Governor reverses course; signs bill to protect kids from toxic threats

Late yesterday, Governor Scott signed into law a bill (S.55) that he had previously blocked as both governor and lieutenant governor in its earlier iterations. The law is designed to better protect children from toxic chemicals in products that are made specifically for kids.

The new law makes important changes to the Chemicals of High Concern to Children (Act 188) program. It will make more information available to parents and other consumers about whether a children’s product contains a known toxic chemical. The law will also streamline the process by which the Commissioner of Health, after consulting with a diverse stakeholder group, can move to ban or otherwise regulate the use of harmful chemicals in children’s products.

The legislation has had the support of Vermont firefighters, business groups, educators, labor organizations, public health and children’s advocates, and environmental groups for years, but has been unable to make it across the finish line until now.

“It should not have taken five legislative sessions to better protect children from toxic chemicals in their toys, clothing or other items,” said VPIRG Executive Director Paul Burns. “I’m grateful to all of the parents and legislative champions who never gave up fighting for this despite the entrenched opposition of chemical manufacturers and industry lobbyists.”

 

The idea of removing the bureaucratic red tape that made it unnecessarily difficult for the Commissioner of Health to regulate toxic threats to children was first proposed as an amendment to a larger health care bill in 2015. The amendment came down to a 15-15 tie in the Senate, which was broken by then-Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who sided with industry in opposing the measure.

In 2018, the concept landed on Gov. Scott’s desk as a stand-alone bill (S.103), which he vetoed, once again disappointing advocates for children’s health. The Senate overrode the veto, but in the House the override fell four votes short.

In his veto message to legislators last year, Gov. Scott said that, “We cannot afford to give manufacturers another reason to look elsewhere for their location or expansion needs.”

Overwhelming legislative support for the bill may have contributed to the governor’s change of heart. The Senate passed S.55 on a 25-5 vote, while the House vote was 137-4.

In addition to making it easier for the Health Department to safeguard children, S.55 formalizes the establishment of an interagency committee to improve coordination among the numerous state agencies that regulate and collect data on toxic and hazardous substances. This interagency group was established by executive order in 2017 after an earlier attempt to pass the law fell short. The language in the new law more closely mirrors the executive order, thereby addressing some of the governor’s concerns from last year.

With the data collection improvements signed into law yesterday, Vermont will have one of the most comprehensive databases in the country linking individual children’s products with specific chemicals of concern. However, there is much more work to be done to make the information more easily accessible to consumers.

VPIRG is committed to working with its allies to continue to push for stronger protections against toxic chemicals for Vermonters of all ages.