Casey: Reducing toxic uses in the commonwealth

08/02/2006
By From the Stoneham Sun

By Rep. Paul Casey/ A View From The Hill
 

     When one thinks of the various schools of painting, among the styles most cited is impressionism. Introduced in the 19th century, impressionists made an indelible impact on the world of fine art. Masters such as Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh are considered icons of impressionism and its successive style, post-impressionism. Their use of color, in particular, was revolutionary, the bold hues intermingling and seeming to leap off the canvas, captivating the eyes of the beholder.

    It is a sad historical irony that the vibrant works of Monet, Cezanne and Van Gogh, as well as many other impressionists, were crafted by men hampered by a variety of illnesses. Cezanne, for example, developed severe diabetes. Van Gogh suffered from a wide range of neurological disorders and mental illnesses. Monet suffered from cataracts, nearly going blind at the height of his career.
    While we cannot know the true causes of such illnesses, some scientists believe there may be a connection. Impressionists, they observe, used specific substances to establish their brilliant shades. The pigment known as "Emerald Green," for example, was largely composed of the dangerous chemical arsenic. Artists of the day also used a wide range of other toxic substances in their craft, employing absinthe, mercury-based vermillion and even turpentine. Each of these materials, it is believed, could have played a role in the physical debilitation of these painting giants, and may have killed many other artists before they achieved greatness.
    Unfortunately, even today, people are often unwittingly exposed to dangerous chemicals as they go about their every day lives. Some encounter them at work, others in the safety of their own homes. Because so many toxic chemicals are so well-used in an industrial society, most of us do not even think about them until we knowingly come into contact with them.
    Thankfully, the Legislature continues to take steps to eliminate the use of these dangerous substances and replace them with safer alternatives. In 1989, we passed the "Toxics Use Reduction Act" (TURA), and established the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Since TURA's inception, use of these hazardous materials has been reduced by 38 percent. Despite some initial concerns, business has not slowed, however, with the use of alternatives: since 1989, manufacturers who adhered to the TURI's suggestions have increased productivity 21 percent overall.
    Most recently, the TURI conducted a study that revealed alternatives to such prevalent, "higher-hazard" materials as lead, formaldehyde, hexavalent chromium and the chemicals PCE and DEHP. These toxics are found in disinfectants, vinyl wall coverings, dry cleaning materials and wood products. In other words, TURA is working toward keeping all of us safer.
    Last week, the House passed a critical bill that broadens and strengthens the provisions of TURA. If signed into law, our legislation lowers the threshold for reporting the use of higher hazard chemicals. It also provides increased outreach to companies to encourage their pursuit of alternative substances. Furthermore, this bill makes life easier for participants by streamlining reporting provisions to correspond with federal guidelines and reducing fees for chemicals that do not pose a serious threat to the public. Additionally, the legislation allows businesses to create their own "alternative resource conservation plans" when the annual plan supplied by TURA does not help spur a further reduction in their toxics use in a given year. With these modifications, TURA's benefit for businesses and the people they serve will be even greater than before.
    One of Van Gogh's most famous paintings is "Café Terrace at Night," which depicts a peaceful scene: a well-lit restaurant's outdoor seating area, along a quiet street under a starlit sky. Had Van Gogh been told that there was lead paint used on the café's walls, the paraffin in the candles emitted toxic fumes and the dishes were washed in water contaminated by high levels of chromium, his "impression" of that scene might have been far less idyllic. Fortunately, for Van Gogh (and the rest of the art-loving community), such substances and their risks were not on his mind. Hopefully, we will be able to visit such a location without the slightest concern about toxic chemicals - not because we live in denial, but because they simply won't be there.
     Rep. Paul Casey represents Stoneham precincts 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7 in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.