The state Assembly this week rejected a measure by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, that would have banned a chemical found in many baby toys that Ma says is toxic. The bill’s defeat casts an uncertain future over a handful of other bills, also authored by Democrats, seeking to ban chemicals found in common household items.
The debate over all of these bills often sounds eerily similar to the debate over global warming, with advocates urging quick action, citing scientific proof of pending dangers. Opponents, meanwhile, question the scientific validity of the proponents’ claims and balk at the potential economic impact of new regulations.
Ma said the opposition to her bill, led by the California Chemistry Council, as vigorous because of the precedent her bill may set for other measures pending in the Legislature this year.
“I understand the industry feels this is a slippery slope–that once one ban passes, it opens up the floodgates. And other states are looking to California to see what we do. I think this has national implications” for the chemical industry.
While her measure, AB 1108, was defeated on the Assembly floor Tuesday, she said she will bring the bill back up for a vote, possibly as soon as Thursday.
Ma’s bill seeks to ban the sale, manufacture and distribution of products produced with phthalate, which many scientists believe causes liver cancer and damage to the reproductive system.
Opponents of the bill say the science is inconclusive. Others say the Legislature should not be in the business of piecemeal regulations of various chemicals.
In his speech against the bill on the Assembly floor, Assemblyman Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita, said, “the science was not in to justify” a complete ban on the chemical. Hesperia Republican Anthony Adams chastised the bill’s supporters for their “knee-jerk” reaction to what he categorized as inconclusive science.
And it’s not just Republicans who are balking at these chemical bills. Though Nicole Parra, D-Hanford, was the only Democrat to vote against the bill, 11 Democrats abstained on the measure. Among them were some proven moderates, like Fresno’s Juan Arambula, and a large number of freshmen members. In all, eight freshman Democrats did not cast votes for Ma’s measure.
That has raised questions about just how liberal the Assembly will be as bills flood the floor in the coming days. Moderate Democrats have emerged as a force in the Senate, but have not been visible as a voting block in the Assembly.
Supporters of the Ma bill were unmoved by the rationales against the bill. “Legislators do a lot of things that they are not experts on, and they vote on them all the time,” says Environment California’s Dan Jacobson. Jacobson said many members were “hiding behind the chemical industry’s conflicting science.”
Ma said some members were “hiding behind Governor Schwarzenegger’s green-chemistry initiative. But he has no plan, no timetable, no list of chemicals. There’s nothing in it.”
Tim Shestek of the American Chemistry Council says the green-chemistry initiative is “something that we would see as an opportunity instead of these rifle-shot approaches in the Legislature.”
Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, who has sponsored many of the bills most aggressively opposed by the chemistry council over the last couple of years, says the industry’s call for a more comprehensive approach to toxic regulation is disingenuous.
“The industry says they want a wider, more comprehensive approach. [Last year’s] AB 990 was a wider, more comprehensive approach that would have involved all the interested parties, and they fought that tooth and nail. The chemical industry in California is going to fight these bills. The Legislature has to have the will to overcome that.”
But the larger meaning of Tuesday’s vote is not exactly clear. “It’s a little too early to read too much into anything,” says Jacobson, whose organization is sponsoring Ma’s bill and many of the other chemical bans moving through the Legislature. “What the chemical guys are doing is creating doubt. Because this was an early bill, it’s easy to create doubt and cast suspicion.”
“This bill was one of the early tests,” said Shestek. “I don’t know if this is a pattern or going to carry over, but I think this week’s vote was pretty reflective of the concerns I’m hearing from members on a number of these bills.”
“I think it shows that we have some work to do pushing these bills,” says Lieber, who has three toxics bills pending in the Assembly. “This is the most pressing public-health issue that California has to face. Californians are living in a sea of chemicals.”
Ma’s bill sailed out of the Assembly Health Committee on a 9-4 vote, but there were signs of trouble. Committee Chairman Mervyn Dymally, D-Compton, voted against the bill in committee. Two other Democrats–Ed Hernandez, D-La Puente, and Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate, abstained on the measure.
Hernandez and Rialto’s Wilmer Carter did not vote for Ma’s bill, but did vote to support Mark Leno’s AB 706 in Assembly Business and Professions. That bill prevents the use of various fire-retardant chemicals in various household products.
Unlike Ma’s bill, Leno’s measure is not an outright ban on the use of brominated fire retardants. It simply limits their use in a host of products, including mattresses and box springs.
Leno says his bill will have an easier time passing than his San Francisco counterpart’s measure because his bill is more limited in scope. But Shestek says Leno’s bill still “paints with a bit of a broad brush,” and that his organization remains opposed to the measure.
But Ma’s bill may foreshadow a difficult road for other chemical-restriction legislation. Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, has a number of bills that have been flagged for opposition by the chemical industry. And there is AB 513 by Lieber.
Like Leno’s bill, Lieber’s bill also targets a chemical commonly used as a fire retardant. The chemical is also found in many common electrical items, such as computer monitors and television sets.
Both De La Torre and Hernandez have already passed up opportunities to vote for Lieber’s bill, and Lieber says this week’s vote on Ma’s bill complicates the political road for her bill.
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