As dozens of people filed papers across the state on Saturday to replace him, Gov. Gray Davis was in Venice to sign legislation that makes California the only state in the nation to force industries to stop using flame retardants that are contaminating people and wildlife at an alarming pace.
The law is hailed by environmental scientists around the world as a big step toward protecting humans and wildlife from toxic compounds that are doubling in breast milk, especially in the United States, every few years.
"Once again, California is at the forefront of progressive legislation," Davis said at the Venice Family Clinic. "This bill protects California's most vulnerable residents: nursing infants and mothers. Health risks for all Californians will be reduced."
Under the new law, the use of penta and octa PBDEs and all products containing them will be illegal in California, effective in 2008.
The two types of PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are used in large volumes throughout North America to reduce the flammability of polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture, bedding, carpeting and building materials, as well as some electronics.
"We will begin to reduce health risks, manufacturers and retailers can easily switch to other flame retardants, and our air, rivers and ocean will be cleaner because of the action California takes today," Davis said.
PBDEs, used in industry for more than 20 years, pass through a mother's womb and are absorbed by a fetus. At birth, infants have the same level of contamination as their mothers.
The chemicals also are passed to babies through breast milk.
Scientists in recent years learned that the chemicals interfere with thyroid hormones, which regulate how a child's brain grows. Some American women and babies have levels of PBDEs that are almost as high as the amount shown to harm the brain development of newborn lab animals.
It is rare for the Legislature to ban industrial chemicals, but Davis said California had to act quickly to control PBDEs because the federal government has not.
"As is the case in many policy areas, I would have preferred to see a solution to PBDE pollution crafted in Washington," Davis said. The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates chemicals, is evaluating the risks of the flame retardants but has no plans for a national ban. Congress has not taken up the issue.
California is a large user of PBDEs because it has the country's most stringent flammability standards for furniture. The chemicals are likely to be phased out by industries nationwide because California is such a large market for products.
Manufacturers were not opposed to the legislation, although many worried that it set a bad precedent for state politicians to ban a chemical. The Senate and Assembly approved the bill with all but two Republicans voting against it.
Anne Noonan, vice president of Great Lakes Chemical Co., the sole manufacturer of penta PBDE, said Friday that the company was not opposed because the law allows "for an orderly transition" to alternative flame retardants. Several chemical companies, including Great Lakes, have developed experimental compounds designed to slow the spread of flames in furniture foam.
Assembly Majority Leader Wilma Chan (D-Alameda), the bill's author, had initially proposed a 2006 deadline, but moved it to 2008 to win industry support.
Scientists say the pace at which the contamination is growing in the environment and human tissues is unprecedented for any chemical since PCBs and DDT in the 1950s.
Dan Jacobson, legislative director of the environmental group Environment California, said Saturday that he is confident that the law will have "rapid impacts" in California despite its 2008 effective date because some manufacturers are already phasing the compounds out. In Europe, levels in breast milk are already declining.
Toxicologists are alarmed about PBDEs because they are similar to PCBs in potency and persistency in the environment. Like PCBs -- insulating compounds banned in the 1970s -- the flame retardants can endure in the environment even after they are no longer used. The compounds are spreading globally through the air and settling as far away as the North Pole.
It remains a mystery how the chemicals get into human bodies. Scientists suspect it is either from eating contaminated fish, or from inhaling dust contaminated by disintegrating foam in households and offices. Striped bass caught by anglers in San Francisco Bay last fall had more than triple the PBDE levels in 1997, and the bay's halibut had more than double, according to tests by the organization Environmental Working Group.
The two PBDEs covered by the law are the ones that are known to accumulate the most in human bodies. Another type, called deca, is not affected by California's ban.