With 85,000 chemicals in commercial use, it is no surprise that Californians are over-exposed to a vast array of hazardous ones. We want safer products, but we don’t even know which chemicals are toxic and which products, many of which we use every day, contain them.
Toxic chemicals in our bathrooms, kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms
Every day, many Californians brush triclosan onto their teeth from their toothpaste, eat Bisphenol-A in their canned soup at lunch, absorb PBDE flame retardants from the sofa upholstery while watching TV in the evening, and put the baby to bed in a crib that could be releasing formaldehyde fumes.
That just scratches the surface of the toxic chemicals and products we know about. Food and pharmaceuticals are tested for safety, but the chemicals in all other consumer products are not. If you think a product must be safe or else it wouldn’t be allowed on the market, think again. It’s just not true.
While we work toward safer, non-toxic products, we need to make sure that the products we’re using now are clearly labeled so that consumers can make informed decisions — and so that companies that take the trouble to make non-toxic products can get the competitive advantage they deserve. That’s why we’re working with San Francisco to implement its Safer Nail Salon program, so customers will be able to tell by an attractive window decal that the nail polish inside the shop is free of the most toxic chemicals, including formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalate.
Green chemistry: a powerful solution
A growing field called Green Chemistry offers an exciting solution to the problem of toxic chemicals in our lives. Imagine products made of non-toxic substances that biodegrade at the end of their useful lives. This is the vision of green chemistry, also known as sustainable chemistry. Products and processes can be “benign by design.”
The State of California is developing a program that will require green replacements for conventional chemical products. For example, if you’re selling a cleaning product with glycol ether, phthalate or any other hazardous chemical, you will have to analyze whether there is something less toxic that can perform the same task and, if there is, substitute the safer chemical for the toxic one. The question is whether this program will fulfill its promise as the progressive and effective plan envisioned by the Legislature and signed by former Governor Schwarzenegger — or whether it will be ridden with loopholes and plagued by lawsuits from the chemical industry.
Important progress toward a toxic-free future
In California, over the last 10 years, we have managed to pass several laws that protect us from specific chemicals. Environment California has sponsored and/or supported these efforts by gathering comments from our members and delivering them to legislators, testifying at hearings, holding rallies and events in Sacramento and key legislative districts. Among the laws that have been enacted:
- A ban on the endocrine-disrupting Bisphenol-A (BPA) in plastic baby bottles and sippy cups (2011)
- A ban on phthalates in flexible plastic toys (such as rubber duckies) intended for children under the age of 3 (2008)
- A ban on two forms of flame retardant chemicals known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs. (2003) Today, these two chemicals, octa- and penta-, are virtually out of production.
- A ban on toxic heavy metals lead (2006) and cadmium (2010) in children’s jewelry.
The chemical industry fights back
The comprehensive chemical policy program known as the Green Chemistry Initiative is in its infancy. The chemical industry will do whatever it takes to slow down any regulation that will interfere with the status quo and will force them to consider human health in addition to the bottom line.
The federal government has virtually abdicated its role as a watchdog on chemical safety; of the major environmental laws (Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act) of the mid-20th century, the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) is generally acknowledged as the least effective.
California prides itself on being an environmental leader. It was the first state to regulate tailpipe emissions for cars, and has the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction program in the nation. We will do what it takes to make California’s ground-breaking chemical policy reform a template for other states and, ultimately, for the federal government.
With your activism and our advocacy, we can protect ourselves from toxic chemicals
Let legislators and government officials know that you don’t want to be exposed to toxic chemicals, and that it’s the role of government to help you know that consumer products are safe. To the extent that it is possible, carefully choose the products you and your family use, but we firmly believe we can’t shop our way out of this chemical morass. We are optimistic that Green Chemistry will lead us to a cleaner future and that California will be the leader in this movement.
- Of the 10,000 chemicals used in personal care products alone, fewer than 15% were tested for safety before coming onto the market.
- We tested 21 products intended for use in a baby’s nursery and found that 6 emitted high levels of formaldehyde vapor.
- In the last decade, we’ve won important laws to protect children from dangerous levels of exposure to lead, cadmium, phthalates, and bisphenol-A.