Chemical Policy Reform

Green ChemistryThe U.S. chemical industry is the largest in the world, accounting for 25% of all chemical production, and more than 63% of chemical production is centered in 10 states, including California.

Each day, a total of 42 billion pounds of chemical substances are produced or imported in the U.S. for commercial and industrial uses, 90% of which rely on fossil fuel feedstocks.

On a daily basis, humans are unknowingly exposed to these hazardous chemicals which contaminate our air, soil, food, and water and accumulate in our bodies. Of the 80,000 chemicals currently on the U.S. market, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that fewer than 10% of high production chemicals (over one million pounds per year) have undergone even a limited set of tests to assess their health effects on humans prior to being put on the market.

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Health Impacts of Chemical Exposure

Hazardous chemicals such as Phthalates, Chromium, and Toluene have the following long-term Health Risks:

  • Cancer
  • Developmental toxicity
  • Neurotoxicity
  • Reproductive toxicity
  • Damage to the kidneys and liver
  • Respiratory diseases such as Bronchitis

Studies Linking Health Disparities and Chemical Exposures:

  • Birth Defects
  • Low Birth Weight
    • Figa-Talamanca. et. al. Occup. Med. 2001; Bove et al. Environ. Health Perspectives. 2002.
  • Reproductive Disorders-fertility, miscarriage, endometriosis, premature menopause
    • Schettler. Infertility and Related Reproductive Disorders. Peer-reviewed report for Collaborative on Health and the Environment. 2003.
  • Endocrine Disruption
    • Carpenter. Environ. Health Perspectives. 2002; Schettler 2003.
  • Learning Disabilities
    • Garry et. al. Environ. Health Perspectives. 2002
  • Cancer & Breast Cancer
    • Snedeker. Environ. Health Perspectives. 2001; DeBruin. Environ. Health Perspectives. 2002
  • Asthma
    • Solomon. Asthma and the Environment. Peer-reviewed report for the Collaborative on Health and the Environment. 2003.
  • Autism
    • Roberts et. al. Environ. Health Perspectives. 2007

Pathways of Chemical Exposure

We are exposed to chemicals in the consumer products we routinely use, the food we eat, in our workplaces and in our homes.

According to industry estimates on any given day an average consumer may use as many as 25 different cosmetic and personal care products, including shampoo, nail polish, aftershave and lotion containing more than 200 different chemical compounds.

A report by the Environmental Working Group, examined ingredients in more than 15,000 personal care products and found that one of every 100 products on the market contains ingredients certified by the government as known human carcinogens- including shampoos, make-up, lotions, etc.

Some of the personal care products often used by women of color contain cancer-causing agents such as hair dyes. For example, 71% of hair dyes, tested by the Environmental Working Group, contained coal tar, a known human carcinogen. Coal tar products are of great concern to the health of women of color- as industry data reveal that 42% of African American women color their hair in a salon.

Moreover, many household cleaners contain chemicals, some of which are toxic. These chemicals may cause short-term health problems like skin and eye irritation when you use them and they may have long-term health impacts as well. Some chemicals in cleaning products have been linked to asthma and reproductive harm.

Although chemical exposures are relevant to the general population, two groups-children and workers are particularly vulnerable. Even low levels of chemicals can disrupt the rapidly developing physiology of infants and children. Many workers depending on their occupation are exposed to highly toxic substances in greater concentrations compared to the general public.

For example, people who work as dry cleaners, laboratory technicians, painters, printers, cosmetologists, manicurists and chemists can be exposed to highly toxic chemicals called organic solvents.

Organic solvents are used in paints, adhesives, glues, coatings, degreasing and cleaning agents as well as in the production of dyes, polymers, plastics, textiles, printing inks, among other products. Health impacts associated with exposure to organic solvents include: cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm.

Why Current Chemical Policies Do Not Work

Major loopholes in federal and state laws allow manufacturers and businesses to sell a chemical or product without generating or disclosing adequate information about its potential health or environmental hazards.

Additionally, under the current chemical regulatory framework public agencies are unable to:

  • Efficiently gather chemical hazard information (i.e. is the chemical a carcinogen, does it cause reproductive or developmental disability, etc…) from producers;
  • Proactively regulate known hazards; or
  • Require producers to accept greater responsibility for the lifecycle impacts of their products.

