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Health advocates criticize changes in lead-ban bill

The Baltimore Sun

Health advocates are decrying what they say is an industry-sponsored weakening of legislation that would ban jewelry, toys or other children's products in Maryland containing toxic lead.

The House of Delegates approved the ban weeks ago, by a vote of 132-4.

But the legislation, which was originally proposed as emergency legislation, has since been amended by the Senate Finance Committee, delaying any action for more than a year, to July 1 next year.

The Senate version also says state regulations of lead in consumer products would be superceded by any standards the federal government might adopt, even if they are less stringent than Maryland's.

Finally, one amendment would exempt some lead-containing products that might still be hazardous if chewed or swallowed, advocates say.

"They've really just blown a hole in the bill," said Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's County Democrat who sponsored the House bill.

Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said the changes, made last week by the committee, are "corporate influence at its worst."

She charged that the amendments were proposed to the committee after public hearings on the bill by a lobbyist for the toy industry, D. Robert Enten.

Enten declined to comment, relaying questions to his client, the Toy Industry Association, which did not respond.

But Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton, chairman of the Finance Committee, said the changes were needed to get a majority of his panel to back the legislation.

"I want a bill," said Middleton, a Charles County Democrat. "And what I gathered from my members, if they couldn't make some changes to the bill, they weren't going to support it. And those were the compromise changes."

Maryland is one of a handful of states weighing lead-products bans after revelations last year that some imported toys were either coated with lead paint or contained lead in their metal parts. Congress also is considering new restrictions.

Though lead-based paint used in older homes remains the chief health threat to young children, advocates say other sources of exposure to the hazardous substance need to be minimized because its effects can be cumulative.

"This is not just about toys," Norton said. "This is products like coal and other homeopathic remedies and other sources of lead that have clearly poisoned children and killed a child in Minneapolis."

Lead poisoning can result in learning disabilities, aggressive behavior, hearing loss and mental retardation.

Although fatalities are rare, a 4-year-old Minneapolis boy died in 2006 after ingesting a lead-tainted charm.

Horacio Tablada, chief of waste management for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said an amendment limiting the ban to products with "accessible" lead might make the legislation difficult to enforce.

Tom Neltner, a Sierra Club representative, said that standard still would allow products that might poison children if chewed or swallowed.

"The jewelry that killed the child in Minneapolis would have passed the [accessibility] test because the lead was coated in plastic," Neltner said.

An article in Wednesday's Maryland section about pending state legislation to ban lead in children's products misquoted Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. She said the bill might also apply to kohl, a cosmetic made of soot and other natural ingredients that has been found to contain high levels of lead.The Sun regrets the error.
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