WASHINGTON — Former Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree testified in Congress on Tuesday in support of stronger federal chemical safety laws that advocates say are needed to protect consumers — especially children — from potentially dangerous chemicals in products they use every day.

Pingree shared her experiences as a state lawmaker who led the effort in Maine to ban several controversial compounds commonly found in consumer products and as a relatively new mother concerned about inadvertently exposing her children to toxics.

Speaking to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Pingree and other speakers urged senators to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA.

“Because of the failure of TSCA to regulate thousands of chemicals in our products, states across the country have been forced to step in to protect public health,” said Pingree, who is the daughter of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District.

Tuesday’s hearing came one day before committee members are expected to work on a bill that would essentially re-write TSCA, a 1976 law that environmental groups, health advocates and even federal officials acknowledge is inadequate to protect the public.

“The time to fix this badly outdated law is now,” Jim Jones, acting assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, told senators.

The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., would require manufacturers to prove a chemical is safe before introducing those products to the market or continuing to sell them. Currently, the EPA must prove a chemical is unsafe and then seek to ban it — a process that can take decades, if it happens at all.

The increased scrutiny follows a scathing series of investigative reports by the Chicago Tribune that accused the chemical industry of using false testimony, weak science, distortions of scientific literature and dishonest lobbying techniques to fight tougher regulation at the state level.

Frustrated by the lack of teeth in the federal law, Maine has been on the leading edge of passing state legislation banning certain chemicals linked to health problems, especially in children.

For instance, the state phased out the use of the flame retardants penta and deca in mattresses and other furniture and created a process by which state environmental regulators halted the sale of sippy cups and other reusable beverage containers with the plastic additive bisphenol-A, or BPA. Recent research has shown those chemicals can interfere with child development and may be linked to cancer and other medical problems.

Echoing charges levied against the industry by the Chicago Tribune, Pingree accused chemical manufacturers of spending large sums lobbying lawmakers and paying for television and ads that suggested lawmakers were seeking to weaken fire safety. Although called “Keep America Fire Safe,” the group behind the ads had no links to fire prevention officials in Maine, Pingree said.

“I don’t trust these companies to tell the truth about these chemicals, and I don’t think the American public or you, as senators, should either,” said Pingree, often the lead sponsor of the bills.

Tuesday’s panel included two representatives of the chemical industry who defended the industry’s products while facing some tough questions from senators.

Committee chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., asked why the industry continues to cite a specific study as showing the effectiveness of a specific flame retardant even after the study’s lead author has accused the industry of grossly distorting his findings.

“Don’t you think it’s time that the chemical industry stops grossly distorting the study’s findings when the author says that’s what you are doing?” Boxer asked Marshall Moore, representing the manufacturer Chemtura. “Don’t you owe people an apology?”

“With all due respect, senator, we have not grossly distorted the findings of the study,” Moore said.

Reforming the federal law appears to have bipartisan support, but Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee made clear that they felt Lautenberg’s bill goes too far in some respects.

Maine’s two Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, have been on record for reforming the federal chemical safety law. In fact, Snowe sent a letter to Boxer last week reiterating her support for fixing a chemical review process that she called “deeply broken” and inadequate; but she said any solution must not impose “unnecessary burdens on our nation’s businesses.”

Kevin Miller — 317-6256

[email protected]

Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

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