Regulators Keep Track of Dangerous Chemicals in California

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Just about every Californian carries around chemicals that aren't supposed to be there. The federal Centers for Disease Control tracks nearly 150 compounds that could be harmful in our bodies. We don't know much about many of them. Today and tomorrow, KPCC's Molly Peterson reports on the state's efforts to find out about the chemicals we're exposed to and what to do about them. She begins with Southern Californians who track chemicals in our environment.

Molly Peterson: Mostly, we know where toxic and cancer causing chemicals are because regulators go looking for them. During a massive two year study, the South Coast Air Quality Management District just sampled dozens of pollutants in 10 places. In north Long Beach, the district's Barry Wallerstein says the agency found unusual levels of methylene chloride.

Barry Wallerstein: It's a solvent frequently used as a paint stripper. But it's been used in the industry, and aerospace, and other industries.

Peterson: Breathing it can make you feel dizzy or tingly; federal rules limit its use. So it's strange, says Wallerstein, that for 15 days, the air in north Long Beach contained a lot of methylene chloride.

Wallerstein: And the fact is it was three sampling days out of two years worth of sampling, but we went back and we searched our files, we looked for potential sources of methylene chloride, we had our staff survey the vicinity, and we weren't able to locate the source. It's unlikely that we will.

Peterson: Wallerstein says that sometimes, detective work can trace chemicals back to the source. But air and water regulators spend most of their time looking for chemicals where they already know the harmful stuff might be.

[Sound of water testing]

Peterson: Jose Morales is a veteran investigator for the L.A. Regional Water Quality Control Board. His careful hands dip beakers on long sticks into pools of water at a treatment plant. He starts testing while he perches on a tiny camp chair in the back of his van.

[Sound of alarm beeping, Morales caps a test tube]

Peterson: Morales says he's seen plenty of pages added to permits – this one included.

Jose Morales: It's a big list. Volatile organics here, the tolulene, for example, methylene chloride, vinyl chloride, phenols, pentochlorophenols...

Peterson: Morales plans annual inspections. But L.A.'s regional water board is also on the hook for unexpected pollution, like dumping. Board chair Fran Diamond says her agency often relies on tips from Joe Citizen to find that. And Diamond says staffers are bracing for new hazards even as they cope with old ones.

Fran Diamond: Of course there's an issue of emerging contaminants that we're now dealing with; many of this is from pharmaceuticals. So as the science comes in, we will begin to regulate even more contaminants.

Peterson: Diamond's agency limits chemicals at the end of the pipe. Upstream, the picture is even murkier. The federal Toxic Substances Control Act or TSCA is meant to document and restrict dangerous chemicals. But Congress passed it leaving out 60,000 chemicals already on the market. And UCLA law professor Tim Malloy says now federal authorities have meaningful data on just 15% of what the law does cover.

Tim Malloy: Once they get through that door of TSCA, which is usually wide open, we lose track of where they're being used. And we also don't in large part know where they end up once their use is complete and they're being disposed of.

Peterson: Malloy says that leaves a lot of work for the states.

Malloy: In California, much of the control over dangerous chemicals has been more on an ad hoc basis. Various agencies, within their jurisdiction, may take action to limit the use or exposures to hazardous chemicals. But there's not a kind of comprehensive, systematic approach to it.

[Sounds of local news reports about bisphenol A and pthalates]

Peterson: In recent years, an avalanche of bills, many aimed at one chemical, has fallen on California lawmakers. So the legislature asked University of California researchers for help. Dr. Meg Schwarzman of UC Berkeley's school of public health is one of them. She says piecemeal policymaking has made something like an 82,000 piece puzzle.

Meg Schwartzman: And the top's on the box. And occasionally we sort of jostle it and a piece falls out, and we look at that piece in great detail. And what we are advocating doing is opening up the box, dumping out the pieces, laying them all out, seeing what's there, and seeing if we can make a big picture from it.

Peterson: Schwartzman, UCLA's Malloy and others conclude that childhood illnesses caused by toxic chemicals cost California more than one and a half billion dollars a year. And workplace exposure costs another billion. Their study has helped bring the state into the fray. Maureen Gorsen heads California's Green Chemistry Initiative, which lists using fewer toxic chemicals as a goal. Gorsen says existing law may have done all it can.

Maureen Gorsen: After 34 years the marginal improvements to the environment you're getting from squeezing down harder on them, the cost versus the benefits are getting out of whack. And we're in the middle of an epiphany.

Peterson: Gorsen and others believe California's ideas about chemical policy could set a national example. Tomorrow we'll hear more from people in the Southland, from business owners to scientists, who are weighing in on how to do that.