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Another Voice: New York must act to protect children from toxic chemicals

By Gale R. Burstein, M.D.

The rubber duck is an iconic children’s toy. Its bright yellow visage inspires mirth in children of all ages. Ironically, the rubber duck is also the symbol for a national movement of public health, educational and environmental advocates working to make sure toys and other children’s products do not contain toxic chemicals.

As a pediatrician, I see the growing body of scientific evidence linking toxic chemicals to at least five chronic conditions: cancer; learning and developmental disabilities; Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases; reproductive health and infertility; and asthma.

Sadly, human exposure to toxic chemicals is not relegated to history books, the movies or some other community far away. Danger lurks in everyday purchases in stores right here in Erie County and beyond.

Nowadays, anyone purchasing tobacco knows the many associated health risks thanks to warning labels. However, disclosure does not exist for everyday children’s products – nursing pillows, car seats, highchairs and toys – that contain chemicals of concern.

How can this be? It’s been nearly 40 years since passage of the federal chemicals management law called the Toxic Substances Control Act. Of concern is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been able to require testing on less than 2 percent of the more than 80,000 chemicals on the market since the law’s adoption in 1976.

Toxic chemicals have no business in children’s products like toys, clothing or car seats. New York State must act to protect children’s health with a comprehensive approach, modeled after effective policies in other states and countries, and containing the following elements:

• Identify chemicals of high concern based on their inherent hazards.

• Create a priority list of chemicals of high concern found in children’s products.

• Require manufacturers to disclose use of priority chemicals in children’s products.

• Phase out those priority chemicals in children’s products.

• Participate in an interstate chemicals clearinghouse.

Thirty-three states, including New York, have decided they cannot wait for Congress to act. In New York, the proposed Child Safe Products Act would disclose to consumers if the product contains chemicals of concern and eventually ban the most harmful chemicals.

We need leaders in the New York State Senate to join their counterparts in the Assembly and join the ranks of California, Maine, Minnesota and Washington, which have enacted strong laws safeguarding children from toxic chemicals. New York needs to embrace, not duck, the opportunity to be a leader on this important issue.

Gale R. Burstein, M.D., is Erie County commissioner of health.