Source: Green Chemistry: Cornerstone to a Sustainable California

Cracks in the Current Chemical Regulatory system:

  • Risk-based -requires regulators to show toxins pose unreasonable risks before taking action to reduce exposure or ban them.
  • Relies on a “dose makes the Poison” framework and discounts low-level chemical exposures.
  • Ignores cumulative and synergistic impacts chemicals may have on humans.
  • Has failed to test a majority of chemicals for their effects on human health.

What does good chemical policy look like?

  • Requires safer substitutes and solutions.
  • Phases-out persistent, bio-accumulative, or highly toxic chemicals.
  • Gives the public and workers the full right-to-know.
  • Takes a precautionary approach.
  • Requires comprehensive safety data for all chemicals before they go to market.
  • Takes immediate action to protect communities and workers.

For more information on chemical policy and what it should look like check out: The Louisville Charter for Safer Chemicals, Applying the Precautionary Principle at the Science and Environmental Health Network’s website, and Californians for a Healthy and Green Economy.

Coalitions and Current Efforts

Recent news headlines highlight the need for chemical policy reform: the spate of toy recalls due to lead contamination, the possible connection between the mercury-derivative, thermisol and autism; and harmful chemicals being discovered in cosmetics and personal care products we use on a routine basis.

It is clear that current chemical regulation does not sufficiently protect human health. It also evident that we must fundamentally change the way we produce products. DuPont’s old advertising line “better living through chemistry” must be rethought. PSR-LA has been on the forefront of chemical policy reform in California backing up proper legislation to help protect our workers, children, public health, environment and economy.

With the passage and signing into law of the 2008 Green Chemistry Bill – AB 1879 (Feuer) – PSR-LA is uniquely positioned to continue the fight for chemical policy reform that puts public health first. By working on legislation that improves this bill and takes immediate action on known harmful chemicals, PSR-LA has become a leader in the statewide dialogue and reform process. One such piece of legislation that puts health first is SB 797 (Pavley) The Toxin-Free Toddlers and Babies Act, which protects children from exposure to bisphenol-A (BPA). Largely because of our successful advocacy efforts in April, with PSR-LA members participating in direct advocacy and our continued efforts, SB 797 passed the Senate on June 2, 2009!

Californians for a Healthy and Green Economy (CHANGE)

PSR-LA is currently working to do just that- rethinking how products can be made more sustainably, environmentally friendly and healthier. As a founding member of Californians for a Healthy and Green Economy (CHANGE) and a current Co-convener, we are working to transform how chemicals are regulated in California by playing a key role in California’s Green Chemistry Initiative.

The Green Chemistry Initiative is intended to lead the effort to fundamentally change how the state addresses toxic chemicals in order to develop safer processes and products, create new jobs and reduce waste. The goal of the initiative is to shift away from the current model of cleaning up hazardous waste sites and managing pollution that result in health and environmental impacts and to solutions that prevent the use of toxic materials in the first place.

PSR-LA and other CHANGE members are monitoring the Initiative very carefully to ensure that it truly addresses the needs of communities impacted by pollution. The promise of creating chemicals that are safer and more environmentally friendly, i.e. green chemistry, is still a long-term prospect, however, a first step must be to ensure that California’s Green Chemistry Initiative has a strong set of principles. Without these building blocks, the Initiative will fail to sufficiently address the structural flaws in chemical policy in California.

A Successful Green Chemistry Initiative must include the following:

  • A structure to collect and disseminate information on chemicals.
  • The ability to recognize all of the hazard traits of chemicals.
  • A regulatory structure to eliminate the use of bad-actor chemicals and hazardous products.
  • Requirements for industry to provide comprehensive data on hazard traits of chemicals, and to demonstrate chemicals are safe before they come to market.

(For the entire list of CHANGE’s Essential Building Blocks to Green Chemistry click here.)

These principles can help us develop a regulatory framework that prevents human harm and spurs sustainable economic innovation.

