|Legislature Targets Toxic Risks in Products|
by Jordan Rau, Times Staff Writer, Los Angeles Times
May 30th, 2005
SACRAMENTO - Moving more assertively than lawmakers in other states, the California Legislature is stepping into a growing global debate over how to regulate potentially dangerous chemicals used in perfume, nail polish, plastic baby bottles, rubber ducks and thousands of other products.
Under measures facing votes this week, the state would collect samples from volunteers in California and study data from manufacturers to better identify which chemicals may pose health risks.
As early as next year, California also could become the first state to ban some types of phthalates and bisphenol A in toys and other products used by children under age 3. The widely used chemicals are suspected by some scientists of causing developmental problems in infants.
Phthalates were linked in a scientific study released last week to changes in the size and anatomy of baby boys' genitals.
If successful, the efforts in California could prompt similar measures in other states and require substantial change in the operations of the country's largest manufacturers.
The chemical, cosmetics and plastics industries are alarmed at the legislative push, which they say is driven more by ideological activism than by sound science.
The industries spent $3.5 million on lobbying over the last two years to defeat prior measures. But this year, those bills have been resurrected in politically more palatable forms, and more far-reaching ones have been added. New research may help bolster the bills' chances.
Taken together, the California proposals form an explicit rebuke to the approach of Congress and federal regulators, who generally do not ban chemicals until there is firm scientific evidence of their dangers.
Many of the California bills are modeled on the precautionary approach popular in Europe, where chemicals are often presumed dangerous unless proven otherwise.
"We want to provide the protection to Californians who ought to be as safe and as carcinogen-free as those who live in European nations," said state Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco).
The Senate is expected to vote this week on her proposal to require cosmetics manufacturers to disclose to state health officials all the ingredients in their products that can cause cancer or inhibit reproduction.
The cosmetics industry has been aggressively and colorfully lobbying against the bill: At one hearing, industry officials carted in a cake and a Norman Rockwell painting of a Thanksgiving dinner and then recited all the chemicals - 500 in the cake and thousands in the dinner - to illustrate the folly of broad regulatory assaults. Unimpressed, the Senate panel endorsed the bill.
Another bill, which the Senate approved Thursday, would require that state regulators add to California's list of dangerous substances all chemicals identified as hazardous by the Netherlands, which has been in the vanguard in preemptively banning substances. Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) is author of the bill.
"It's the first time that I'm aware of that any state has identified the Dutch government as a center for expertise on chemical issues," said Michael Walls, an executive with the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group in Arlington, Va. "California is the only state where this breadth of chemical-related proposals are being considered."
Some of California's previous efforts to break new ground in environmental regulation have proved contagious in other states.
In 2003, California outlawed several types of flame retardants used in upholstered furniture, carpeting and building materials, citing evidence that the chemicals were building up in people's fatty tissues and appearing in breast milk.
Since then, five other states have enacted similar laws, and the Indianapolis-based manufacturer - which spent $160,885 lobbying in California - announced it would stop producing the chemicals.
"There's clearly a problem with chemical policy globally that is being reflected in these bills coming forward in the state Legislature," said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, a Rosamond-based environmental advocacy group. Williams and many other activists believe that synthetic chemicals could be responsible for the rise in autism, childhood cancers and other modern maladies.
But given the state's fiscal problems, many of the bills must overcome complaints that they would place costly new burdens on government as well as industry. Republican lawmakers have generally opposed the efforts, and the measures face a tough sell with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, given the opposition from business and the cost to taxpayers.
"One of the major problems is that exposure is being equated with disease or illness, which I don't think is justified in science or data," said Robert Krieger, an extension toxicologist at UC Riverside. "I think we're much better off to find ways to cope with chemicals, rather than to assign adverse consequences to trace amounts."
Perhaps the most ambitious of the legislative efforts comes from the Senate Health Committee chairwoman, Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento), who is pressing to create a registry that would measure chemicals' presence in human bodies rather than in the general environment.
With thousands of synthetic chemicals used in common products and homes, proponents say, this technique, called bio-monitoring, is a far better way to identify which substances raise the most concern and warrant the most intensive exploration.
"If a chemical turns out to be getting into people and it is increasing over time, we have to put that chemical on our agenda," said James Pirkle, a scientist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which conducts bio-monitoring surveys.
Under Ortiz's proposal, state health officials would set up a program in which samples from breast milk, blood, urine or tissue would be taken regularly from California volunteers. The results could be shared with the participants - who might be advised to seek medical counseling - and used by health officials to determine which chemicals most require research and regulation. The program would cost an estimated $4 million a year.
The California Chamber of Commerce, whose views Schwarzenegger often agrees with, last week added the bill to its "job killer" list because it could lead to the abolition of certain chemicals.
"The only way to evaluate the health dangers for an individual is to compare them to a health standard, but health standards only exist for a few substances, like lead," said John Heinze, executive director of the Environmental Health Research Foundation, a Virginia-based nonprofit that receives industry funding. "Telling someone what their level is doesn't really give them any useful information."
Other proposals would require industry to reveal far more information about the chemicals they use.
The Assembly's health committee chairwoman, Wilma Chan (D-Alameda), has proposed requiring companies to share with state officials the methods they use to test their chemicals. The mandate would apply to all chemicals produced in large amounts or that have been identified as toxic. The industry estimates this could cost manufacturers $8 billion.
Chan is also seeking to ban several chemicals because of evidence they are accumulating in humans. Studies have shown that these chemicals can warp the development of newborn animals, and there is increasing evidence that they might do the same in human fetuses and infants.
Chan's bill targets bisphenol A, which is used to make hard, transparent plastics, including baby bottles, and epoxy resins that coat eating utensils and the insides of metal cans. The chemical can leach out of such containers when scrubbed with strong detergents, when heated and when used to hold acidic drinks or food.
Chan's bill also would ban children's products made with some types of phthalates, which the plastic industry relies on to manufacture many soft baby products, including rattles and teething rings. They also help perfumes retain their scents and make nail polish supple to prevent chipping.
Phthalates also provide the flexibility in vinyl products, including upholstery, packaging and wall and floor covering. Europe has outlawed two major types of the compounds in cosmetics and baby toys.
"The science isn't clear, but it's indicative," said Joel Tickner, an assistant professor in the department of community health and sustainability at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. "And the question is, do you take the risk and expose children to something that might be toxic, or do you seek out safer alternatives that would eliminate that risk in the first place?"
The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission declined to prohibit the chemicals in 2003, saying they pose "no demonstrated health risk" for children.
In a letter, an official from the consumer products safety commission warned California lawmakers that Chan's proposed ban would "cause major problems for industry" and could lead companies to turn to substitutes that might be "really toxic."
The study released last week was the first to show the presence of the hormone-mimicking compounds in a mother appearing to disrupt a child's reproductive organs.
Experts, including the study's authors, said more research must be done to show whether such changes would affect fertility and can be definitively tied to phthalates.
Worried that the topic is too new to many legislators, Chan plans to hold hearings in the fall and press her bill next year. "I came to the conclusion," she said, "that it's better to be safe than sorry when it comes to infants."
The California Legislature is considering five bills that concern the safety of chemicals frequently used in products and manufacturing:
SB 600: Bio-monitoring
AB 319: Children's products
SB 484: Cosmetics
SB 490: Netherlands standards
AB 289: Testing methods