Experts testify on alternatives to toxins

06/12/2007
By From the Lowell Sun

By Matt Murphy
Lowell Sun

BOSTON -- Formaldehyde in toothpaste. Carcinogens in dry cleaning. Hazardous flame retardants in television sets, broken down into household dust from the glare of the sun.

The prevalence of toxic chemicals in basic consumer products means people every day are exposed to materials that doctors and scientists attribute, over time, to the rise in cancer rates, asthma and certain birth defects.

But it doesn't have to be that way, according to a number of scientific experts who testified yesterday that not only do safer alternatives exist, but can be used without hurting businesses and costing the state jobs.

State lawmakers heard testimony yesterday on a bill that would expand the state's Toxic Use Reduction Act to focus more closely on finding alternatives to certain toxic chemicals found in many consumer products.

Such an effort would put Massachusetts at the forefront in the United States of taking steps to reduce the use of toxic chemicals, while fighting to keep pace with similar efforts in Europe.

It would also be a boon to the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where the Toxic Use Reduction Institute has been on the leading edge of helping companies clean up their manufacturing processes with safer alternative chemicals.

"This would open a whole new area for research and greatly expand the focus of the institute," said Ken Geiser, a professor of work environment at UMass Lowell and co-director of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production.

Geiser helped write the state's Toxic Use Reduction Act in 1990, which has been successful in helping companies transition to safer manufacturing processes.

The new "Safer Alternatives" bill has been introduced as legislation the past three sessions, but has never made it out of committee for a vote by the legislature.

Chemical industry representatives have successfully argued that the new standards would hurt businesses, and have questioned whether some of the chemicals targeted are, in fact, hazardous to humans.

One of the bill's lead sponsors, Sen. Steven Tolman, D-Brighton, said he believes the issue is gaining steam and is confident it will get a vote this time around.

This year, the bill has been co-sponsored by 82 representatives and 30 senators, including Sen. Steven Panagiotakos and Reps. Kevin Murphy, Thomas Golden, Geoffrey Hall, Jamie Eldridge and Jim Miceli.

The bill would initially target 10 priority toxic chemicals, and with the help of UMass Lowell, work with companies to introduce more feasible, safer alternatives.

The Department of Environmental Protection would establish deadlines by which companies must implement the safer chemicals or face fines, and out-of-state companies would be banned from selling their products in Massachusetts unless they complied.

Business could apply for waivers if safer alternatives were not considered technically or financially feasible. Grants, loans and technical assistance would also be available to help companies transition.

"This is a partnership between environmentally conscious people, politicians and industry. This is not about making industry turn somersaults in hard economic times," said Nicholas Ashford, a professor of technology and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Frank Ackerman, an economist at Tufts University, said the idea that environmentally friendly business practices cost jobs is a myth.

Studies, he said, show that only 1,000 out of every 1 million job cuts are the result of environmental protections.