Reproductive Health and Chemical Policy Reform

Women in general serve as markers for environmental pollution through reduced fertility, irregular fetal development and increased rates of cancers, among other illnesses. They also have additional biological factors to consider when it comes to exposure to hazardous chemicals. Women, when pregnant, transfer their lifetime-accumulated toxins to their fetuses and later through breast milk. In some phases of life, shifting concentrations of hormones and changes in metabolic rates increase a woman’s susceptibility to exposure to chemical toxins.

Chemical Policy and Reproductive Health

On a daily basis women are unknowingly exposed to hazardous chemicals. Despite routine exposure to these chemicals, less than 10% of the estimated 80,000 chemicals currently on the market have undergone even minimal screening for their potential to cause health impacts to humans — prior to being sold. Many of these hazardous chemicals can be found in cosmetics, personal care products and household cleaners. A report by the Environmental Working Group, examined ingredients in more than 15,000 personal care products and found that one of every 100 products on the market contains known human carcinogens. Some of the personal care products often used by women of color contain cancer-causing agents. For example, 71% of hair dyes, tested contained coal tar, a known human carcinogen. Coal tar products are of great concern to African American women- as industry data reveal that 42% color their hair in a salon.

What is evident from these statistics is the need for a new regulatory framework that will protect impacted communities from pollution and hazardous chemicals. It is also evident that we must fundamentally change the way we manufacture consumer products. Furthermore, the need to educate and organize consumers is clear. Promoting an understanding of the impacts of the chemicals in everyday products that we use on our bodies and in our homes is crucial to changing the terms of the debate and creating strong popular support that will change consumer demand and behavior and increase the political will to fundamentally change how chemicals and personal care products are regulated.  We have seen that taking emerging science and getting it to communities and consumers can be effective in changing consumer behavior and engaging communities in the demand for safer products and comprehensive reform.

In California there are policy efforts currently underway which seek to do just that. A key example is the Green Chemistry Initiative which is being led by the Department of Toxic Substances. The goal of the Initiative is to shift away from the current model of cleaning up hazardous waste sites and managing pollution to solutions that prevent the use of toxic materials in the first place. A key indicator of whether this Initiative is successful is its ability to take early actions to eliminate the use of chemicals known to cause harm to human health, so called “bad actor” chemicals. A large number of these bad actor chemicals cause reproductive harm and pose specific health consequences for women. For example, dioxins which are by-products of chlorine-based industrial processes such as the bleaching of paper products and the incineration of hazardous waste. Prenatal exposure to dioxin can cause irreversible damage to the reproductive system of a fetus.

Coalitions and Partnerships

One example of PSR-LA’s environmental and reproductive justice coalition-building work is its partnership with the Los Angeles Office of Women’s Health. PSR-LA worked with the Office to integrate the issue of environmental justice into their 2007 Women’s health policy summit. As part of the summit, five key policy recommendations were developed that centered on how to build alliances across sectors in order to elevate the connection between the environment and women’s health. For several years PSR-LA has also been working with the Women’s Foundation of California to develop strategies on how to advance the efforts of environmental justice and reproductive justice advocates.

On a local level, PSR-LA collaborates with the Los Angeles Reproductive Justice Coalition and has for the past several years partnered with them on their annual International Women’s Day event where women from across the city gather to learn and organize around women’s concerns, including environmental issues. PSR-LA has also hosted numerous workshops for area doctors and health professionals where they have highlighted the work of UCLA Professor Beate Ritz whose groundbreaking studies reveal the profound effect environmental pollution, specifically air pollution has on birth outcomes. These workshops have served as a starting point for training doctors to become spokespersons and become involved in our environmental health policy advocacy campaigns.

Black Women for Wellness and Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles are combining efforts to heighten awareness and participation of African American women on the intersection of environmental health and reproductive justice issues. This partnership stems from a desire to increase education, outreach and advocacy efforts in the African American community while increasing awareness among the environmental health advocates of the impacts to communities of color. African American women’s organizations are not linked into environmental health movements for a number of reasons including limited funding resources and the historical relationship with environmental threats. This has resulted in lack of vital health information shared with African American women’s organizations and more importantly, it has meant that the voice of African American women is often not at the policy table when developing environmental health and justice policies.

