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State officials launch 'green' initiative

The plan would help gauge the safety of chemical products.

December 17, 2008|Margot Roosevelt

Is that laundry soap truly "environmentally friendly"? Was that mattress treated with toxic chemicals? Is that sweatsuit fashioned from organic cotton? Is that lipstick "natural"?

California officials launched a sweeping green initiative on Tuesday to inform consumers exactly how hundreds of thousands of products sold in the state are manufactured and transported and how safe their ingredients are.

The plan, which would require every product to reveal its "environmental footprint," envisions the most comprehensive regulations ever adopted for consumer goods.

"These recommendations usher in a new era of how we look at household products -- from our children's toys to the plastic we use to make shampoo bottles, to the varnish on our wood furniture," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Until now, most of the state's regulation of toxic chemicals, which can cause cancer, birth defects and neurological damage, has been focused on how to control exposure to factory workers and how to clean up hazardous waste.

But after an 18-month effort to revamp that approach, "instead of paying attention to the toxic substances in our everyday products only when it comes time to throw them away in the landfill," Schwarzenegger said, "we will now pay attention . . . when the product is designed, manufactured, used and recycled."

Maureen F. Gorsen, director of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, said the administration would propose a law setting up a public database that could eventually allow consumers to scan a bar code on every product to determine how green it is -- or isn't.

With scanners at stores, or eventually on cellphones, purchasers could compare brands to figure out which one was manufactured, for instance, with coal-fired electricity in China and which one with solar power in California.

They could also determine how much greenhouse gas was emitted through its transportation by boat, plane or truck and whether its ingredients were the safest available and could be easily recycled.

A more limited regulation by the California Air Resources Board requires stickers on new automobiles rating them on how much smog-forming pollution and how much carbon dioxide, a gas that contributes to global warming, they emit.

The proposed "Green Chemistry" initiative comes at a time of growing concern that the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, passed three decades ago, has failed to control an explosion of hazardous materials. Europe recently enacted tougher toxics rules than the United States, forcing many American companies to revamp products sold for export, but the California program would go further in its disclosure requirements.

"We don't know what is really in 'artificial flavors' or 'fragrances,' " said Dan Jacobson, legislative director of Environment California, a nonprofit that issued a recent report on the lack of testing on chemicals.

Environmentalists want to curb the current practice of "risk assessment," which requires a complex calculation of exposure and harm before a chemical is restricted. Chemicals should be proven safe before marketed, in their view.

"Industry fights for risk assessment because it is easier to hide the dangers of their chemicals," Jacobson said. "This issue is not fully addressed in the report."

Gorsen responded that the plan would mean "a big move away from traditional risk assessment. . . . We create a system that accelerates our move to safer choices -- rather than argue and equivocate about how bad is bad."

Meanwhile, companies, latching on to consumer fears, are trying to outdo one another in advertising their products' eco-virtues -- a phenomenon sometimes disparaged as "greenwashing."

"Most of the green stuff that is marketed is not really green," Gorsen said. "With this plan, we are moving from 'claims of green' to 'metrics of green.' Maybe a company did one thing to make their product green, but their overall footprint is not good. We'll look at how green is green. And how to compare this bottle of shampoo to that bottle of shampoo."

Approximately 100,000 known chemicals are used in production today, but safety data is available on only a few thousand. In California, 644 million pounds of chemical products are sold each day.

"The federal government has not required ingredients disclosure for all products," Gorsen said. "Now for the first time, we will know what is in products -- and not just those made in California but anything sold in California."

Two California laws passed last fall have jump-started the program. AB 1879, sponsored by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), requires the state to identify "chemicals of concern" and to evaluate safer alternatives. SB 509, sponsored by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), creates a scientific clearinghouse for information on chemicals' effects.

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