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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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Greening Toxics Policy in California

By Ana Mascareñas

In the absence of federal policies that protect environmental health, Californians have developed a set of tools for addressing the problems of toxic chemicals. While some progress has been made, these tools fall painfully short of a comprehensive chemical policy approach. Notable state victories in environmental policy have helped elevate the conversation of toxics in our homes, workplaces, and communities to a national and international platform. We’ve seen measurable progress in right-to-know initiatives, bans on specific toxic substances, and efforts to fix outdated laws that create a dangerous dependency on toxic chemicals. Yet within any given year in California, environmental policies depend largely on the annual makeup of the legislature and the ability of education and advocacy groups like PSR-LA to maintain a presence in important policy discussions.

For example, California is fast becoming the new frontier for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a process that will introduce hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemicals—many of which are toxic—into the environment. Oil and gas companies are not only bringing new oil and gas extraction technologies, but also their lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations firms to convince California’s regulators and legislators to keep the contents of their “fracking chemical cocktail” protected as a “trade secret” and hidden from the public. Even more alarming is a proposed gag rule that prevents doctors from sounding the alarm about the harm that fracking chemicals cause. This situation highlights the susceptibility to industry lobbying pressures and the constant need for health professionals to be strong advocates for environmental health and justice.

In 2007, the California legislature was frustrated with chemical by chemical ban bills and the lack of action in DC to reform our outdated national chemicals policy law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), and attempted a comprehensive state chemical policy approach. This resulted in the adoption of the Green Chemistry Initiative, which included adoption of a bill calling for safer alternatives to chemical-product combinations, now known as the Safer Consumer Products Program. As this program becomes finalized, we recognize that it advances assessments for safer alternatives, but also fails to shift the burden of proof to chemical manufacturers.

When PSR-LA sponsored legislation to remove the endocrine disrupting chemical, bisphenol-A (BPA), from baby bottles and sippy cups, our members not only sent letters, made calls to legislators, but also visited legislators offices and walked the halls of Sacramento. These actions were critical in ensuring the 2011 passage of the bill, and set the groundwork for the recent announcement from our state’s environmental health scientific review board that BPA is recognized as a reproductive toxin by the state of California this year. This list, commonly referred to as “Proposition 65,” is an authoritative chemicals list that mandates labeling of products and places containing chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, enacted as a state ballot initiative in1986. Although the American Chemistry Council immediately filed a lawsuit to have BPA removed from the list, continued state scrutiny and public attention can provide much needed support regulating BPA at the federal level.

California is just one voice in the nation’s call for safer chemicals and communities, but often becomes a major battleground for chemical reform conversations because of the size of the state’s market and the tendency to be viewed as an “environmental champion” even when the state makes bad policy decisions. The chemical industry deploys lobbying and campaign resources comparable to their national efforts in order to stop many public protection policies in the Golden State. For example, a 2012 investigative report documented more than $23 million in lobbying and campaign donations showered on California legislators to prevent action on reducing flame retardant chemicals.

Flame retardants provide a glaring example of the failure of TSCA. For decades, toxic and untested flame retardant chemicals have been added to our furniture and baby products. Why? An obscure 1970s California regulation called Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117) was the de facto national mandate to add these chemicals, which are linked to lower IQs in children, reduced fertility, cancer, and other adverse health effects. In California, children carry flame retardant chemicals in their bodies at concentrations amongst the highest in the world. When certain flame retardants came under scientific and public scrutiny, chemical manufacturers simply introduced new, often similarly hazardous chemicals because TSCA fails to require adequate safety testing before chemicals are pushed onto the market. PSR-LA is a key leader in the diverse coalition of health advocates, firefighters, scientists, businesses and manufacturers, environmentalists, and fire safety experts who have come together in support of updating this regulation, to protect our health and environment. Regulators proposed a fix to this problem, called TB 117-2013, which would provide improved fire safety without relying on flame retardant chemicals and is set to be adopted later this year.

Moving forward, we recognize that meaningful policy must be formed with questions such as: How do we protect those most impacted?  How do we move beyond consumer based approaches to more systemic solutions that do not create dual markets where safer alternatives are only available to those with higher income, leaving toxic legacy products to those with lower income, often communities of color? We know this starts with making sure those who are most affected are at the table. In the case of chemical policy reform, we often invoke mothers, children and infants, but far too often we do not include workers, fence line communities and the poor who cannot buy their way out of a polluted neighborhood or afford the newest “toxic-free” products.

Continuing to engage physicians and health professionals in this conversation is critical. To achieve real protections, we must take a public health and social justice approach to chemical policy reform.

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