Green Chemistry: Breakthrough or bureaucratic dead end?

This analysis was written by EWG Executive Director Richard Wiles and Senior Analyst Renee Sharp.

This session the California Legislature considered no less than eight bills that would have banned or restricted individual chemicals or groups of chemicals in consumer products. Under the one-two punch of an intense lobbying campaign by the chemical industry and the public opposition of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration, all but one of the bills was defeated. The one that passed, Senate Bill 1313, a ban on the use of Teflon chemicals called PFCs in food packaging, was ultimately vetoed by the governor.

Banning chemicals through the legislative process has always been a clumsy way to advance public health policy. But there are times when it is necessary. In 1976, Congress banned PCBs as part of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The flame retardant Deca-BDE was banned in several states beginning in 2006. This year Congress banned the plasticizers known as phthalates in children’s toys, following on the lead of several states, including California.

The growing wave of legislation in the states to ban individual chemicals is a direct response to a broken federal system. More than 30 years after its passage, TSCA is an abject failure. American babies are born pre-polluted with 300 chemicals in their bodies and no federal agency is doing anything about it.

In signaling their opposition to single chemical bans, many California legislators ducked behind the shield of the need for comprehensive chemical policy reform. They said they were voting against individual chemical bans but voting for Assembly Bill 1879 and Senate Bill 509, which the administration had turned into a framework for the Green Chemistry Initiative, a state plan for systematically evaluating chemicals for possible ban or restriction.

Schwarzenegger quickly signed the two bills, hailing them as ushering in “California’s Historic Green Chemistry Initiative.” He declared: “This bi-partisan package of environmental legislation propels California to the forefront of the nation and the world with the most comprehensive Green Chemistry program ever established.” A week later, when he vetoed SB 1313, he again pointed to AB 1879 and SB 509: “It is within this process that chemicals like PFCs should be addressed.”

This cheerleading would be a lot more encouraging if the bill had the substance to match. Instead of real chemical policy reform, 1879 is the product of strong-arm politics. It is a take-it-or-leave-it-deal written by the governor’s staff, forced on the Legislature and endorsed by the chemical industry.

It takes one important step forward, for the first time giving the state the right to regulate chemicals in consumer products. But it champions green chemistry at the expense of the basic health protections from chemical exposures that all Californians deserve. By passing this bill California has put vague notions of green chemistry ahead of health protections for its citizens, and in the process surrendered its leadership position on chemical policy reform.

Instead of banning dangerous chemicals, California is embarking on a multi-decade odyssey in search of green chemistry, with no hard deadlines, no public health mandate, and just about no money to pay for it.

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