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Federal efforts to update chemical policy stall, but California's Green Chemistry Initiative rises again

Toxic chemicals are everywhere, not just in big red drums. California's Green Chemistry initiative aims to educate and protect the public from risks related to chemicals.
Toxic chemicals are everywhere, not just in big red drums. California's Green Chemistry initiative aims to educate and protect the public from risks related to chemicals.
Food & Water Watch/Flickr

Sometimes California's so far ahead, it can get credit for being on the vanguard of an environmental issue even when its initiatives are more stop-start than go. Forbes gives California credit for "blazing a trail" on chemical reform as the federal efforts to revive the Toxic Substances Control Act struggle. That blazing trail has maybe been more of a sputtering firework, though. 

The news is that California's seriously discussing a new set of regulations for Safer Consumer Products; the state Department of Toxic Substances Control is circulating regulations for the Safer Consumer Products Act now. Forbes' Amy Westervelt writes California's law "will require manufacturers of selected products sold in California to identify safer alternatives to a potential range of 3,000 chemicals known to be harmful to public health and the environment."  

As proof that chemical reform's going somewhere in California, Westervelt (and DTSC) point to the large corporations and health care provider Kaiser Permanente, featured as a supporter of the California regulatory effort. Kaiser's featured on the state DTSC's website:  

“We spend billions of dollars every year on products. Yet we suffer the same problems that individual consumers face as they try to buy products that don’t contain harmful chemicals,” said Kathy Gerwig, Kaiser Permanente's vice president for employee safety, health and wellness and environmental stewardship officer. “We want to shift the burden of assessing what is safe from downstream users like us to upstream manufacturers.”

Kaiser's been waving the banner for chemical reform in California's capital, too. At an Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials last December, Gerwig said, "We see DTSC’s regulations as moving in the right direction, in promoting a healthy economy, healthy environment and healthy people."

At the same time, federal lawmakers are considering an update to TSCA, the Toxic Substances Control Act. The Safe Chemicals Act sponsored by New Jersey Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg would, according to The Hill, "require manufacturers to develop and produce more data about chemicals; require the Environmental Protection Agency to prioritize chemicals based on risk; and enable EPA to take more aggressive steps to reduce exposures to so-called persistent, bioaccumulative toxics, among other provisions." While that piece of lawmaking got support (along partisan lines) in a Senate committee, the lack of Republican support for it even in committee doesn't bode well for the proposed law's success in a discussion among all the Senators. In other words, it's hard to tell if nationwide chemical reform is going anywhere. 

What's happening at the federal level is in contrast with California's efforts, and yet California's not moving fast; policymakers here been thinking about chemical reform for 4 years or more. The Safer Consumer Products work is an extension of the efforts of the Green Chemistry Initiative. In 2008, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control basically opened up its doors to manufacturers, chemical companies, activists and other interested parties to discuss better ways of thinking about chemicals systemically.

We covered it then"The idea there is that we don't engage in time consuming, expensive, and ultimately highly contestable judgments about risk in terms of exposure and assessment, but instead we look at the hazard traits of chemicals," UCLA's Tim Molloy said to me in 2008. 

Then-Governor Schwarzenegger signed the two bills authorizing what DTSC is doing now. But four other policy recommendations out of the Green Chemistry Initiative back in 2008 - accelerating the quest for safer products, moving toward a cradle-to-cradle economy, expanding pollution prevention, and more research and development, chemical and manufacturing industry education, and technology transfer - they've gone nowhere. 

Some chemical activists said Schwarzenegger pandered to chemical manufacturers and industry with a watered-down green chemistry plan released by DTSC just before he left office. Almost two years ago Michael Collins reported in the LA Weekly that it wasn't just regional toxics activists who were unhappy: 

"The last-minute gutting of the rules betrays Gov. Schwarzenegger's promise of a Green Chemistry Initiative that would protect Californians from toxic products," Bill Magavern, director of Sierra Club California, tells the L.A. Weekly. "If the Schwarzenegger administration does not restore the integrity of the process, that job will be left to Gov.-elect Jerry Brown."

With the regulations just out, it's a little early to tell if that's what's happening. Maybe more corporate support for the move means more legs for chemical policy this time around. Certainly the economy is in a different place; we've had a few bills targeting specific chemical issues pass in California's legislature, and new national focus on individual toxins too.