Cal-EPA plan could make state a leader in toxic chemicals policy

Lead-tainted toys and lunchboxes. Mercury in dental fillings. Carcinogens in baby bottles. Furniture with toxic flame retardants. Every week brings news of another consumer product that could be hazardous to our health.

Most Californians would be surprised to find out that our state government has no authority to assure that the goods sold at our local stores are safe for our families. The California Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Chemistry Initiative has the potential to fix this problem — but only if it survives intense lobbying by the chemical industry.

The Schwarzenegger administration has done a balancing act on environmental issues, striving to make the governor an eco-hero without upsetting his big-business allies. In some areas, like climate change and ocean protection, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made major strides beyond anything his predecessors accomplished, and he has reaped global acclaim for doing so. At other times, his closeness to big business has put him at odds with the cause of environmental sustainability, as in his support for building costly and unnecessary new dams.

The Green Chemistry Initiative offers the governor an opportunity to do for toxic chemicals policy what the Global Warming Solutions Act, AB32, has done for atmospheric protection: make California a national leader, filling the void left by a corrupt polluter-coddling regime in the White House.

The driving force behind the Green Chemistry Initiative is Maureen Gorsen, the governor’s appointed director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control. Gorsen, a Republican who is serious about enforcing the law and fulfilling her department’s mission, realizes that it’s a lot cleaner and cheaper to prevent pollution at the front end than to merely clean up poisons after they’ve been released into our air, water and land. As Gorsen has said, “The initiative seeks to reduce the use of hazardous materials at the beginning of a product life cycle rather than dispose of toxics at the end of a product’s useful life.”

By New Year’s Day, Gorsen and her team will make public a set of options for accomplishing that goal. Policy recommendations to Cal-EPA Secretary Linda Adams are due by July 1 — in time to be incorporated into legislation by the end of the 2008 session. And make no mistake about it: The Green Chemistry Initiative will be a failure if it does not result in major new statutory authority for Cal-EPA to protect us from toxins that are currently allowed to contaminate our bodies and our environment.

The Legislature should give DTSC the authority to, if warranted by scientific evidence from the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, ban or restrict the usage of particular chemicals in consumer products. The process could be patterned on the Air Resources Board’s program that has successfully reduced emissions from consumer products.

Cal-EPA’s scientific experts will need to set priorities in addressing hazardous substances, and should start by protecting the most vulnerable people, like children. Our government must ensure that products that many infants are exposed to — from baby bottles to toys to baby food containers — will be safe for the next generation.

State government should lead the way to driving demand for cleaner products through its own procurement processes; Cal-EPA should continue and enhance its collaboration with the State and Consumer Services Agency on greening the government, and help local governments to follow. And workers should be better protected from toxins in the workplace.

Furthermore, manufacturers of products containing hazardous materials should be held responsible for the safe disposal of those products at the end of their useful lives. The Integrated Waste Management Board should work with the Legislature to require extended producer responsibility for such products, and should exercise that authority by prioritizing consumer products that, when discarded, become hazardous waste (like mercury-containing thermostats).

Chemical industry lobbyists are hoping to torpedo or water down the Green Chemistry Initiative by going over the heads of Cal-EPA and appealing to the governor’s office. Schwarzenegger sent the industry a signal that he takes the threat of toxic products seriously when he signed the Toxic Toys bill, AB1108, in October. His next step should be to make clear in his State of the State address that 2008 will be the year that we reform chemical policy in California.

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