Debate underway over CA's green chemistry revolution

December 8, 2009 6:46:04 PM PST
In 2011, California manufacturers will be forced to use non-toxic chemicals in their products. The state's "Green Chemistry" program is just in the planning phase, but advocates say it will improve public health. Opponents call it a costly experiment.

San Francisco-based company Method is a leader in clean and produces household products found on many store shelves.

"The reason we started method was because we wanted to make the most stylish, most effective, greenest cleaning products that money could buy," says co-founder Adam Lowry.

It is also on the forefront of a green chemistry revolution.

"Making green products is a challenge and making a truly green company is an even larger challenge," Lowry says.

The State of California is hoping for more companies like Method and in the process, ridding the state of dangerous chemicals. At a recent Green Ribbon Science Panel meeting in Sacramento, scientists and health officials revealed the first glimpse of the state's draft proposal to "green" the chemicals used in consumer products sold in the state.

Maziar Movassaghi is the acting director of the California Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC). He says, "The California Green Chemistry Initiative is a game-changing plan on how we can save the environment and increase our economy."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Green Chemistry Program into law in 2008. The legislation ordered the DTSC to identify chemicals used in products that are harmful to humans and the environment.

"You hear all this alarming information about increasing rates of autism in children, low sperm counts on males around the world, this is not just a California phenomenon," Movassaghi says.

One example is phthalates, a substance used to make soft plastic products. The federal government banned pthalates in children's toys because of links to health problems in humans. Some retailers have removed products containing the additive from store shelves. Several governments around the globe have banned or restricted its use. But, it is just one of many garnering attention.

"We're getting more and more products into stores and consumers are a little confused about what is safe out there" Movassaghi says.

Under the state's mandate, green alternatives would replace hazardous chemicals. There are currently some 10,000 chemicals on the state's draft list. They affect every aspect of people's lives from product packaging, to furniture, to household cleaners, right down to the clothes you wear.

"We have to be pragmatic, we can't take on everything you see in a big mega-box store," Movassaghi says. "We're probably going to focus a little bit more on what is impacting children, seniors, pregnant women, sensitive sub-populations."

A coalition of 25 trade and business groups calling themselves the Green Chemistry Alliance is very concerned about the direction the discussion is currently going. They are lobbying for more moderate regulations.

Roger Bernstein with the American Chemistry Council says, "It's just not workable."

He says it is just too much, too fast. Under the current proposal, the presence of a chemical in a microscopic quantity is enough to keep it out of the state.

"The problem I had was with both the enormity of the scope and then the lack of science and assessment of whether there is any risk or exposure," Bernstein says.

He says the state's outright ban of certain chemicals does not take into consideration their usefulness, or that many of the chemicals on the list are used in such small amounts that they pose no harm to people.

"It's dose that makes the poison; we all know that its exposure is very essential to any assessment of whether something is a problem or not," Bernstein says.

Under the state's plan, the cost of development of new chemicals, replacing them, even detecting them, will fall on the companies that use them.

"It could be a job killer," Bernstein says. "And, it could throw commerce into helter-skelter."

That is why the Green Chemistry Alliance appealed to the governor to intervene. The DTSC is now addressing some of those concerns and is now working on a revised proposal expected in February. Still, green chemistry advocates are convinced it can be done and welcome the pending rules as the dawn of new era in California.

Lowry says, "What initiatives like the Green Chemistry initiative do is they create requirements and incentives to create more businesses like Method, to be born and to compete."

Advocates say you do not have to look any farther then what is already on your store shelves to see a burgeoning new industry hoping to ride the Green Chemical Initiative's wave.

"The idea isn't to regulate waste. The idea is to go up the food chain, all the way into the chemists' lab, and engage the folks that are making the products we buy and use to make them benign by design," Movassaghi says.

The Green Ribbon Panel will meet again on Thursday. They expect to finalize their rules by the end of next year.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel


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