New MDH list shows hundreds of potentially harmful chemicals

Plastics with BPA
Plastic items such as baby bottles and certain water bottles are made with bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical which is raising health concerns. BPA is on a list of potentially harmful chemicals released today by the Minnesota Department of Health.
Photo courtesy of Environmental Health News

The Minnesota Department of Health on Thursday released a list of hundreds of chemicals that pose a potential health risk.

The state's list includes 1,755 substances, among them lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium. But it also includes many other organic chemicals that include pesticides, flame retardants, dyes and other chemicals used in industry or found in consumer products.

Over the next few months that list will be narrowed to a handful of priority chemicals that pose the greatest health risk.

New legislation requires the agency to identify chemicals that might affect the health or development of children. State legislators passed the Toxic Free Kids Act in 2009 in part because of concerns about Bisphenol A, a chemical used to harden plastics. Research found it was leaching into food and beverages stored in plastic containers.

The legislation required the state health department to compile a list of chemicals of high concern.

Environmental research scientist Nancy Rice says most of those chemicals on the state's "high concern list" are already identified as hazardous substances. Minnesota drew heavily on work done by Maine and Washington to identify chemicals of concern. Rice said the list is comprehensive.

The chemicals on the list are considered hazardous. But the list doesn't consider how often people are exposed to the chemical or the risk of that exposure. Those questions will be part of the next step for the Department of Health: identifying priority chemicals, those that pose the greatest health risk.

Rice said that will prove more challenging, because in many cases, there is little information about the exposure toxicity or risk of exposure.

"So whether that information is out there and companies have it and we're just not able to access it, or whether it just doesn't exist is a question I just don't have an answer to," she said.

The full list is posted on the Department of Health website, but it may have little practical use right now. The agency might use the list for public awareness, or other organizations can use the information to inform consumers. But the legislation doesn't require the health department to establish a link between chemicals and specific consumer products.

How the list is used in the future will be up to the state legislature.

State Rep. Kate Knuth, DFL-New Brighton, who authored the legislation to establish the list, said identifying chemicals that pose a health risk is the first step toward regulating those chemicals. Although the legislature restricted the use of Bisphenol A, the chemical used to harden plastics, Knuth doesn't think state lawmakers should regulate other individual chemicals.

Instead, she said, that should be a job for state agencies.

"Setting up a process within our pollution control agency to have the Health Department assess these chemicals and have the pollution control agency make recommendations for which ones could be phased out in certain consumer product uses is where I'd like to see the legislation going," Knuth said.

Chemical manufacturers say if states start regulating chemicals, there will be a patchwork of varying restrictions on chemical use. Regulations should be left to the federal government, said Scott Jensen, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council.

"It is important to allow the federal government's regulatory authorities to make science-based decisions, and not to create patchwork state restrictions when it comes to consumer products," he said.

By next legislative session the Department of Health will have a shorter list of priority chemicals. The next decision for lawmakers will be whether the state should regulate the use of those chemicals and force manufacturers to switch to safer alternatives.

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