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Editorial

California's Green Chemistry Initiative

Recommendations of California's Green Chemistry Initiative offer ways to assess the dangers of common chemicals in everyday goods.

December 17, 2008

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In a neighborhood in McHenry, Ill., there are enough brain-cancer patients to fill a hospital ward -- 14 residents in a community of 1,000 developed brain tumors, compared with a national rate of seven in 100,000. The result, according to CBS News, is multiple lawsuits against chemical giant Rohm and Haas Co., whose McHenry plant dumped toxic chemicals on its property for 20 years, ending in 1979.

Such tragedies, and such lawsuits, might be avoided if California aggressively pursues the policies suggested Tuesday by the state Environmental Protection Agency in its Green Chemistry Initiative report. It contains six recommendations, which, if implemented, would give consumers, manufacturers and retailers new ways to assess the dangers of common chemicals in goods we use every day. The state's effort could also revolutionize the way chemicals are made and analyzed nationwide.

Disturbingly little is known about the effects on human health of the thousands of chemicals contained in consumer products or used in industrial processes. Cal/EPA aims to change that by requiring manufacturers and suppliers to divulge all of the chemicals in products sold in the state, which would be published in an online database. To counter industry objections that this would reveal trade secrets, manufacturers would be allowed to give some information only to state officials, who could take action if a specific ingredient proved to be dangerous. Meanwhile, another online database would contain all the known information on chemical hazards, letting consumers decide whether to expose themselves or their children to questionable products.

Other recommendations by Cal/EPA include developing more educational programs to encourage green-chemistry innovation, creating a voluntary "green scorecard" program to rate product safety and environmental friendliness, and ordering manufacturers to study ways to make things more safely. Most of the proposals will require action by the Legislature before they can be implemented, and unfortunately, nearly all of them will cost money.

It's unclear who will foot the bill, but most likely the businesses that make, sell, use or emit chemicals will be stuck with higher fees, and that will be highly controversial during an economic downturn. Yet the businesses that complain the loudest about added costs are often those that have given the least consideration to how they could benefit from the regulations, in the form of lower cleanup costs, potentially cheaper materials, lower litigation expenses and greater sales in an era when consumers are paying more attention to product safety. It may not be easy being green, but it often pays.