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Toy safety bill meets Albany meat grinder 

A bill that bans heavy metals and toxic chemicals from children's products seems like an easy political win. And last week, a group of advocates was prepared to announce that Senator Rich Funke was on board as co-sponsor of the Child Safe Products Act.

But Funke pulled out the day before the scheduled press conference.

"Senator Funke agrees with the CSPA in principle, is actively engaged in reviewing the legislation, and looks forward to sharing more information in the very near future," Jesse Sleezer, Funke's spokesperson, said in a statement.

Funke's pause surely frustrates supporters of the legislation, who don't want to see the bill meet the same fate as it did previously. The Assembly passed the legislation last year, but Republican leader Dean Skelos refused to bring it up for a vote in the Senate even though 40 senators had signed on to the bill.

Supporters say that a last-minute lobbying blitz by the toy and chemical industries doomed the bill.

The bill's death is a symbol of a bigger problem in the State Legislature, one often flagged by good-government groups and rank-and-file legislators: chamber and committee leaders in the Assembly and Senate have a near stranglehold on legislation, and legislators have little recourse.

Over the years, the dynamic has scuttled several ethics and reform proposals. Last year, it also tanked a bill to ban plastic microbeads from cosmetic and personal care products sold in New York. The Assembly passed the bill unanimously — even the most conservative members backed it — but the bill didn't even get a committee vote in the Senate.

This, however, is a new session. The Assembly passed the Child Safe Products Act last week, and the bill had been reintroduced in the Senate — already attracting the support of 33 Republicans and Democrats.

But advocates are keenly aware that the bill is at the mercy of top Senate Republicans. They've stepped up their campaigns to build public support for the bill, which will translate to political pressure on Senate Republican leaders.

But they are once again up against lobbyists representing toy and chemical industry groups.

"We are lobbying and trying to let legislators know that toys are safe and that we are opposed to this law because it doesn't improve child safety," says David Garriepy, director of state government affairs for the Toy Industry Association.

Funke's support would be a strike back against the lobbyists. At minimum, he'd be another voice in favor of the bill. But Funke is also in a unique position among Republican senators, stemming from his election victory last year. He regained a seat for the GOP, which helped give the party the Senate majority.

The 2016 elections aren't that far off, and the GOP will want to keep Funke's seat. So if Funke says that the Child Safe Products Act is important to him, conference leaders may take that into consideration as they decide whether to bring the bill to the floor.

The Child Safe Products Act would initially target 10 specific heavy metals and toxic chemicals, which would be banned from children's products sold in New York starting in January 2018.

Some of the substances are familiar — mercury, cadmium, lead, and arsenic, for example — and are known for their neurological or carcinogenic effects. But the bill would also prohibit some less-familiar substances, including antimony and cobalt.

"These are really kind of obscure chemicals. I think that most parents don't even know that they should be concerned about them," says Emily Barrett, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at University of Rochester. "Lead certainly is one that's probably on people's radar, but the rest of them, I think it'd be a real shock to parents to find out that these are in their children's toys."

A report released earlier this month by Clean and Healthy New York and the New York League of Conservation Voters says that toys containing heavy metals are being sold in Monroe County stores. The groups produced similar reports for other counties across the state.

In Monroe County, they found arsenic in one product, antimony in two, cadmium in eight, cobalt in eight, and mercury in three. One Hot Wheels set contained mercury and cobalt, while a girl's hair clip tested positive for mercury, arsenic, and cobalt, the report says.

That doesn't mean that any single product will cause problems for a child. Researchers and child health advocates worry instead about prolonged exposure to sources of toxic substances.

Mitzi Rose, a mother from Churchville who's involved with Moms for a Non-Toxic New York, says that the tests show that the Child Safe Products Act is needed. It'll help parents ensure that the toys and clothing they buy for their children are safe.

"Just having that consumer knowledge would be very important," she says.

The Toy Industry Association counters that children's product manufacturers already have to meet strict federal standards for toy safety. The Child Safe Products Act, says the Association's Garriepy, is a "solution in search of a problem."

Toys made in or imported into the United States are subject to more than 100 different tests and standards, Garriepy says. Around 75 years ago, the association developed voluntary safety standards, and in 2008 it advocated for the federal government to make them law. Any toy safety standards should be set at the federal level, Garriepy says, and not by states or local governments.

Garriepy also takes issue with the child product test results published by Child Safe Products Act advocates, namely the way the toys are tested. The researchers use a screening device, he says, which isn't as reliable or accurate as a lab test.

The advocates have their own agendas, he says, and they focus on toys because they are an emotional draw.

"It's not based on science, it's not based on facts," he says. "It's an attack on childhood, on play, and the rules in place."

The bill's supporters acknowledge that the toy industry is subject to federal safety standards, but they say that those requirements are lacking. In cases where the toys are tested for heavy metals including lead, mercury, or arsenic, only the surface coatings are analyzed, for example. The Child Safe Products Act would also cover more substances, they say.

"There's no label on the products, parents can't tell on their own," Goeken says. "What we really need to do is clean up the industry and make sure that the products for sale are safe."

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