California on Monday launched the most comprehensive program of any state to regulate chemicals that have been linked to cancer, hormone disruption and other deadly effects on human health.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed two broad laws that shift the state away from a scattershot approach in which bills targeting individual chemicals and products have passed or failed depending on the intensity of the lobbying and media attention.
The new measures are designed to encompass 80,000 chemicals now in circulation, rather than focus narrowly, as previous bills have, on specific substances in products such as baby bottles, toys, mattresses, computers or cosmetics. State regulators are to inventory the most dangerous, widespread chemicals first and control them at the manufacturing stage, before they are handled in workplaces, incorporated into products or allowed to escape into air and water.
The “green chemistry” initiative, Schwarzenegger said, will propel California to “the forefront of the nation and the world. . . . With these two bills, we will stop looking at toxics as an inevitable byproduct of industrial production.”
The laws come as public alarm is on the rise over dangerous substances in consumer products. The federal Toxic Substances Control Act, passed three decades ago, has failed to control an explosion of hazardous materials, according to consumer and environmental groups. It exempted existing chemicals and requires the Environmental Protection Agency to prove a chemical is toxic before requesting data from manufacturers.
Automakers and electronics manufacturers lobbied heavily against California’s initiative, saying that they are complying with European standards that are far stricter than U.S. federal law.
California’s legislation would probably result “in higher costs with little or no benefit,” Melanie Wiegner, a lobbyist for Ford Motor Co., wrote legislators. Automakers are concerned that the state could regulate brominated flame retardants in automobiles. The chemicals, which accumulate in human bodies, have been linked to neurodevelopmental problems.
The electronics industry opposed the laws on the grounds that they could result in different warning labels for California and European markets. “A patchwork of differing regulations . . . would unfairly disadvantage companies,” said Joe Gregorich, a lobbyist for AeA, the electronics industry group. Computers, stereos and TV sets can contain substances that are harmful to the environment and that can cause neurological or reproductive problems in humans.
More than 164 million pounds of chemicals are sold each day in California in consumer and commercial products, a figure that does not include substances used in industrial processes. Until now, state laws have covered only the disposal of chemicals in consumer products, not their manufacture, sale or labeling.
One of the new laws, AB 1879, sponsored by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), lays out a framework to regulate toxics over their life cycle. It also requires the state to promote safer alternatives, some of which have emerged from “green chemistry” initiatives in industry and academia.
“Leading scientists have concluded that children in the womb are pre-programmed to get cancer, diabetes and other serious illnesses, because their moms are exposed to toxic chemicals,” Feuer said. “And you can never un-program them. This legislation protects generations to come.”
A companion law, SB 509, sponsored by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), creates a scientific clearinghouse for information on chemicals’ effects.
Feuer had originally introduced legislation directing the state to take action on seven substances, including lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), hexavalent chromium and phthalates, all of which have been linked to serious disease.
But the chemical industry opposed the naming of specific substances in legislation, saying that state agencies should determine targets based on science. Legislators and environmental groups concurred.
A more controversial decision removed a provision in the Simitian bill that would have required industries to disclose to the state all of the chemical ingredients used to manufacture their products and any information about their health effects. Aides to Schwarzenegger agreed with businesses that the provision would encroach on trade secrets.
In the end, the bills were endorsed by diverse groups, including the Sierra Club, the Breast Cancer Fund, DuPont and the Chemical Industry Council of California.
Michael P. Wilson, a UC Berkeley public health researcher who wrote a 2006 report on the need for a state toxics program, praised California’s new laws as a first step. But he said they may “continue to place the burden of proving the safety of chemicals on the government, rather than on producers.”
Federal law prohibits the Environmental Protection Agency from sharing industry information with the states, he noted. “California agencies do not know what chemicals are sold in the state, where they are sold, by whom, for what purpose, how people might be exposed or where they ultimately end up in the environment,” Wilson said. “This is the same situation for all U.S. states. There are large public health data gaps.”
Sierra Club California director Bill Magavern acknowledged that “earlier versions of the disclosure legislation were stronger.” But he called the new laws a “breakthrough.”
“Right now,” he said, “if lunch boxes are found to have lead, there is nothing the state toxics department can do to prevent them from being sold to kids. With these laws, the state can take action against unsafe products on the front end.”
J.P. Myers, chief scientist and chief executive of Environmental Health Sciences, a Virginia-based nonprofit, called California’s legislation “the toughest, most comprehensive law in the country.” The federal Toxic Substances Control Act is “decades out of date and has failed repeatedly to allow regulators to intervene in the face of new scientific evidence,” he added.
Among states, according to Myers, Washington has passed several chemical-specific laws, but only Maine has recently passed broad legislation, restricting substances of “high concern” for children’s health.
Schwarzenegger signed California’s new laws on the factory floor of Los Angeles’ Nelson Nameplate, a company that has cut back its use of dangerous solvents.
Green chemistry, he said, “can improve a company’s bottom line. . . . These two landmark bills . . . will transform the way we deal with chemicals.”
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Toxics in everyday products
California lawmakers have passed limited bills, such as bans on lead in jewelry and mercury in thermometers. Now the state will be able to regulate toxics in any consumer product. Several substances likely to be targeted by state regulators:
Health effects: Endocrine disrupters; affect reproductive health; linked to male reproductive tract abnormalities
Found in: Plastics, shower curtains, cars, personal care products
Health effects: Neurotoxins; accumulate in body; can affect cognitive development/function
Found in: Electronics and furniture
Health effects: Neurotoxin
Found in: Electronics, older pipes, paint in older homes
Chemical: Bisphenol A
Health effects: Prostate cancer, heart disease, diabetes; neurotoxin
Found in: Canned food, reusable water bottles
Health effects: Carcinogen
Found in: Electronics
Health effects: Neurotoxin
Found in: Light bulbs, some electronics
* Polybrominated diphenyl ethers
Sources: Breast Cancer Fund, Environmental Health Sciences
Graphics reporting by Margot Roosevelt
Los Angeles Times