California toxic regulators launch new rules today guiding the use of hazardous chemicals. Five years ago the state began its Green Chemistry Initiative, an effort to overhaul the policy protecting consumers from potentially unsafe chemicals in everyday products. The new regulations from the Department of Toxic Substances Control are both long awaited and cutting edge.
A few years ago state lawmakers were awash in bills seeking to regulate chemicals in specific consumer products, like lead in jewelry and childrens' toys or chemical softeners in baby and water bottles.
"The legislature felt, and probably rightly so, they didn’t have the expertise, the scientific knowledge and capability, to get at that level of detail," said the DTSC's Karl Palmer. "And there were a lot of these blow-by-blow, product-by-product, chemical-by-chemical types of regulation."
California turned away from that piecemeal approach. Instead, lawmakers passed what could be a groundbreaking way to think about chemical safety, focusing not only on the chemical's inherent risk, but also factoring in the pathway and extent of its exposure to people and the environment.
"Some chemicals have certain what we call hazard traits, which mean they can intrinsically cause harm," Palmer says. "They might be a carcinogen that causes some kind of cancer. They might be a reproductive toxin, which may affect your reproductive system. But it’s how it’s used and if you’re exposed to it that matters."
Palmer says the Department of Toxic Substances Control has whittled down a big list, from thousands of ingredients to a select group of 164 "chemicals of concern." Now regulators will pick five categories – like personal care products or electronics - to analyze first.
Manufacturers will tell the state if they make products using one of the chemicals of concern. That starts a conversation where product makers tell the state if they can use a safer alternative, and regulators can choose from a menu of options to limit human and environmental exposure to hazards.
Those watching the process like UC Berkeley public health researcher Meg Schwarzman say they don’t know which categories are up first. Schwarzman says available science limits the state's choices.
"To the lay person, [the products the DTSC will choose] may seem esoteric, but they need to be products and chemicals for which the DTSC has a lot of evidence," Schwarzman says. "They have to be able to make the case off the bat."
Trade secret laws complicate that: companies are under few requirements to disclose chemicals, and have significant protection for their formulas. Reliable research is patchwork, since much of it remains protected by companies. As a result, connecting the dots in the way California's regulation contemplates isn't easy.
Schwarzman points to polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or flame retardants. "There are studies that are looking at the effects of those chemicals either in lab animals or in people. There are studies that measure the health effects in peoples’ blood. But we don’t know where those chemicals are coming from."
California’s new law doesn’t require manufacturers to disclose all chemicals in all products that could pose harm. If the state decides to regulate flame retardants in electrical equipment, for example, that doesn’t mean companies must start handing over new information for those same chemicals in couches.
But Schwarzman and the DTSC’s Karl Palmer point out , it's a start.
"We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re not trying to necessarily be cutting edge, we’re saying, look, let’s take good science already out there and build on that," says Palmer.
Product manufacturers and the chemical lobby remain skeptical of California’s “grand experiment.” But big companies like Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart have announced their own initiatives to phase out hazardous chemicals ahead of California’s regulation. Palmer calls that an early indicator that California’s new approach could make products safer faster.