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Legislation on Toxics Dies in the Assembly

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Times Staff Writer

With five weeks left in the legislative session, environmentalists are lamenting the defeat of this year’s last initiative to require protections against toxic substances, ending hopes for a statewide program that would have tested breast milk for exposure to dangerous chemicals.

A bloc of moderate Democrats quietly ambushed three measures that would have banned toxic materials from use in cosmetics, forced chemical companies to provide information on how to test for the substances and set up a voluntary program to test breast milk.

All three bills were killed in the last few weeks in the Assembly, where they met resistance from the chemical industry and a group of moderate Democrats wary of over-regulating business.

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Rather than directly opposing the measures, the members opted not to vote, keeping the bills from getting the minimum support required for passage.

“The nonvoting of moderate Democrats seems to be a pattern,” said state Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento), author of the most recently defeated bill. “The Chamber of Commerce is dictating their non-votes. Members who represent agricultural areas, like [Gloria] Negrete McLeod and [Simon] Salinas, ought to be ashamed.”

Assemblyman Salinas (D-Salinas) said, “I didn’t think [the bill] was ready to be voted on. It was half-cooked. I voted for another bill that would protect farmworkers because it was specific.”

The chief of staff for McLeod (D-Chino) said that “in light of the breast cancer community being divided [on the issue], the assemblywoman decided she’d like to see more work done on a biomonitoring bill.”

The idea of testing breast milk caused a rift among cancer activists, because some said it might discourage breast-feeding. Both sides agreed that -- regardless of what tests might detect in mother’s milk -- breast-feeding helps babies develop immunity and is the best choice for new mothers. Breast milk with traces of toxic substances would still be safer than formula, they said.

The defeat of the biomonitoring bill came despite significant amendments to address some concerns of business. Ortiz eliminated a fee that chemical firms would have been charged to finance the survey, and she omitted a list of hazardous chemicals the survey would test for.

In the same spirit, Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) drastically revised the makeup bill, calling for a ban just on phthalates -- solvents found in some nail polishes, deodorants and lotions, and thought to cause birth defects and pancreatic cancer -- and requiring reporting on carcinogens and substances that harm reproduction.

“Unfortunately, corporations have been very effective at finding legal loopholes to keep the chemicals from being listed,” said Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council who helped draft the original bill.

But removing the list of dangerous chemicals made the project’s objective less defined, freeing up scientists to decide which toxic substances to track.

Breast cancer rates have tripled in the last 50 years, and 85% to 90% of cases can’t be explained by hereditary factors, according to the Breast Cancer Fund.

The biomonitoring survey could have tracked known carcinogens and studied links between environmental chemicals and increased rates of asthma, birth defects and autism.

Among other trends, biomonitoring -- biological monitoring of bodily fluids such as blood, urine or breast milk -- could track whether exposure levels rose or fell. It could be used to test whether residents of a low-income neighborhood or the elderly experienced higher exposure than others.

But scientists on both sides of the issue cautioned against presuming that the presence of carcinogens in any quantity would necessarily cause cancer.

The program had no strict parameters, which put the chemical industry on high alert.

The American Chemistry Council did not object to biomonitoring per se, said spokesman Tim Shestek. But he said proponents of the bill, which included breast cancer activist groups, environmental groups and the AFL-CIO, had an anti-chemical bias.

The chemistry council questioned the science behind the project, Shestek said, adding that it was a “dangerous precedent” to let activist groups participate in analyzing scientific data.

Supporters in the medical community said the bill would not have pushed government to overstep its bounds.

“We’re regulating chemicals in the air, in water, in soil,” said Martha Dina Arguello of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “We need a better understanding of what we’re using and where it’s ending up.”

Sophisticated technology makes it possible for scientists to trace minute quantities of a toxic substance in the human body, but it cannot determine where a person was exposed or the duration of the exposure.

“People consider themselves like garbage bags for chemicals, but chemicals move in and out of the body,” said Robert Krieger, a toxicology professor at UC Riverside.

Krieger said the concept of a “body burden,” a calculation of the amount of a toxic substance in the body at one time, “is very misleading” because it makes the public unnecessarily anxious about the risks associated with chemicals.

Had the biomonitoring legislation been approved, agribusiness groups, oil marketers and electronics manufacturers would have been bracing themselves for a potential threat to their business: If toxic materials turned up in samples, restrictions might have followed, perhaps including bans on chemicals.

The practice of monitoring people for toxic substances has been around for decades. Most biomonitoring in the United States has been focused on individual substances -- for example, blood tests to measure lead exposure.

Since the 1970s, Sweden has conducted testing of breast milk. Studies there found surprisingly high levels of flame retardants (used in toys, clothes and furniture) in breast milk.

Many companies there removed the products from the market. California prohibited flame retardants in groundbreaking legislation last year. That ban becomes effective in 2008.

A program run by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested blood and urine for 27 chemicals in 2001 and 116 chemicals in 2003.

Among the more startling discoveries, the CDC project found that residue from DDT, a pesticide banned by the Environmental Protection Agency since 1972, was three times higher in Mexican Americans than among non-Latino whites or blacks.

The idea of biomonitoring in California came about because the CDC had no breakdowns of data by state or city, said Erin Malec, a spokeswoman for the Breast Cancer Fund.

“We need that localized data to be able to make better public health decisions,” she said. “A lot of money is put into finding a cure or treatment, but the missing piece is looking at what is causing the diseases to occur at such high rates.”


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