- OPED: Overhaul State Chemical Rules to Ensure Citizens’ Health

The following OPED was published March 10, 2016 in the Albany Times Union.

Overhaul State Chemical Rules to Ensure Citizens’ Health

We'll just say it: Environmental Advocates has not always seen eye to eye with Sen. Kathy Marchione. In 2014, we successfully organized against her plan to roll back thousands of public health protections. About 50 organizations like the Healthy Schools Network and Long Term Care Community Coalition noted, "Many of the standards are critical to keeping our air breathable, our water drinkable, and our workplaces safe."

The water contamination crisis in Hoosick Falls appears to have clarified her position. In a recent Capitol Pressroom interview, Marchione committed to protecting public health regulations and cited the need to go much further on chemical oversight: "Those (chemicals) that are affecting our health, that are proven that we have issues with ... they need to get 'em on a list and we need to do something about it."

This year should be the year to turn those words into action, particularly now that Deputy Majority Leader John DeFrancisco has opened the door to Senate hearings. Legislators can identify breakdowns concerning Hoosick Falls, as well as how to update and ensure oversight of chemical regulation policies, to prevent similar occurrences elsewhere.

Residents of Hoosick Falls may be getting sick because of a man-made chemical — perfluorooctanoic acid — in their drinking water. The focus first must be on making the water safe and ensuring access to immediate and long-term health services.

Public hearings can also address the root causes behind such contamination: America's broken chemical policy of calling things safe until someone gets sick, and the lack of strong regulations and enough cops on the beat to keep people safe.

Pharmaceuticals undergo intensive testing to determine health impacts before receiving approval from the Food and Drug Administration, yet industrial chemicals may go right to market.

According to the American Cancer Society, "Studies in humans have found that people with workplace exposure to PFOA have higher risks of bladder and kidney cancers."

In response to Hoosick Falls, the state could regulate PFOA for certain uses — such action would ignore that this crisis is not limited to Hoosick Falls; nor is it limited to PFOA. We have been down that road before: Once BPA, for instance, was regulated, chemical manufacturers changed some molecules and created different but potentially equally dangerous alternatives like BPS and BPF.

PFOA is one of 80,000-plus potentially hazardous unregulated chemicals on the market.

Public officials must reject a piecemeal approach.

In response to a question from Pressroom host Susan Arbetter on whether she believed regulations should be reviewed based on whether they are good for business, Marchione stated, "I don't think you can put a price on someone's health. I don't think you can do a cost-benefit as to whether your children are healthy. I think that when you have chemicals that are out there ... that's where we should put our time and effort, because those are things that affect the health and welfare of our people."

There are immediate and long-term opportunities to act. While Hoosick Falls hearings are expected following passage of the budget, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators can take steps now to protect public health.

First, they can fully implement the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act of 2006. Nationwide, 15,000 people die prematurely every year due to particulate matter, which includes soot from diesel vehicles.

Second, they should pass the Child Safe Products Act (S.5995) to regulate toys, bedding, etc., which are, shockingly, still made with arsenic, mercury, lead and other hazardous materials.

Third, they need to increase funding for regulatory agency staffing.

Prioritizing public health means experts continually learning more about the chemicals we are exposed to, and enforcement of our laws.

The fear that residents of Hoosick Falls have is deplorable. It will remain for years to come. As legislators proceed in finding out who knew what, and when, they cannot lose sight of preventing future events. We believe that Cuomo, DeFrancisco and Marchione, and all state legislators are committed to ensuring no one else endures a similar fate. They should act this year to overhaul New York's chemical regulations and score one for public health by enforcing current and new regulations that will ensure healthy drinking water and keep all New Yorkers safe from industry greed.