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Toxic chemical rules are on Brown's agenda

January 31, 2011 | 10:39 pm

Cadmium jewelry
As Congress struggles to reform the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, California in the next few months is expected to issue comprehensive rules curbing chemicals in consumer products such as toys, cosmetics and plastics.

On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) will hold a hearing in Washington on the federal law with public health and industry witnesses, but the Republican takeover of the U.S. House makes it less likely that environmentalists will manage to toughen existing federal rules.

Under current law, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required testing on just 200 of the nearly 80,000 existing chemicals, and restricted only five.

Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families - a coalition of nearly 300 health groups - is urging federal restrictions on substances already known to be dangerous, including persistent and bio-accumulative chemicals. It wants the government to require that industry provide health and safety information for all chemicals in order for them to enter or remain on the market. And it wants a guarantee that peer-reviewed science - including the latest recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences - is used to assess risks.

Chemicals are more strictly regulated in Europe than in the U.S. and many international companies have  changed their products to conform to European Union rules. But the chemical industry is mounting ferocious opposition to stricter regulation in the U.S.

 In 2008, California enacted two groundbreaking laws to curb toxics in consumer products—one requiring the state to identify harmful substances and evaluate safer alternatives, and another to set up a database on the chemicals’ effects.

 That comprehensive approach was aimed at replacing the legislature's laborious and scattershot chemical-by-chemical legislation, which had become highly politicized.

But when the state issued regulations last June under the new laws, a coalition of chemical, automobile and other companies attacked them as too expensive, saying they would slow innovation. Car companies were particularly concerned about chemicals used to treat fabrics inside vehicles. Such chemicals off-gas that "new car smell"--which may not be healthy.

In November, California regulators withdrew their first proposed rules and published an industry-friendly version, narrowing the list of high-priority chemicals, lifting deadlines for action, diluting rules for independent verification, and exempting products with small amounts of toxics.

A coalition of 33 health and environmental groups cried foul and threatened to sue, whereupon the Schwarzenegger administration called a time-out, dropping the controversy into Brown’s lap.

Feuer “The governor should move with a tremendous sense of urgency.”Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los
Angeles), an author of the original "green chemistry" legislation, who backs the tougher version of the rules. “If we don’t act, some kids are going to get diabetes or cancer who would never have been susceptible.”

Feuer also makes an economic argument, noting that strict rules would “put California in the forefront of the global demand for less-toxic products.”

But business groups see green chemistry as an example of California-only regulations that will hamper the state’s competitive position, raise consumer prices and cost jobs.  " We remain cautiously optimistic that the final regulations will not present unmanageable costs for the state at a time of multibillion-dollar budget deficits and 12% unemployment, or create substantial new costs for the private sector," said Tim Shestek, Sacramento representative of the American Chemistry Council.

Along with toxics rules, the American Chemistry Council plans to fight any statewide curbs on plastic grocery bags—a priority for environmental groups.

Gov Jerry Brown has yet to name a new chief of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control who will oversee the administration's version of the green chemistry regulations.

The administration, which is preoccupied with finding a solution to the state's $25-billion budget deficit, will soon be forced to confront an array of controversial environmental and energy issues.

RELATED:

Jerry Brown faces tricky environmental and energy issues

Fluoride in drinking water: Will the EPA get tougher?

Farmworkers challenge approval of methyl iodide in strawberry fields

--Margot Roosevelt

Photo: California last year adopted a law sponsored by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) to ban sales of jewelry containing more than 300 parts per million of cadmium, a toxic metal, which is a known cancer-causing agent. Chinese manufacturers have begun substituting cadmium for lead in jewelry, some of which is made for children. A factory in Yiwu, China, is pictured here. Credit: Eugene Hoshiko / Associated Press

2d photo: Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles). Credit: California Assembly

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