Op Ed | California’s New Chemical Laws: They Fail to Protect Us

chemical laws

This op-ed was published in Environmental Health News
By Kathy Attar and Martha Dina Argüello

Every month we read about a toxic chemical in another product that we use in our homes. Toys, shower curtains, cosmetics, and food packaging are all recent examples. Parents and families have been forced to become amateur chemists deciphering the long and often incomplete list of ingredients found on consumer products. The need to fundamentally change how California addresses toxic chemicals in products and processes is clear.

On Sept. 29, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 1879, which directs state agencies to develop a process for identifying chemicals of concern and to construct procedures to assess what should be done about these chemicals of concern. The companion bill, SB 509, creates an online database of information about the toxicity of chemicals.

The governor touts AB 1879 and SB 509 as solutions to the problems created by the use of toxic substances and an alternative to chemical-by-chemical bans by the Legislature. He says these bills will get toxic chemicals out of our products at the design stage and shift the state away from managing pollution and hazardous waste to solutions that prevent the use of toxic materials in the first place.

However, these bills do not include the most basic elements needed to achieve this goal.

AB 1879 and SB 509 do not require industry to demonstrate chemicals are safe before they proceed to market. They do not require industry to even provide information or data on chemical hazards to the public or to the state. They also do not require any testing of chemicals to find out if they are toxic. The bills do not establish a safety standard in law.

There is widespread agreement that the way to achieve true reform is to shift the burden of proof to chemical manufacturers to provide chemical hazard trait information to the public and to show that chemicals are safe.

These bills do not do anything of the kind.

Rather, what these bills do is impose an enormous burden directly on the state. They do not authorize the state to take any action to address chemical hazards directly. Rather, the state first has to develop regulations to identify chemicals of concern. Then it has to go through a bureaucratic process to pick chemicals of concern and develop regulations about how to decide what to do about them. Fifteen separate factors must be considered before the state can take any action. But it has no authority to require submittal of any information until after its analysis is complete. For example, to get the lead out of children’s toys, state officials would have to go through all these analyses and then make findings about product function and performance, useful life, materials and resource consumption, water conservation, water quality impacts, air emissions, production, in-use, and transportation energy inputs, and five other factors unrelated to the threat to children.

Does this process really result in better public health protection than the outright banning the lead in toys?

Because AB1879 creates a lengthy and uncertain review process for determining chemicals of concern, a process which may result in no action being taken for years, it is imperative the state remains committed to getting rid of chemicals known to cause harm to human health and the environment. Bad actor chemicals such as lead and mercury do not need to undergo a lengthy review process by the state. They should instead be restricted and/or banned today.

Californians deserve a chemical policy framework that removes the most pervasive and hazardous chemicals from commerce, promotes the use of non-hazardous safer alternatives, and protects the health of all. Until a framework that can expeditiously get rid of problem chemicals is put in place, we will still need the Legislature and the governor to step up and take immediate action to protect human health and the environment.

The governor and the legislature need to put in place all of the building blocks of green chemistry. They need to require testing to ensure that chemicals are safe. They need to insist that data be provided to the agency and the public by chemical manufacturers and adopt the “no data, no market” policy adopted by the European Union.

If the Governor wants his green credentials to actually become a green legacy for California, he needs to support additional legislation to finish the job and direct his agencies to implement the existing laws in ways that eliminate delay.

Only then will we achieve the purpose he has  set out and get the toxic  substances out of products at  the design stage.

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