The audience in the hearing room Monday was a bit unusual for Capitol Hill -- it included six dogs and their owners -- but the issue before a Senate subcommittee was a serious one: legislation requiring antifreeze manufacturers to add a bittering agent to prevent accidental ingestion by pets and children.
"I'm not usually one to want more government laws," said Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), the panel's chairman, "but this is a reasonable way to prevent harm to humans and animals."
About 1,400 children and 10,000 household pets ingest antifreeze each year, said Sara Amundson, legislative director of the Doris Day Animal League, an advocacy group in Washington. Ingesting one teaspoon of antifreeze can kill a cat, she said; two tablespoons can kill a 10-pound dog.
According to government toxicology guidelines, the minimum lethal dose for a 150-pound man is 4 ounces, Amundson said -- meaning that "it takes far less to kill a child."
Most cases of ingestion are accidental -- a pet in a garage may lick from a pool of antifreeze from a leaky car radiator, for example. But New Mexico state Rep. Kathy A. McCoy told the panel that antifreeze also is used to deliberately poison pets. The taste has been described as sweet and syrupy.
"For many of us, losing a beloved pet is like losing a member of the family," said McCoy, who was instrumental in the passage of bittering-agent legislation in her state. "I'm here today because I lost my golden retriever, Cujo, to a painful and prolonged death due to antifreeze poisoning."
Antifreeze manufacturers have not previously supported such legislation. But their position has changed, largely due to the momentum at the state level. California, New Mexico and Oregon have passed such laws, and at least eight other states are considering similar bills.
"It's appropriate now, I think, because we have industry on board with us," said Nancy Blaney, a lobbyist at the Doris Day Animal League. "They saw, with rapid succession, that many states were looking at passing some sort of antifreeze bittering agent legislation."
Setting a uniform standard would help the industry and retailers, said Allen, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee's subcommittee on consumer affairs and is the bill's main sponsor.
"The legislation ... would avoid the potential inconsistency and practical difficulty of manufacturers complying with what could become a patchwork of various state and local mandates," Jeffrey Bye, vice president of Prestone, a unit of Honeywell International Inc., told the panel. Prestone is the largest manufacturer and supplier of antifreeze in North America.
For the same reason, the Consumer Specialty Products Assn., a trade group for manufacturers of a variety of household items, also favors the federal bill.
"State-specific products are not practical for national distribution," said Bill Lafield, an association vice president. "Manufacturers do not control the distribution of their products at a state-by-state level. For example, we deliver to 11 Wal-Mart warehouses across the country, and our products are then distributed to approximately 3,000 stores."
But not all animal advocates support the legislation. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has taken a neutral position because there is no evidence that adding a bittering agent to antifreeze will keep pets from ingesting it, said Steve Hansen, senior vice president of the society's Animal Poison Control Center.
"What we're afraid of is that if we require a bittering agent to be added, people are going to be lackadaisical" about keeping antifreeze and other poisonous products from pets, Hansen said.
"Our current feeling is that we need to educate people. I don't think that it's a good to take on legislation just because we hope that it works."
Hansen said that more research should be done either to prove that a bittering agent is effective or to find another solution proven to work.
Blaney disagreed, saying that denatonium benzoate -- the bittering agent named in the legislation -- has been used for decades in many household products, cosmetics and toiletries to deter ingestion. Denatonium benzoate is one of the most bitter-tasting substances known.
The two leading manufacturers of antifreeze, Honeywell and Old World Industries Inc., also use propylene glycol, which is less toxic than the more common ethylene glycol. Ingesting propylene glycol-based antifreeze will make a child or pet sick, but it is not lethal.
Propylene-glycol antifreeze, however, is more expensive to consumers because it can cost twice as much to produce. By contrast, adding a bittering agent to ethylene-glycol antifreeze would cost the manufacturer about 3 cents per gallon, Bye said.
Bye said that the proposed legislation would "provide fair responsibility for the antifreeze and denatonium benzoate products by assigning liability between the respective manufacturers."
Antifreeze manufacturers and the industry opposed previous bills that did not have that kind of protection explicitly stated in the language of the current measure.
The Senate bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). Similar legislation has been introduced in the House by Reps. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach).