Green chemistry is one of those ideas that sounds great – until you look closely and find a bevy of devils lurking in the details.
That’s the problem with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to implement the state’s much ballyhooed Green Chemistry initiative, conceived as a means of restricting the use of toxic chemicals in household products. Last week (June 23), the California Department of Toxic Substances Control made public its first green chemistry regulatory proposals. Although this program is being touted as a model for the rest of the country and a huge step forward, the regulations being contemplated don’t go nearly far enough to protect public health.
Here’s where the Schwarzenegger administration’s plan falls short:
- The initial list of “chemicals of concern” to be regulated covers reproductive toxicity and carcinogens named in California’s Proposition 65 list, which is known to be incomplete; chemicals considered to be mutagenic by the European Union; and those considered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic. But state officials haven’t said when they might expand the list to include such worrisome substances as endocrine disruptors OR neurotoxic chemicals.
- State regulators propose to give a thumbs up to a “chemical of concern” as long as there are fewer than 1,000 parts per million of it in almost any product. Yet scientists around the world are finding that human health can be harmed by exposure to some chemicals in the parts-per-billion range – a million times lower than the state’s proposed safety threshold.
- The entire regulatory process will take far too long – many years, very likely. A major goal of the initiative was to enable the state to take quick action on potential problems.
- Manufacturers would be responsible for assessing their own products or paying consultants to do so, an inherent conflict of interest. Theoretically, the state could review those analyses, but a cash-strapped agency will lack the resources to analyze most chemicals and products. There’s also no place for independent scientists, medical experts and other members of the public to question these industry assessments. Industry claims of “confidential business information” – trade secrets – could veil the identity of much of the information in the analyses. The public would have to trust that these so-called “black boxes” contained accurate information.
- The proposed rules would not allow any public participation in the state’s decisions about how, exactly, certain substances would be regulated. If officials chose to take no action on a particular toxic chemical, consumers would have no real recourse for voicing objections and concerns.
California’s Green Chemistry initiative has been touted as a model for the rest of the country. But if the regulations aren’t right, we will end up with yet another program that doesn’t protect the public.
In fact, a bad program would likely be worse than nothing. Industry executives and lawmakers sympathetic to them could point to it and say: “We don’t need to do anything else because we have Green Chemistry!”
(The public has until July 15 to submit comments on the proposed regulations at this email address: [email protected])