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California Needs More ‘Green Chemistry’ Action Heroes

New America Media, Commentary, Ansje Miller Posted: Oct 07, 2008

Editor's Note: California's new "green chemistry" legislation will set up online databases to inform consumers of dangerous products, but won't take the products off the shelves. Ansje Miller, policy director of the Center for Environmental Health and coordinator of Californians for a Healthy and Green Economy (CHANGE) welcomes the initiatives but has some reservations.

Marilyn Furer isn't a household name. Yet within weeks, this grandmother from Illinois did what our government seems unable to do: She got toxic baby products off store shelves.

After reading an article about lead in plastic school lunch boxes, she noticed that her grandson's baby bib, which spent more time in his mouth than his lunch did, seemed to be made out of the same material. With a simple lead test purchased at a local hardware store, Furer found that indeed those brand new baby bibs were filled with lead, which could lead to anemia, severe stomachache, muscle weakness and even brain damage. Low levels of lead have even been linked to lower IQ scores.

Instead of just throwing the bibs away, Furer decided to take action so that other babies wouldn't be exposed to the same toxins. There was no government Web site to help her, so she called us at the Center for Environmental Health. Because we'd done research on lead in lunch boxes, she sent us her baby bib. After confirming her results with an independent lab test, our joint effort resulted in Wal-Mart taking those toxic bibs off the shelves.

Lead is just one of many toxic chemicals that end up in products that we use every day. Studies show that these toxic chemicals continue to show up in our bodies. This is because there is no level of government in the United States that is actually minding the store on this issue. We rely upon a regulatory system implemented in the 1970s, called the Toxic Substances Control Act that is fundamentally broken. It is so cumbersome and so heavily weighted in favor of industry profits over public health, that concerned people in government can't protect us from these toxins even if they wanted to.

We live in a time when almost every American has been touched by cancer, childhood asthma, male birth defects, autism, or learning disabilities. We know that many chemicals contribute to these diseases. What's potentially worse is that there are thousands of chemicals on the market with similar properties that we don't know much about. There are more than 85,000 chemicals registered for use, yet only 10 percent of them have been tested for their effects on human health and the environment. And just because they're tested doesn't mean that they are off the market.

Enter Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. TIME magazine named him a 2008 Hero of the Environment for his efforts on climate change. In the article, Schwarzenegger criticized President George W. Bush for calling meetings about climate change, saying, "Enough meetings. Enough waiting for someone else to take the lead. Leadership means action."

I couldn't agree more. Yet his latest bill leads to more meetings.

On Sept. 29, Governor Schwarzenegger signed Assembly Bill (AB) 1879 and its companion Senate Bill (SB 509). SB 509 requires the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to create an online Toxics Information Clearinghouse; an online database so consumers can learn about the toxicity and hazards of thousands of chemicals used in California every day.

AB 1879 aims to address the problem of pervasive toxic chemicals by developing regulations and a process for identifying what they call "chemicals of concern" and creating ways of developing alternatives and methods for analyzing alternatives to existing hazardous chemicals. Once that process is up and running, the DTSC is then authorized to take action on those chemicals.

But creating the process is not the same thing as action.

Schwarzenegger needs to ensure that his agencies do not get bogged down in a lengthy industry-dominated process, but take action now where we know we can. Lists of known chemicals of concern have already been developed. We can quickly start there and take action on those. Then, we need the governor to support additional legislation to require companies to prove the safety of their chemicals before they ever reach the public.

While we should applaud the governor for sending a message about this pressing problem, I'm still waiting for the action. They will help another Marilyn Furer identify potential poisons, but it won't take it off the shelves.

These bills ensure that meetings will take place - often behind closed doors - with the hordes of industry lobbyists in Sacramento before even one chemical is identified or taken off any shelves.

As long as we continue to let dirty, unhealthy chemicals be sold in our stores, we are losing out on the opportunity to gain market share in the new field of green chemistry and safer alternatives to toxic chemicals. We can't afford to continue to let cleaner technology developments come from overseas.

The quicker we can get toxic chemicals out of our market, the quicker new companies will jump into the fray to develop safer alternatives, creating new jobs and economic activity here at home. Maine is developing new, safer plastics out of potatoes. With California's rich agricultural resources, sustainably grown bio-based plastic and other materials should be a natural economic development opportunity.

If you want to be an action hero go to www.changecalifornia.org for a list of databases where you can research whether the products you buy contain toxic chemicals. While you're there, click on the link to send a letter to Governor Schwarzenegger and your representatives letting them know that just setting up a process alone does not make an action hero. Enough meetings. Leadership takes action.

Related Articles:

Wireless Antennas: People of Color Are Particularly at Risk

Schwarzenegger Maintains Fight Against Climate Change

Green Nail Salon Grows Organically

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