Get tough, get green


There is such a thing as better living through chemistry, but only if it’s green. As it is, the toxic substances in your sunscreen, plastic bottles, mattresses and a list of other consumer products far too long to cite may be killing you.

Chemical manufacturers don’t have to disclose much, if any, information on the health hazards of their products, so shockingly little is known about the 83,000 chemicals listed under the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act. Whenever evidence surfaces that one of these chemicals is causing cancer or scrambling infants’ brains, there’s a push by lawmakers to ban it. Last year, California regulators announced a better solution: Under the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s Green Chemistry Initiative, the state would create a comprehensive list of chemicals made, used and sold here and seek to replace the dangerous ones with safe and sustainable (i.e., green) alternatives.

It’s an extremely important effort with national and even international implications, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has rightly been lauded for backing it. Yet he also deserves blame for seemingly allowing it to lapse.


After months of hearings and information-gathering, the department was supposed to release its final recommendations July 1, but it still hasn’t produced even the draft version that was due in the spring. The reason for the delay is anyone’s guess, but political insiders fear that pressure from the chemical industry has prompted the Schwarzenegger administration to put the initiative on the back burner. We hope that’s not true because every day’s delay means more death and suffering for Californians exposed to products that never should have come in contact with humans or other living things.

Once regulators finally weigh in, they should address a few key requirements, without which the initiative would be toothless and ineffective. First, there must be a publicly accessible database of all the known health and environmental effects of chemicals. Second, the state must be empowered to require information from manufacturers about what chemicals are in their products and to ban those that have proven ill effects, and it should have the ability to test suspect chemicals independently.

Chemical makers can be expected to fiercely oppose these steps, on the grounds that they’re expensive and could reveal trade secrets. There is only one possible public response: Tough. The Victorian notion that industry should be free to poison people for profit won’t fly in the 21st century.