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What Bedazzling Easter Dresses Can Tell Us About Chemical Reform

Friday, March 25, 2016

It’s the time of year for pretty Easter dresses, and for many kids, the frillier and shinier, the better. Parents, however, should beware of dresses packaged with metal jewelry.

A shocking investigation by the Washington state Department of Ecology found horrifying levels of toxic heavy metals in costume jewelry that came with several young children’s dresses, including brooches, charms and necklaces.

Of the 27 pieces tested, five contained unsafe levels of cadmium or lead. As reported by the Seattle Times, one necklace was 98 percent cadmium – equivalent to 98,400 parts per million or nearly 2,500 times the legal maximum of 40 parts per million under Washington state law Another piece contained lead at 50,100 parts per million. That’s 500 times the federal legal limit of 100 parts per million for lead for children’s products.

Both cadmium and lead are associated with serious health risks and are considered toxic even at very low doses. A spokesperson for the state Department of Ecology said some of the jewelry had such high levels of toxic metals that it would be best disposed of as hazardous waste, not in household trash. The agency also tested 132 pieces of costume jewelry sold separately from the dresses and found them all to be safe.

These outrageous findings come as Congress is trying to reconcile two chemical reform laws passed last year to replace the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. These dresses can tell us a lot about what that reform should look like. In particular:

  • State laws must be preserved. The existing federal chemical law is so weak that the Environmental Protection Agency infamously was unable to use it to ban asbestos. In the absence of meaningful federal authority to regulate chemicals, states have been leading the way for decades. Washington state’s own 2008 Children’s Safe Products Act, which sets limits on metals in children’s jewelry, is a prime example. At least 10 other states have laws restricting or banning metals such as cadmium and lead. By contrast, the federal limits for cadmium in jewelry are voluntary. Any federal reform should fully preserve these existing state laws and allow states to continue regulating chemicals at least until a federal rule goes into effect. Even if the federal government has acted, restrictions on states should be narrowly limited to the same products and risks that are federally regulated. States should also be able to continue regulating chemicals under their clean air, water and waste disposal laws and should be able impose reporting and monitoring requirements.
  • States need broad enforcement authority. The Washington investigation highlights the key enforcement role that states play in keeping consumers safe. EPA has limited resources and capacity to test products and to make sure that industry is complying with chemical regulations. State authorities can help monitor compliance with both state and federal regulations and take action when companies break the law. Federal chemical reform should allow and encourage states to take their own enforcement actions and impose their own penalties, especially when federal action is inadequate.
  • EPA should review toxic metals quickly, without exception. Federal chemical reform efforts must ensure that the one thousand most concerning chemicals in commerce are assessed and regulated as quickly as possible. While neither bill would ensure that all these chemicals are evaluated within a century, the Senate bill at least takes steps to give priority for safety review to chemicals on EPA’s current “Work Plan.” Nine metals are currently on the Work Plan, including cadmium and lead. The House bill also has an expedited timeline for EPA to regulate so-called PBTs – chemicals that persist in the environment and build up in our bodies. Unfortunately, the House bill specifically exempts metals from this expedited timeline even though many, including cadmium and lead, have these very properties. The Washington state investigation demonstrates why that exclusion is a bad idea.
  • No special treatment for imports. It’s likely that at least some, if not all, of the dresses and jewelry tested in Washington state were imported. The episode shows that regulations for imported products need to be just as stringent as they are for domestically manufactured goods. However, that’s not the case for some imported products in the pending Senate bill. One provision would require EPA to first make a new finding that there was a “reasonable potential for exposure” before it could require companies to tell the agency about a new use for a chemical in an imported product. EPA should not have to jump over unnecessary hurdles to make sure that chemicals in imported products are safe.  

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