Stephanie M. Lee
August 8, 2012

California has taken a significant step toward providing residents with information about hazardous chemicals in products under a far-reaching law designed to improve consumer health and safety.

On Friday, the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control, the agency charged with regulating toxic substances, released its final proposals intended to help people identify harmful chemicals in household products and encourage businesses to adopt safer alternatives to them.

The guidelines are required by a 2008 green-chemistry law that was among the first of its kind in the nation. They are expected to be finalized after a 45-day public comment period and take effect by the end of the year.

“While these are groundbreaking for California, we are certainly not standing alone,” said Debbie Raphael, the agency’s director. “People across the globe, and certainly across the United States, are interested in finding out about the kinds of chemicals being used in their consumer products.”

The agency has chosen to regulate 1,200 chemicals found in household goods and identified as hazardous by scientific and governmental organizations, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Product testing

Manufacturers and, to a lesser extent, importers and retailers would eventually be required to test products they sell in California for those ingredients.

If they find them, they would have to determine whether there are safer alternatives to those chemicals and whether they would be willing or able to replace them. If the choice is not to replace them, the state would place tougher regulations on the product. If manufacturers fail to do the testing, retailers would not be allowed to order those products in California.

During the first years the regulations are in place, the agency will limit its scope to up to five commonly used products that contain some of those chemicals, Raphael said, because the department wants to see the regulations play out on a small scale. The scope will eventually expand to all products sold in California that contain the chemicals.

In the short-term, “not many companies are actually going to have to do anything at all,” said Joe Guth, a research scientist at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and Center for Green Chemistry.

When the regulations are finalized, consumers will be able to read online the entire list of hazardous chemicals and of manufacturers who have or have not complied.

Environmental and health advocates said they mostly support the new proposal, but are concerned that some aspects still do not go far enough to protect public health and ensure transparency from manufacturers. Industry officials, on the other hand, have worried the regulations will drive businesses from California or force them to divulge trade secrets.

Several trade groups – the Green Chemistry Alliance, the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers and Technology Association – said Friday they were reviewing the guidelines.

After stakeholder meetings and several revisions, including the last major one in October, the proposal has changed in several ways. For instance, the Department of Toxic Substances Control would now consider a chemical’s or product’s “ability to contribute to or cause” harm, rather than its “potential” to cause harm.

The phrases may seem synonymous, but health advocates said the change sounds warning bells. They argue that the term “ability” to inflict harm requires proof that it does just that, while “potential” allows room for the judgment that, say, a new chemical is probably harmful if it resembles a known, harmful chemical.

“The idea is to say if a chemical looks like a bad chemical and smells like a bad chemical, it’s probably a bad chemical and should be considered as well,” said Kathryn Alcantar, state policy director for the Center for Environmental Health and a campaign coordinator for Californians for a Healthy and Green Economy, a coalition of environmental health groups.

In previous drafts, the agency planned to regulate as many as 3,000 chemicals, but that list has been whittled down to exclude pesticides, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals absent from household products.

Transparency questioned

Critics contend the regulations do not go far enough to ensure transparency.

When manufacturers propose to use safer chemicals in their products, that analysis will be reviewed by the state and posted online. But Alcantar said companies’ reviews should be required to undergo an independent analysis to ensure their legitimacy.

“This is something we’re concerned about because, obviously, they have a financial, potential gain saying, ‘The product we’re using is safe,’ ” she said.

Advocates are also concerned the proposed regulations do not apply to products made in California but sold out of state, which could leave factory workers unprotected from hazardous work conditions.

— To view the regulations, go to

Key changes

— The list of affected chemicals has been narrowed from the previous version released in October, from about 3,000 to 1,200.

— Up to five commonly used household products with hazardous chemicals will be scrutinized initially.

— The Department of Toxic Substances Control will consider a chemical or product’s “ability to contribute to or cause” harm, rather than its “potential” to cause harm.

— Products with particularly hazardous chemicals will be exempted only if the chemicals make up less than an amount to be determined on a case-by-case basis, not a default level.

Source: California Department of Toxic Substances Control

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