Hidden Hazards

As this chaotic legislative sessions winds to a close, two highly visible environmental measures are still under consideration: a bill to regulate the use of hazardous chemicals in toys and other children’s products, and legislation that would ban the sale of beauty products, soaps and toothpaste containing microbeads—tiny plastic particles used for their exfoliating properties—which have been inundating New York waterways in recent years.

Versions of both bills have passed the Assembly and now await action in the Senate.

For state Sen. Thomas O’Mara, chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee, the push to prohibit products that contain microbeads is the top priority.

“I’d first and foremost like to see an agreement on the microbeads legislation that’s out there,” O’Mara said. “We’ve got different versions and we’ve been working towards trying to reach an agreeable compromise on that.”
Steve Englebright, who chairs the Environmental Conservation Committee in the Assembly, agrees that the time is right.

“There is a broad consensus that the public wants this ban,” Englebright said. “This is ripe for action based on all the dialogue and public conversation.”

The version of the microbeads bill that passed in the Assembly, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s Microbead-Free Waters Act, would place an outright ban on all beauty and hygiene products containing the plastic particles. But O’Mara has since introduced slightly different legislation in the Senate—and it remains to be seen if a compromise between the two will be worked out before the end of the session.

One difference between the bills is timing: Schneiderman’s would take effect on Jan. 1, 2016, for beauty products and Jan. 1, 2017, for products regulated as a drug by the Federal Drug Administration, while O’Mara’s suggests a more gradual phaseout, from the end of 2017 to the end of 2019.

O’Mara’s bill also includes the term “non-biodegradable” in its definition of microbeads, but fails to define what “biodegradable” would mean in this instance—an omission that he has admitted needs resolving, and one that some environmentalists have called a loophole in the proposed law. (Legislation containing a vague definition of microbeads identical to the one in O’Mara’s bill has already passed in Illinois.)

“We’ve been in discussions with the A.G.’s office and with (Assemblyman) Steve Englebright’s staff and with the second floor, and I know the second floor is interested in hopefully getting to a resolution,” O’Mara said.

Meanwhile, prospects for the bill to regulate chemicals in toys, the popular Child Safe Products Act, look dim this session, according to O’Mara.

“I’m probably not too optimistic about that,” said O’Mara, who has held up a vote on the legislation. “It is a very, very broad bill that would allow DEC to add to the list of banned chemicals year after year at their discretion.”

The bill has already passed the Assembly and enjoys 40 sponsors in the Senate, but O’Mara says he is working on a compromise that would be more accommodating to manufacturers, who he says would be unfairly burdened by the ban as it is currently written.

“I have an overriding concern in my position with being rational, reasonable and fair to businesses because we have manufacturers of these products here in New York,” O’Mara said. “The chemical industry doesn’t want limitations whatsoever, but I think the toy industry has been more reasonable at looking at this and trying to work toward some common ground that perhaps would work.”

This year, a push at the county level to ban toxic chemicals from children’s toys has seen laws enacted in both Albany and Westchester counties, where the sale of toys containing a similar roster of chemicals, including mercury, arsenic and lead, will soon be prohibited. Just last week, Suffolk County similarly approved a resolution to limit such chemicals in new toys.

Englebright says this patchwork crusade has made manufacturers more open to embracing a statewide ban.

“They are basically being outflanked by the reality at the county level,” he said. “I think they see the handwriting on the wall; this has broad popularity and broad support and resisting is ultimately not going to be a productive strategy.”

But would it happen this year?

“I just don’t think it’s workable right now,” O’Mara said.

What Got Done

  • Brownfields reform
  • From the executive budget: $50 million in matching funds available for drinking water and sewer infrastructure upgrades, and $75 million in each of the next two budgets
  • Oil Spill Fund cap increases from $25 to $40 million; fees paid into the fund, which come from the industry, increase

What's on the Docket

  • Microbeads
  • Child Safe Products Act
  • Bill to establish a paint stewardship program
  • An act to amend the environmental conservation law, in relation to the upholstered furniture safety act

NEXT STORY: Working It Out