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Legislature Targets Toxic Risks in Products

May 30, 2005|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Moving more assertively than lawmakers in other states, the California Legislature is stepping into a growing global debate over how to regulate potentially dangerous chemicals used in perfume, nail polish, plastic baby bottles, rubber ducks and thousands of other products.

Under measures facing votes this week, the state would collect samples from volunteers in California and study data from manufacturers to better identify which chemicals may pose health risks.

As early as next year, California also could become the first state to ban some types of phthalates and bisphenol A in toys and other products used by children under age 3. The widely used chemicals are suspected by some scientists of causing developmental problems in infants.

Phthalates were linked in a scientific study released last week to changes in the size and anatomy of baby boys' genitals.

If successful, the efforts in California could prompt similar measures in other states and require substantial change in the operations of the country's largest manufacturers.

The chemical, cosmetics and plastics industries are alarmed at the legislative push, which they say is driven more by ideological activism than by sound science.

The industries spent $3.5 million on lobbying over the last two years to defeat prior measures. But this year, those bills have been resurrected in politically more palatable forms, and more far-reaching ones have been added. New research may help bolster the bills' chances.

Taken together, the California proposals form an explicit rebuke to the approach of Congress and federal regulators, who generally do not ban chemicals until there is firm scientific evidence of their dangers.

Many of the California bills are modeled on the precautionary approach popular in Europe, where chemicals are often presumed dangerous unless proven otherwise.

"We want to provide the protection to Californians who ought to be as safe and as carcinogen-free as those who live in European nations," said state Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco).

The Senate is expected to vote this week on her proposal to require cosmetics manufacturers to disclose to state health officials all the ingredients in their products that can cause cancer or inhibit reproduction.

The cosmetics industry has been aggressively and colorfully lobbying against the bill: At one hearing, industry officials carted in a cake and a Norman Rockwell painting of a Thanksgiving dinner and then recited all the chemicals -- 500 in the cake and thousands in the dinner -- to illustrate the folly of broad regulatory assaults. Unimpressed, the Senate panel endorsed the bill.

Another bill, which the Senate approved Thursday, would require that state regulators add to California's list of dangerous substances all chemicals identified as hazardous by the Netherlands, which has been in the vanguard in preemptively banning substances. Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) is author of the bill.

"It's the first time that I'm aware of that any state has identified the Dutch government as a center for expertise on chemical issues," said Michael Walls, an executive with the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group in Arlington, Va. "California is the only state where this breadth of chemical-related proposals are being considered."

Some of California's previous efforts to break new ground in environmental regulation have proved contagious in other states.

In 2003, California outlawed several types of flame retardants used in upholstered furniture, carpeting and building materials, citing evidence that the chemicals were building up in people's fatty tissues and appearing in breast milk.

Since then, five other states have enacted similar laws, and the Indianapolis-based manufacturer -- which spent $160,885 lobbying in California -- announced it would stop producing the chemicals.

"There's clearly a problem with chemical policy globally that is being reflected in these bills coming forward in the state Legislature," said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, a Rosamond-based environmental advocacy group. Williams and many other activists believe that synthetic chemicals could be responsible for the rise in autism, childhood cancers and other modern maladies.

But given the state's fiscal problems, many of the bills must overcome complaints that they would place costly new burdens on government as well as industry. Republican lawmakers have generally opposed the efforts, and the measures face a tough sell with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, given the opposition from business and the cost to taxpayers.

"One of the major problems is that exposure is being equated with disease or illness, which I don't think is justified in science or data," said Robert Krieger, an extension toxicologist at UC Riverside. "I think we're much better off to find ways to cope with chemicals, rather than to assign adverse consequences to trace amounts."

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