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Name your poison

September 04, 2007

State lawmakers have churned out proposals in recent years to ban individual toxic substances, but this scattershot approach has been largely ineffective. Now, the state Senate is poised to take up an ambitious bill by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) that would establish a comprehensive program cataloging the potentially hazardous chemicals used by California companies. The point is to shift the focus from controlling pollution -- that is, regulating how chemicals are disposed of or emitted -- to preventing it by reducing the use of hazardous materials.

This sensible approach is modeled after a toxics-reduction measure adopted by Massachusetts in 1989 that actually saved companies millions of dollars more than it cost them to comply. Feuer's bill would require the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to compile a list of monitored toxics and create a database on their health effects. Large users of those chemicals would have to report what they used and how much, as well as submitting plans for using less.

The Schwarzenegger administration has a broad "green chemistry" initiative too, launched two months after Feuer introduced his bill. Its goal is to assess existing toxics programs and recommend options for measuring the health and environmental effects of not just the chemicals used in products, but their potential substitutes. A coalition of manufacturers and chemical companies backs the governor's effort and opposes Feuer's. Even though there is some overlap between the two efforts, they're actually complementary. Together, they would build a solid scientific and medical foundation for more aggressive efforts to reduce industry's reliance on toxic chemicals. More important, Feuer's bill, like Massachusetts' effort, can help build the market for less-toxic chemicals and manufacturing techniques. It deserves the governor's support.

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