by votes of 35 to 0 in the Senate and 129 to 9 in the House of Representatives.  Maine policymakers voted children’s health first, above the interests of the out-of-state chemical industry that blindly opposed this safer chemicals reform.

The Bipartisan Drivers for Safer Chemicals

I attribute the strong bipartisan support for state chemical policy reform to:

The voting record of Maine legislators strongly tracks public opinion.  As the Republican wave was roiling late this summer, a national poll of 75 swing Congressional districts found that 78% of likely voters were seriously concerned about the threat to children’s health from toxic chemicals in day-to-day life.  About 80% favored federal legislation to tighten restrictions on toxic chemicals, even after hearing the strongest arguments against action.

Huge health costs are another driver.  A University of Maine study by health economist Dr. Mary Davis found that Maine could save $380 million per year by preventing the childhood cancer, asthma, lead poisoning and learning & developmental disabilities associated with environmental exposures.

Until Congress acts to overhaul the toothless Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, Maine children and families will depend on continued state policy leadership.

The New Maine Legislature

Some have asked, with Speaker Hannah Pingree leaving office, where are you going to find new champions for children’s environmental health?

Perhaps new Senate President-elect, Kevin Raye (R-Washington County).  Senator Raye was the architect of the unanimous 2008 Senate vote on the Kid Safe Products Act, made possible by a compromise amendment he sponsored.  Senator Raye also built consensus in the Health and Human Services Committee, which unanimously approved another bill to protect children’s health from toxic lead in toys.

The new Maine Senate, where Republicans will hold a 20 to 14 margin over Democrats, with one independent, includes a number of other Senators from both sides of the aisle with strong legislative records of support for environmental health and safer chemical policies.

Republicans will also control the new Maine House of Representatives with a 78 to 72 margin over Democrats, with one independent.  That chamber will hold several Republican champions of protecting children’s environmental health, including Jane Knapp (R-Gorham) who provided bipartisan support for the Kid Safe Products Act in the Natural Resources Committee and has participated in a national forum on chemicals policy reform.

In future posts, I’ll weigh in on the approach of Governor-elect Paul LePage to children’s environmental health and the new business opportunities in safer chemicals and sustainable materials.  Until then, here’s a parting quote from a sister state that says it all about getting toxic chemicals out of children’s products:

“Voting against this bill is like voting against brakes on a school bus” – Bob Sump, former Republican Representative from Washington State.

avatar Mike Belliveau, Executive Director

Follow the States on Federal Safer Chemicals Reform

I was pleased to see yet another display of bipartisan state leadership aimed at preventing disease, disability and environmental damage from toxic chemicals. Today, the leading coalition of state agency environmental directors, the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), announced adoption of a resolution calling for strong federal legislation to fix our broken chemical safety system. In exercising state leadership, they proved the case for a new federal partnership with the states to ensure chemical safety.

Current law, the federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), has failed miserably in protecting human health and the environment from the tens of thousands of chemicals used in everyday products and materials. That’s why the Environmental Health Strategy Center has joined the national Safer Chemicals Healthy Families coalition to campaign for a comprehensive TSCA overhaul.

The ECOS call-to-action mirrors many of the same policy elements advanced by the pending federal legislation, H.R. 5820, the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010 sponsored by Reps. Bobby Rush (D-IL) and Henry Waxman (D-CA). These include support for new provisions of law that:

• Hold the chemical industry accountable for proving that existing and new chemicals are safe;
• Provide the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with ample new authority to determine the safety of chemicals and to take action to restrict chemicals that are unsafe or pose an imminent hazard; and
• Preserve the authority of the states to freely regulate chemicals in order to protect their citizens and environment.

Federal policy makers would do well to follow the recommendations of the states to strengthen the pending safer chemicals legislation in two additional ways:

1. ECOS supports new EPA authority to impose interim conditions and take expedited action on chemicals before completing full safety determination, when data or information indicate there are significant concerns.

H.R. 5820 requires EPA to take similar action but only for one group of the worst-of-worst chemicals – the PBTs, which pose a triple threat because they are Persistent (long-lived in the environment), Bioaccumulative (build up to high levels in the food web including human breast milk) and Toxic (harmful to living things). For example, mercury, lead and the PBDE flame retardants are notorious PBTs that have been targeted for elimination by the states to prevent otherwise inevitable harm.

Section 32 of H.R. 5820 would require EPA to identify PBTs to which people are exposed and impose immediate restrictions to reduce human exposure to the greatest extent practicable. That makes a lot of sense and would place the federal government in good company with the U.S. states and international community who are working to phase out PBT chemicals.

However, the ECOS recommendation better matches the science and effective chemical policy track record of the states. Significant concerns about any chemical should trigger authority to act on early warnings to reduce use of and exposure to the chemical, not just PBTs.

Some worst-of-worst substances are not PBTs, although exposure persists from widespread use and daily contact with products. For example, available data support interim action to restrict uses of bisphenol A, the notorious hormone disrupting chemical used in paper receipts and food can linings, and the phthalates, used in vinyl plastic and personal care products.

Comprehensive safer chemical laws passed in Maine and California provide similar authority for state governments to take action on specific uses of chemicals in products based on certain findings. Washington state and Minnesota have passed safer chemical laws that also begin to establish a comprehensive system for regulation of chemicals in products, and similar legislation is pending in other states.

For example, the State of Maine has proposed a rule to restrict the use of BPA in all reusable food and beverage containers under its chemical policy, popularly referred to as the Kid Safe Products Act.

2. ECOS calls for federal policy that authorizes EPA to require an assessment of safer alternatives for any priority chemical, including PBTs and very persistent, very bioaccumulative chemicals (whose toxicity may not yet be well understood).

Section 35 of the House bill defines what makes up a “safer alternatives assessment,” providing useful guidance to the states and businesses on standard criteria and a process for identifying safer alternatives to chemicals of concern. However, H.R. 5820 fails to authorize EPA to require an alternatives assessment, as recommended by ECOS. Instead, its leave the discretion with the chemical industry to decide whether or not they wish formally assess the availability of safer alternatives.

If a manufacturer shows that a new chemical intended for the market is a safer alternative for a specific use of an existing chemical, the federal legislation provides for expedited review and approval of the new chemical. H.R. 5820 also provides for less priority attention of existing chemicals that are shown to be safer alternatives for specific uses of other chemicals. Further, when restrictions on chemicals are proposed by EPA, a manufacturer can obtain a temporary exemption for a specific critical use of the chemical if a safer alternative is not yet available, under Section 6(e) of the bill. In each instance, a safer alternatives assessment will provide the essential proof necessary to meet the test.

Federal policymakers would do well to heed the ECOS recommendation to empower EPA to require safer alternatives assessments at its discretion, rather than leave it up to the self-interest of the chemical industry.

Lastly, the ECOS resolution has made the compelling case for a federal-state partnership for managing chemical safety in the United States. Consistent with the proposed federal legislation, the states seek a working collaboration with the federal government. They want to share confidential data on chemicals, jointly prioritize ‘hot spots’ where communities are disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals, and to consult and coordinate on other areas of mutual interest. The states also want and deserve federal funding to assist in carrying out their chemical management activities at the state level.

All these state needs are reflected in both the ECOS resolution and in the legislation’s proposed amendment to Section 28 of TSCA regarding state programs.

State leadership on toxic chemicals has helped drive the debate on federal reform and brought the chemical industry to the table for first time in support of TSCA modernization. The ECOS resolution reflects just the latest example of state leadership on safer chemicals policy.

We should honor the state’s authority and role, and harness the energy of state leadership to finally fix our broken federal chemical safety system.