California Green Chemistry Starts Today

California’s Safer Consumer Products law (also known as green chemistry) goes into effect today, making the state a leader in regulating chemicals in everyday products. The new regulations have the potential to make hundreds of consumer products — everything from nail polish to cleaning supplies — safer for all of us:

Using the muscle of the biggest consumer market in the U.S., California wants to reduce toxic chemicals in consumer products, create new business opportunities in green chemistry and reduce the burden on individuals and businesses in having to struggle to identify what’s in the products they buy for their families and customers.

The law represents a sea change in how products are made safer. Instead of trying to determine how toxic specific chemicals are, it asks why they are necessary at all.

Like so many of California’s cutting edge policies, the foundation for the green chemistry program was built by environmental champions serving in the state legislature and the health and safety advocates who worked alongside them.

In 2008, then-Assemblymember Mike Feuer and then-Senator Joe Simitian introduced two joined bills to allow the state to develop and implement its Green Chemistry Initiative – a more comprehensive approach to harmful chemicals than the previous piecemeal approach of passing laws that ban specific chemicals from particular products. AB 1879, authored by Feuer,  is the “safer alternatives regulation” which gives the state authority to monitor the use of chemicals in consumer products by creating a process for identifying and prioritizing chemicals of concern and methods for assessing safer alternatives to such chemicals. SB 509, authored by Simitian, creates a public online database of information on chemicals. Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bills into law in 2008.

AB 1879 and SB 509 authorized California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to identify, prioritize, evaluate and regulate harmful chemicals in all consumer products and collect vital hazard and toxicity information on chemicals in commerce. The bills received support from DTSC, which had spearheaded the effort known as the Green Chemistry Initiative to overhaul chemicals policy in the state.

The initiative set out to make California a leader in environmental and health policy through regulation of toxic chemicals as well as encouraging innovation to develop safer alternatives. For the first time, California scientists and regulators would have the authority and the information to protect public health and the environment from potential harm from chemicals in everyday products:

Instead of targeting specific chemicals, it tries to prevent companies from simply swapping in one hazardous compound for another with unknown or potentially toxic effects, said Dr. Megan Schwarzman, associate director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Green Chemistry.

“It’s not just singling out a single chemical or a class of chemicals for elimination,” she said. “It’s really requiring producers to ask two types of questions in an overarching sense: Is there a safer way of getting the function that (the chemical) gets? Is this chemical necessary in this product or is there another way of accomplishing the same goal?”

But environmental legislation is only as effective as the rules written to implement it. After an earlier attempt by Governor Schwarzenegger failed to get the program off the ground in 2010 and was criticized by environmental advocates, Governor Brown ordered a “reboot” of writing the regulations. The program is finally being implemented, with the rules going into effect today.

So how will the program work? According to Sustainable Business News:

The Department of Toxic Substances Control has prepared a list of about 1,200 toxic chemicals by aggregating authoritative sources. The next step is to develop a list of about 200 products that contain chemicals of greatest concern — that pose the most danger to health and/or the environment.

By April, they will select up to five “priority products” for manufacturers to reformulate into safer products using green chemistry.  

If manufacturers wish to sell those products in California, they must perform a detailed analysis that either justifies their current formulation or results in a safer alternative. The impact will be widespread — across global supply chains of manufacturers. The lifecycle evaluation will be based not only on risk during product use, but also during manufacture and disposal.

Priority products will be determined based on factors such as how widely a product is used, the extent of public exposure and how the product eventually is disposed.

The idea that harmful chemicals should undergo scrutiny and regulation is (shockingly) still a groundbreaking concept, considering that the federal government doesn’t adequately regulate chemicals of concern. The United States Congress has yet to pass legislation to overhaul the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), making California’s leadership on the issue so critical:

The question of how to regulate toxic chemicals has sparked recent legislative debate across the country, and California regulators hope the new law will be a model for other states and Congress.

“We’re doing it and we’re telling the world that we want people to take a look and start engaging with us on how to make safer products,” said Karl Palmer, chief of the Safer Consumer Products Branch within the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

CLCV is proud to have supported the green chemistry bills and the elected leaders who authored them, and we’ll be following the implementation of the new program closely. Stay tuned.

Posted on October 1, 2013


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