Regulating lead-acid batteries

A photo illustration of a lead-acid battery. (Image: Marynchenko Oleksandr, via Shutterstock)

As a former member of the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s (DTSC) Green Ribbon Science Panel, I remain invested in the success of the Safer Consumer Products Regulations (SCP) and feel that success is dependent on addressing two major challenges.

First, government nearly always takes the straightforward approach to problematic chemical substances by simply restricting or banning their use.

This approach fails to control the replacement(s), so we all too often end up with “regrettable substitutions” – the use of other chemical substances selected for functionality and/or cost that perform no better than the substances they replaced in terms of environmental and human health toxicity.

Unless DTSC focuses its limited resources, this will become a “boil the ocean” exercise.

Second, manufacturers have extraordinary procedures to identify and evaluate alternatives related to a product’s cost, functionality, quality and availability, but too few extend that to toxicity and environmental/human health impact.

SCP is the first government regulation to address these important issues head-on. By defining design constraints for chemical substance selection based on environmental and human health impacts – an often-ignored area in product development across industries – the SCP program can help drive dramatic improvement in this critical area.

DTSC’s 2018-2020 Priority Product Work Plan includes seven product categories for DTSC to select from. Most are quite broad and are “target-rich” – there are plenty of areas for improvement.

All categories except “Lead-Acid Batteries,” included by demand of the Legislature and a rather poor fit for the SCP approach, are rife with the potential to broadly expose consumers throughout California to certain Candidate Chemicals.

Note, the key problem with lead-acid batteries in California is related to clean-up of recycling facilities.

In addition to the set of policy goals identified in the work plan, DTSC should define goals that will help it narrow the scope.

SCP’s focus is on product design; recyclability and the process for recycling is an important design consideration – and California’s issues at specific locations are serious – but a vast amount of battery technology research is already being done today to address legacy battery issues, including toxicity. More compelling, and potentially more broadly impactful, targets are more likely to exist elsewhere.

But even within the categories mentioned above, not all targets are the right targets.

DTSC must now identify specific, potentially harmful chemicals in specific “Priority Products” that are within these categories. Unless DTSC focuses its limited resources, this will become a “boil the ocean” exercise.

In addition to the set of policy goals identified in the work plan, DTSC should define goals that will help it narrow the scope and identify Priority Products for which manufacturers will be required to perform alternatives assessments, or “AAs.”

Priority Products that actually require diligent and insightful AAs will go further to validate the SCP concept and to demonstrate to manufacturers the type of situations they identify to incorporate AAs into normal, everyday product development.

The first three Priority Products – children’s foam-padded sleeping products with TDCPP or TCEP, spray polyurethane foam with unreacted MDI and paint stripper with methylene chloride — are unlikely to produce the type of AAs that drive decision-making by product manufacturers.

Listing lead batteries would be another step in the wrong direction. Identifying problems solvable via the defined alternatives analysis process will go further to validating the SCP approach; that is a more important goal today.

California still has a long way to go to attain improved product environmental and human health performance. But with sound judgement on the selection of products and the right tools to develop alternatives, California’s SCP approach will set a compelling direction.

Ed’s Note: Mike Kirschner is founder and president of Design Chain Associates, a product-focused environmental consultancy. He is a former member of the California EPA Department of Toxic Substance Control’s original Green Ribbon Science Panel.


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