California Aims to Remove Toxins in Products

November 22, 2010 - 12:37 PM

Los Angeles (AP) - It's almost unthinkable now that environmentalists and manufacturers once stood together as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill making California the first state to regulate toxic chemicals in consumer products.

Two years later, with regulations set to take effect in January, the longtime foes are increasingly at odds over how the state should implement regulations that would apply to everything from baby bottles to cars.

Environmentalists complain the plan is too slow to be effective, while manufacturers say the state rushed to draft regulations so bureaucratic and broad they would even apply to the sale of a used boat.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control has revised the rules to address criticism as companies threaten to sue if forced to share the chemical makeup of their products.

"I still love the law, it's just this particular execution that's a disaster," said Maureen Gorsen, who proposed the initiative when she headed the DTSC - but is now advising the auto industry against it. "There's no incentive for the good and no incentive for the bad - there's just paperwork."

Proponents hope the law won't become mired in legal wrangling because the stakes are high: other states, the federal government and even other countries are watching as the new law moves toward reality.

"It's really important for this to get off on the right track," said Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, who authored the bill, saying it "could be a whole new model for how we break the link between toxic chemicals and cancer and other serious diseases."

There are tens of thousands of chemicals in the stream of commerce - chemicals found in everyday products from commercial paint to tires. Eighty-five percent of chemicals that come on the market "have zero info about health and safety," said Joseph H. Guth, a scientist at the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry,

"We're really talking about a giant task that has only gotten bigger - the backlog of evaluating all the chemicals in commerce is enormous," he said.

The idea was to use science to identify harmful chemicals, look at products in which they might be found and require manufacturers to develop safer alternatives.

The state could eventually ban certain unsafe products from being sold in California. Regulators could also enforce fines of $25,000 a day per violation or jail time against officials of companies or other people selling products with banned chemicals.

Environmental groups said they supported the law because they wanted to prevent situations where manufacturers replaced one toxic ingredient with another, such as replacing asbestos in car brake-pads with copper, which is toxic for waterways, or using toxic cadmium instead of lead in children's jewelry - a development reported by The Associated Press in January.

"We have a system now where chemicals are innocent until proven guilty which is an appropriate standard for criminal justice but not for chemical safety," said Bill McGavern with the Sierra Club.

For their part, companies said they supported the measure because changes to their products would be scientifically based and no longer a knee-jerk response to the latest product scandal. They also hoped the law would create a wave of safe product innovation and interest among consumers similar to advancements in green building.

The bill passed the Assembly with a two-thirds majority vote but since the drafting process began, disagreements have been on the rise.

"Our regulatory proposals are intended to prevent California from becoming a toxic dumping ground," said Maziar Movassaghi, acting director for the regulatory agency. "Our goal is to make sure there is compliance but some companies are going to invest in research and development and some companies are going to invest in lawyers."

The Green Chemistry Coalition, which represents corporations ranging from major drug companies to Boeing Co., believes the regulations go too far. The law was supposed to apply to consumer products but the current definition is so inclusive that everything bought, sold or leased in the state is considered a consumer product, said John Ulrich, executive director for the Chemical Industry Council of California.

Another problem, he said, is that the proposed list of what chemical traits might be considered hazardous includes everything from carcinogens to skin irritants.

"This means that every chemical in the state of California becomes a potentially regulated chemical and every industry becomes a potentially regulated industry," said Ulrich.

Scientists and conservationists call that a gross exaggeration. They worry that because the state hasn't set aside additional funding for the effort it won't actually be able to commit enough staff to enforce the regulations.

They have also raised concerns that the state's timeline in identifying a short list of toxic chemicals and products is too slow.

This week DTSC cut that timeline significantly by proposing to identify a priority list of chemicals within one year and identifying a list of products in another year. The agency also narrowed the definition of a consumer product in California and said for now it will focus on personal care and cleaning products and products that children under the age of 12 would use.

Despite the disagreements most call the law a huge first step in what will likely be a very long process.

"This is a big project for society," said Guth, who is on the state's scientific advisory panel. "It's going to take many decades and I think you have to look at it from that perspective."