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The Green Revolution

Chemicals are everywhere. California joins the movement to identify and counter them.

April 27, 2008

This month's chemical scare concerns bisphenol A, or BPA, a substance in plastics that may or may not be reprogramming our children's genes to make them more susceptible to cancer and other horrifying afflictions. BPA is not to be confused with phthalates (last month's chemical scare), plasticizers often found in personal hygiene products that might alter children's hormones. If you're not fazed by these two, consider that your blood probably contains 148 industrial chemicals whose effects on human health are largely unproven but that have been linked to neurological disorders, endocrine and immune system ailments, reproductive problems and organ failure, not to mention the Big C.

Recent news reports about BPA, which is often found in polycarbonate containers stamped with the recycle number 7, doubtless prompted many worried consumers to rummage through their cabinets and toss out anything with the dreaded digit on the bottom. It would be nice if we could protect ourselves that easily. In truth, dangerous industrial chemicals are so ubiquitous in the products filling our homes, and these products are so inadequately labeled, that they are essentially unavoidable. That may be about to change.

The state of California is joining Europe and Canada in an international movement whose aim is almost absurdly ambitious: to overturn the Industrial Revolution, or at least start a new one called the Green Revolution. The state is exploring sweeping changes in such areas as building design, vehicle efficiency and energy generation to cut pollutants and reduce its carbon footprint. But perhaps the most complex undertaking of all is an attempt to reinvent industrial chemistry.

There are about 80,000 industrial chemicals used in the United States today, many of which are thought to have a deadly impact on humans and the environment -- yet the companies that make and use them are not required to disclose or investigate their hazardous effects. In California alone there are 208,000 annual cases of chronic disease and 4,400 deaths linked to chemical exposure at the workplace, producing healthcare costs of $1.4 billion. That doesn't count the sickness and deaths of people who are exposed simply by breathing the air, slathering themselves with poisonous lotions or drinking out of containers made from toxic plastic.

Last May, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration launched the Green Chemistry Initiative, whose aim is to control chemicals at the front end, when they're produced or used by manufacturers, rather than the back end, when they've already leached into the soil and groundwater. The California Environmental Protection Agency faces a July deadline to present its recommendations. Under discussion are such ideas as creating a database of chemicals, ordering manufacturers to investigate their health effects and possibly banning the use and sale of those deemed hazardous.

That kind of regulation is welcome and overdue, but it won't be enough. More research into alternatives is desperately needed, and California universities should create green chemistry degree programs. We also need more certification programs to help consumers make safe choices, such as the Cradle to Cradle Certification system from McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, which gives a seal of approval to products that use green (meaning safe for humans and the environment) chemicals.

The Green Revolution is not an attack on business -- in fact, it will create enormous market opportunities for companies to sell green products, much like an earlier movement away from pesticides led to a booming trade in organic produce. There are sustainable ways of making just about everything. Manufacturers should get on with finding them, not fighting for the right to pollute.

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