PSR-LA builds the voices of women and girls of color, to begin participating in California’s current and future chemical policy reform debate. Our organizing and training activities incorporate an understanding of how low-income women and girls of color often are disproportionately impacted by exposure to hazardous chemicals. They also are the leaders in their community in addressing community problems particularly those that relate to the environment. Limited research exists on the health impacts of women, so PSR-LA seeks to reframe environmental health and justice issues by incorporating the experience and concerns of low-income women and girls, their families and communities.

PSR-LA is developing training sessions that will build the power of low-income women and girls of color by providing them with opportunities to increase their knowledge and skills related to reproductive health and justice, environmental health, chemical policy reform and policy advocacy. These training sessions will recruit and develop a cadre of women and girls who will have expertise in the above issues and will be able to use that expertise in their daily lives as well as in advocacy activities at the local and state-wide level.

Preventing Lead Poisoning

In light of the latest findings of widespread lead contamination in children’s toys and other products and the continued exposure to lead in homes it is essential to remind parents that lead poisoning is a serious public health problem and that many children who have elevated blood lead levels go untreated and unmanaged because they have not been tested. More importantly, recent studies which demonstrate that low levels of lead in the blood are harmful and have long-term health impacts, reinforce the need to implement tools that will increase the number of children tested for lead poisoning.

Despite longstanding federally funded requirements for blood lead tests for children enrolled in the Medi-Cal and the Childhood Health and Disability Prevention Program (CHDP) very few of California’s children enrolled in these programs have been tested for lead poisoning at age-appropriate levels. With no safe level of lead in blood, blood lead testing is the only effective way to detect lead poisoning before severe and often irreversible symptoms occur.

Low blood lead levels cause numerous health effects including lowered IQ, shortened attention span, decreased coordination, learning disabilities and neurological development problems.1 However, most children who accumulate lead in their body do not have any physical symptoms, thus, the need for blood lead testing at certain critical windows of child development.

Furthermore, the effects of lead on health do not stop once the child’s brain and nervous system mature or the blood lead level falls. A recent study found that children exposed to lead before the age of three had their IQ’s continue to fall even after blood lead levels had declined.2 The loss of a few IQ points in the population of children has marked impacts on educational needs and lowered earning potential. Lost lifetime earnings due to lead poisoning in California are estimated at over $10 billion per year.3 The best approach to lead poisoning is to prevent exposure in the first place, however, it will be years before lead is completely removed from the environment. In the meantime, testing to find elevated blood lead levels, case management and prevention of additional exposure is still required and necessary.

PSR-LA co-sponsored legislation which seeks to increase the number of children tested for lead poisoning. Specific legislation goals include increasing lead screenings of children at high risk of lead poisoning in California by adding lead risk assessments to the yellow immunization card and providing parents with a notification tool that their child should be tested. Although successfully passing through the legislature in 2007, the governor prevented SB 775 The Lead Poisoning Prevention Act from becoming law. Together with coalition partners, such as the National Health Law Program (the sponsor of SB 775), PSR-LA is using this momentum to hold state agencies accountable for protecting children from lead poisoning using methods from the bill.


1Bellinger D. Lead. Pediatrics. 2004; 113(4 Supplement):1016-1022.
2Chen A, Dietrick KN, Ware JH, Radcliffe J, Rogan WJ. IQ and Blood lead from 2 to 7 years of age:are the effects in older children the residual of blood lead concentrations in 2-year olds? Environ Health Perspect. 2005;113(5):597-601.
3The annual lost lifetime earnings due to lead poisoning are calculated as follows: Expected lifetime income for boys/girls*number of boys/girls in California 2005 birth cohort*2.09% lifetime loss*EAFR 1.0. Our estimate is based on the following assumptions: Current average blood lead level of 1-5 year old in U.S. is the same as 1999-2002 data: 1.9ug/dL; Children in California have average blood levels equivalent to national levels; Loss of 0.46 IQ points per 1ug/dL blood lead; .39% loss of life time earning per IQ points; Lifetime earnings loss for boys $1,153,717 and $680,464 (2007 Bureau of Labor Stats for expected lifetime earnings .); California’s 2005 birth cohort =280,578 boys and 268,110 girls; and EAF= 100%. Methodology is based upon the state of Oregon’s calculations: as well as Landrigan et al. methodology.