Benign by design

The governor’s Green Chemistry plan revs up

California’s Green Chemistry initiative plans to discover safer alternatives to the estimated 100,000 toxic substances used in consumer products.

California’s Green Chemistry initiative plans to discover safer alternatives to the estimated 100,000 toxic substances used in consumer products.

Overshadowed by the tub-thumping and business-community angst about Assembly Bill 32 and its greenhouse-gas reduction mandate is a potentially more far-reaching legacy of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration: Green Chemistry.

Originally proposed by the GOP governor, the so-called Green Chemistry Initiative was created in 2008. It is the most ambitious program to regulate toxic substances in consumer products in the nation.

Nearly two years later, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which administers the program, has released an initial plan on how to implement the program, which is supposed to be operational January 1, 2011.

“This draft regulation is the first of its kind in the nation and it essentially shifts the way government, industry and the public think about the products that end up in our homes,” Maziar Movassaghi, the department’s acting director, said in a statement announcing the release of the 61-page document called “Draft Regulation for Safer Consumer Products.”

The central focus of Green Chemistry is to find safer alternatives to toxic substances, ultimately shifting the focus of environmental protection from how to sequester those toxic substances at the end of a product’s life to creation of safer products that no longer contain the toxic compounds. Benign by design is Green Chemistry’s mantra.

To achieve that goal, the state will catalog products and the chemicals they contain creating two master lists—“chemicals under consideration” and “chemicals of concern.”

Movassaghi said the intent of the two-tier approach is to create an incentive for manufacturers to solve their toxicity problems themselves. Better to voluntarily trade out a chemical under consideration than go through the regulatory hell of being forced to replace a chemical of concern.

“We’re creating a forward-looking regulation. We’re allowing companies to innovate and we want to be able to work with them once we prioritize chemicals and products,” Movassaghi said.

The scope of the law is vast. Estimates are some 100,000 toxic chemicals are used in production today. While pesticides, pharmaceuticals and food packaging are exempted because other state agencies regulate them, a sampling of the 150 companies and trade associations who comprise the Green Chemistry Alliance illustrates the law’s sweep.

Del Monte Foods, The Boeing Company, Amway Global, the Toy Industry Association, Procter & Gamble, the American Apparel and Footwear Association, the California Restaurant Association, Johnson & Johnson and Chevron Corporation are a few of the alliance’s members.

“Each member can be affected differently,” said John Ulrich, of the Chemical Industry Council of California, the alliance’s co-chairman. “I’m amazed at how tightly people have stuck together and taken the time to understand each other’s issues.”

In a rare showing of unity, manufacturers and environmentalists supported the idea of Green Chemistry, a more global assessment of toxic chemicals than the previous piecemeal system in which lawmakers introduced a slew of bills to ban individual chemicals.What environmentalists and manufacturers don’t agree on yet is how the program should operate.

Businesses urge the state to move slowly in creating its list of carcinogens, neurotoxins and other harmful compounds, which it appears to be doing. Environmentalists and other advocacy groups seek swifter declarations about a chemical being harmful and speedier removal of the chemical from whatever product contains it.

“The point of this legislation is to get the most toxic chemicals out of our consumer products and start a shift to safer alternatives. My biggest concern is it will be years and years before we actually see changes in our products,” said Bill Magavern, director of Sierra Club California.

The department’s initial batch of chemicals to examine will come from the 770 substances listed through Proposition 65 as carcinogens or causing birth defects or other reproductive harm.

Proposition 65 requires warning labels be placed on products, from beer to bedroom slippers, containing any chemicals on the list.

Also included for state review are the 16 chemicals classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as “persistent biocummulative and toxic.” Among them are lead and mercury.

Movassaghi says the department might be assessing somewhere between 200 and 500 chemicals initially—not all of them of concern.