Driven by revelations of lead in children’s toys and jewelry, hormone-mimicking chemicals in plastic baby bottles and controversial flame-retardants in furniture, state officials drafted a set of rules aimed at products with chemicals that have been linked to illness or abnormal development.
“We want to capture the products most prevalent in the society that contain chemicals that are very toxic,” said Maziar Movassaghi, acting director of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, in an interview.
“They’re under our kitchen sinks, in our children’s closets and in our bathrooms. We don’t want California to become the dumping ground of products that can’t be sold in Europe or Canada or Japan,” he said.
California’s proposed program - although not the first effort in the nation to regulate toxic substances in consumer products - would be the most ambitious to date.
The Green Chemistry Initiative of 2008, a state law, requires the state agency to adopt regulations which would begin to take effect on Jan. 1, 2011. The rules - which took 16 months to draft - also target manufacturing processes that can harm the environment such as heavy water use, long transport routes and wasteful packaging. The state also is compiling a clearinghouse of hazards posed by chemicals under another section of the law.
Under the proposal, the state would establish a list of “chemicals of concern,” which would include carcinogens, mutagens, neurotoxins and compounds that disrupt hormones, persist in the environment, or accumulate in human bodies. Then the state Department of Toxic Substances Control would pick “priority products,” popular items that are heavily used by children, pregnant women, the elderly and other sensitive populations.
Manufacturers, suppliers and importers would have to certify to the state – and to retailers – that their products were free of chemicals on the list before they can sell them in California. In some cases, they would also do assessments to find safer alternatives.
The proposal already is meeting opposition from some industry groups.
The “draft regulations do not present a workable plan as written," according to the Consumer Specialty Products Association, which represents makers of cleaning and automotive products.
Doug Fratz, vice president of scientific and technical affairs, said the draft “goes far beyond green chemistry and seeks to create a complicated regulatory morass of requirements for companies to defend their products and keep them from being banned.”
Over the last few years, there has been a slow, worldwide trend toward “green chemistry,” which seeks to find safer alternatives for toxic substances. At the design stage of a product, engineers and other scientists pick raw materials that are benign and follow sustainable practices that consume less water and fuel and avoid pollution and waste.
The European Union has led the way, and many products that are illegal in Europe are sold in the United States. Maine and Washington have programs aimed at eliminating hundreds of dangerous chemicals, including mercury, lead and cadmium, but they are geared to protect children while California’s encompasses all vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and the elderly, as well as wildlife and the environment. California has the authority to require manufacturers to look for alternatives that make products safer.
State officials say they intend to start small next year, first compiling the list of chemicals from those already determined to be harmful by other government agencies. Also next year, they would choose the first batch of priority products. It is unclear how many products would undergo scrutiny. Little by little, more products would be examined.
Pesticides, pharmaceuticals and food packaging are not under the purview of the law because they are regulated by other agencies.
California’s Green Chemistry Initiative is roughly the same approach that the European Union is taking through REACH (Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, professor and chairman of the preventive medicine department at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.
“In general, I would say this is good legislation because it will reduce the exposure of children, pregnant women and other vulnerable populations to toxic chemicals,” said Landrigan.
Landrigan said it was especially important that the state passes the rules “because we know from long experience that California has long been a leader. Programs that start in California spread nationally and even globally.”
Richard Denison, a biochemist at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., who has been following proposals to reform the federal Toxic Substances Control Act in Congress, credited states for their efforts in trying to reduce toxic chemicals.
“The only reason there’s been progress at the federal level after decades of inaction is because states stepped in to fill the void,” Denison said. “We are finally having a serious debate not over whether to reform the law but how.”
In past years, industry groups have lobbied the California Legislature opposing bills to ban flame-retardants and phthalate plastic softeners as well as bisphenol A, an ingredient in hard, clear polycarbonate plastic used in some water bottles, baby milk bottles and liners of food cans. The businesses said they preferred a program in which government scientists, rather than politicians, would take a broader look at all chemicals.
During 16 months of workshops and meetings, there has been a range of responses to California’s effort to draft regulations, said the state’s Movassaghi.
“Up to now, we’ve had a constructive relationship with industry groups. But there’s not a consensus. Some want to invest in innovations. Some want to invest in lawsuits. Some are excited. They see the market potential. Some didn’t send scientists. They sent the lawyers,” Movassaghi said.
At Seventh Generation, a Burlington, VT., company that makes environmentally friendly household and personal care products, Dave Rapaport, senior director of corporate consciousness, said he was pleased that California is moving forward.
“We certainly think that manufacturers have the responsibility to ensure that the products they make are safe not only for the people who use them but for the environment,” he said.
Even at his green company, he said, “we’re not there, yet. We’re beginning now to look at the supply chain to make sure that toxic chemicals are not used. But it’s a long, hard effort.”
State officials will hold two public workshops on July 7 and July 8 in Sacramento, and there is a 45-day period where the state will accept public comments.
The proposed regulations are available at http://www.dtsc.ca.gov/PollutionPrevention/GreenChemistryInitiative/gc_draft_regs.cfm
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.