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Green chemistry: Searching the medicine chest for products you could buy in Europe

For the last two years, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been touting his Green Chemistry Initiative.

The term at least partially refers to a movement coming out of the European Union to classify thousands of chemicals, determine which ones are harmful to human health, then come up with known, better alternatives. European Union’s Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) initiative is being phased in between 2007 and 2018.

The California effort got a boost when Schwarzenegger signed AB 1879 by Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles. This bill calls on the state to adopt a similar process by 2011 — the year after Schwarzenegger will leave office. Environmental groups have generally agreed the bill is a major step forward.

But some in the Legislature have criticized the governor’s commitment to the issue.

Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, called the initiative “a nice website.” She was also one of at least three Democratic legislators to get opposition letters from state environmental agencies, in reference to bills they were carrying banning certain chemicals. In each case, the letter from the Department of Toxic Substances Control and elsewhere cited the more comprehensive approach that would take place under the Green Chemistry Initiative.

Others watching the effort have been somewhat skeptical as well. Mark Schapiro, author of “Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power,” said that California has led the nation in moving towards the European approach. His book argues that the United States is losing its competitive advantage against other countries because of it’s lax regulations on toxic chemicals.

Schapiro has also questioned how real the governor’s commitment was to the issue. In a January interview in the Capitol Weekly, Schapiro said: “It’s pretty clear that Schwarzenegger’s whole attempt to position himself as the ‘green governor’ hasn’t really been challenged by the major political players.”

So a major question going forward is to what extent California’s chemical regulations will come to resemble those in Europe.
As an experiment, I gathered at random a collection of shampoos, conditioners, sun-blocks and other toiletries, then checked them against a database of chemicals that are now restricted in the EU, or are scheduled to be. All were purchased in California, either by myself or people I know.

The results were not encouraging. Of 38 products evaluated, only 10 did not list chemical ingredients that would be restricted in Europe. Of these 10, five actually came from companies that bill themselves as organic alternative to the mainstream manufacturers.
The good news is that these natural products did not have any of the restricted chemicals. The products included toothpaste from small manufacturers such as Nature’s Gate and JASON, a deodorant from Tom’s of Maine, and Ecover Ecological toilet bowl cleaner.
But that meant that only five of 34 products from the mainstream companies could be sold as-is in Europe, or wouldn’t be phased out in coming years. The products I could not find problems with included the fragrance-free version of Edge Active Care shave gel, as well as Pepto-Bismol and Tecnu outdoor skin cleanser for poison oak. This group also included moisturizer from St. Ives, a Swiss company that arguably should be considered in the small/organic company category.

It also included Right Guard Sport Max deodorant, which only listed active ingredients and may have still had banned chemicals. The lack of requirements to list all chemicals was another major problem with U.S. laws, Schapiro argued in his book.

Among the products that did contain restricted chemicals, there appeared to be little difference between the cheaper and the more expensive brands. One of the most expensive products, Redken All Soft heavy cream conditioner, contained five restricted chemicals. The largest number of restricted ingredients, six, came from Lubriderm Daily Moisture lotion.

My natural-sounding Neolia Olive Oil Shampoo and conditioner contained two and four restricted chemicals, respectively. It should be noted that I bought these items at Costco after seeing a big red label reading “Organic” on them. I later noticed that the label actually said was “Made with 100% ORGANIC all natural Italian extra virgin olive oil.”

The restricted chemicals found tended to be preservatives. The most common chemicals found were in the “paraben” family—methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben. These are preservatives that have been found to be carcinogenic in some tests.


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