Written by Ann Blake Thursday, 31 May 2012 18:09
Early this summer, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Department of Toxic Substances Control is expected to release a long-awaited final draft of the ground-breaking California Safer Consumer Product regulations. The goal of these regulations and the broader California Green Chemistry Initiative is to drive innovation toward safer products and industries in the Golden State.
These will be the first regulations in the United States and globally to ask not only if the chemicals in products are safe, but also to take the next step. If specific chemicals in specific products are found to be potentially unsafe for human health or the environment, the regulations will require manufacturers to seek and evaluate alternatives. Safer alternatives could include drop-in chemical replacements for the chemical deemed to be a hazard, or redesign of the product or manufacturing process.
Why are we talking about this at all, you ask? The average person on the street assumes that if a product is on the market, some arm of the government has reviewed it and pronounced it safe. While this is generally true for foods and drugs and for the worst anticipated effects of many consumer products (for example, choking hazards for toys with small parts), it is not as comprehensive a system as most of us would like to believe. To address the long-term impacts of industrial chemicals in everyday goods, a groundswell of activity locally and globally is raising concerns and demanding reform.
Context and New Science
An emerging global scientific consensus around the research of the last 15 to 20 years shows that exposures to even miniscule quantities of some chemicals — particularly hormone-disrupting chemicals — at critical stages of development in utero or early life lead to detrimental health effects over an entire human lifespan.
Moreover, environmental chemical exposure exacerbates many, if not most, of our major public health issues, including cancer, obesity, diabetes, and cardio-vascular disease. The cost for a handful of diseases that can be directly linked to environmental exposure to chemicals, including childhood cancers and asthma, are in the billions of dollars a year in California alone. Many more diseases are correlated with our collective ubiquitous low-level exposure to the more than 80,000 chemicals currently used in commerce.
In 2008, in response to this new science, California took the pioneering step of proposing fundamental reform to chemicals policy with the introduction of the California Green Chemistry Initiative. Assembly Bill 1879 (Feuer) and Senate Bill 509 (Simitian) created a new policy framework for a systematic review of chemicals and products of concern in California’s economy. If successfully implemented, this new framework could provide a model for fundamental reform of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, put in place in 1976 and never overhauled in its 35-year history. Most critically, when TSCA was put in place, all the chemicals in use at the time were grandfathered in, and were therefore not investigated further for potential health and environmental effects. These chemicals still make up a sizable portion of the chemicals in use today, while thousands of new chemicals continue to be added to the industrial system every year. As a result, we have reasonable health and safety information on approximately 7 percent of the chemicals currently in use. Many scientists and health care professionals believe this is completely inadequate for the protection of human health and the environment.
Our 1970s-era environmental regulatory framework was created for smokestack pollution, not ubiquitous low-level chemical exposure during the entire life-cycle of products from production through disposal. Advocates and governments have to date responded with single-chemical or single-chemical class legislative bans (such as lead and cadmium in children’s products, brominated flame retardants in electronics and furniture foam, or hormone-disrupting bisphenol-A and phthalates in toys). While these stopgaps may remove some of the most problematic chemicals, fundamental systemic change will be necessary to avoid playing an endless game of whack-a-mole with different chemicals each legislative cycle.
Global Precedent for Chemicals Policy Reform
California’s pioneering efforts in chemicals policy reform builds on changes in international law in the past decade. Passed in 2003, the European Union’s Restriction on Hazardous Substances in electronics is generally accepted as the first law that called for global industry to examine the potential hazards in their products and the impacts on workers, consumers, and the environment. Also in Europe, the 2006 Registration, Evaluation, and Authorisation of Chemicals regulation (known as REACH) took the next step of shifting the burden of proof of safety from regulatory authorities to product manufacturers, an economic driver frequently summarized as “no data, no market.” REACH also included the Precautionary Principle, an approach to hazard that shifts focus from minimizing exposure to potential hazards to reducing the hazard up front through the selection of safer options.
Building on Bay Area Local Government Expertise
The main implementation of the Precautionary Principle involves the assessment of alternatives, an approach specifically outlined in AB 1879. This legislation “directs the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to develop regulations that create a process for identifying and prioritizing chemicals of concern, and to create methods for analyzing alternatives to existing hazardous chemicals.”
San Francisco has pioneered use of the Precautionary Principle through programs such as Integrated Pest Management, as well as assessments of alternatives to arsenic-treated wood in playgrounds and greener options for garment cleaning, among others. The interest in advancing these kinds of measures at the state level could receive further support, too, given that the former head of SF Environment’s Toxics Reduction branch, Debbie Raphael, became director of DTSC last year. Regardless, public health and environmental advocates, green businesses, and many others await the Safer Consumer Product regulations with great anticipation.