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Much-needed catalyst

The governor's Green Chemistry Initiative may get a boost from a bill that targets toxic chemicals.

August 22, 2008

It has been more than a year since the Schwarzenegger administration announced that it was setting out to protect Californians from toxic chemicals in their lotions, mattresses, baby bottles and other consumer products. That Green Chemistry Initiative has taken longer to draw up than expected, and as recently as last month seemed hopelessly stalled. But a revised bill in the Assembly raises hopes of progress.

AB 1879 from Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) started out like any number of other bills targeting individual chemicals known to cause such problems as birth defects, cancer and lung disorders. But this week, Feuer and the bill's coauthors reached a deal with the California Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to amend the bill so that it takes a more comprehensive approach -- and lays the framework for the governor's Green Chemistry scheme.

California environmental regulators have long focused on emissions from industrial facilities and vehicles. Feuer's bill would for the first time give them the power to regulate chemicals in consumer products. That doesn't necessarily mean banning such chemicals, though the state would have that option if there were clear evidence of health risks; it might mean simply requiring better product labeling or restricting the use of some substances. The bill also would set up an Internet database containing current information and research on toxic chemicals, create an advisory panel of scientists to guide chemicals policy and establish regulations for analyzing greener alternatives.

AB 1879 is only a preliminary, bare-bones approach that would take years of fleshing out before it would start making Californians safer. Moreover, it contains nothing to prevent officials from trying to regulate on the cheap -- for example, the state would probably end up requiring manufacturers to research green alternatives themselves rather than hiring government scientists to perform independent reviews. That would make the Green Chemistry Initiative easier on taxpayers, but it would leave the research open to manipulation.

Issues like that can be worked out later. What matters now is that, by passing this bill, the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could take the first steps toward addressing a problem that has been worsening around the world for decades, as scientists have developed thousands of new chemicals with frighteningly little study of their effects on human health and the environment. There are few worthier bills in the current legislative session.

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