First, Do No Harm: California’s Green Chemistry Initiative

by Cristina Carrasquillo

Dangerous ChemicalsWe are exposed to harmful chemicals daily, oftentimes oblivious to how we come in contact with them and the damage they do to our health. To protect the public from the hazardous health effects caused by exposure to some synthetic chemicals, California has introduced the Green Chemistry Initiative (GCI). Breast Cancer Action embraces the Green Chemistry Initiative as a groundbreaking policy reform that will help reduce the risk of breast cancer. But the success of the GCI depends on whether or not it is implemented according to the precautionary principle of “first, do no harm.”

Historically, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulatory agencies have not protected us from the long-term effects of chemicals linked to breast cancer (such as DDT and DES and more recently, Bisphenol-A, the chemical commonly used in the manufacturing of baby feeding bottles and water bottles). The Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, along with other pollution control legislation, was intended to regulate industrial chemicals. Unfortunately, this regulatory system requires that the EPA first prove a chemical is dangerous.

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“If they are fully implemented, SB509 will revolutionize the California chemical industry and potentially turn a corner in the breast cancer epidemic.”

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In 2006, in response to our broken chemical regulatory system, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), under the California EPA, launched a GCI to “reduce risk to public health and the environment, and move the state toward a clean, green, sustainable economy by minimizing toxics in products, increasing information on chemicals in products, and creating new technologies and new markets” (California Green Chemistry Initiative: Summary of Recommended Policy Actions, 2008). In 2007, the DTSC held public stakeholder meetings and assembled a scientific advisory panel that would put forward recommendations to jump start the green chemistry revolution in California. In the fall of 2008, two bills (SB509 and AB1879) were signed into law implementing two of the recommendations.

From an environmental perspective, the success of the GCI in California rests heavily on the correct implementation of SB509 and AB1879. SB509 sets up an information clearinghouse listing the hazardous traits and uses of chemicals on the market (estimated to be 80,000–100,000). This clearinghouse will list the extent of contact between a given chemical and humans and their subsequent impact of our health and environment. AB1879 authorizes the DTSC to identify and remove hazardous chemicals from the market and assess safer alternatives.

In order for the DTSC to regulate any chemical, it has to have access to information about chemical properties. But according to Ansje Miller, policy director at the Center for Environmental Health and coordinator of Californians for a Healthy and Green Economy (CHANGE), to avoid full disclosure, “the chemical industry is hiding behind claims of trade secrets.” If consumers are to make informed decisions about the products we buy and use, Miller argues, “[we need to know] if the chemicals in a product cause harm to human health and the environment.”

If they are fully implemented, SB509 and AB1879 will revolutionize the California chemical industry and potentially turn a corner in the breast cancer epidemic. This is a sweeping regulatory reform with an implementation goal of 2011. The danger that those with the deepest pockets will successfully derail the planned changes is very real. Unless the GCI remains a public interest–driven initiative, it risks succumbing to profit-motivated lobbyists.

Breast Cancer Action urges California residents to pay close attention to how SB509 and AB1879 are implemented. Consumer health protection and safer working environments for people who are exposed to toxic chemicals on a daily basis are at stake. Miller suggests that “[t]hese bills represent a huge opportunity and a huge threat. We could be in a situation where California is the leader by providing information to people about what is safe and [what is] not [safe] in our products, or we could be in a situation where it takes years before any decision has been made on any one chemical.” She adds, “For this reason it’s crucial that Californians who care about toxic chemicals in the environment pay attention to what’s changing at the policy level and become involved.”

In order to ensure these bills align with our commitment to the precautionary principle, we need to be sure that the essential building blocks of the GCI are enforced. These are:

  • Move away from using hazardous materials and releasing them into the environment.
  • Recognize and address all hazards of chemicals.
  • Take early actions on bad actor chemicals.
  • Require comprehensive data on hazardous traits of chemicals, and require industry to demonstrate chemicals are safe before they come to market.
  • Provide for development, implementation, and integrity of testing methods to ascertain and characterize hazardous traits of chemicals.
  • Create an information chart on chemicals’ hazardous traits.
  • Provide for consolidated data on chemical use in California. SeeCalifornians for a Healthy & Green Economy’s web site: Essential Building Blocks of Green Chemistry.

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The GCI’s precautionary principle will inspire chemical policy reforms at the federal level. Breast Cancer Action encourages everyone to get informed about which toxic chemicals are in the products we use on a daily basis. At www.bcaction.org you can find out which cosmetics are safer than others, how to make your own cleaning products, and other ways to get involved.

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