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Green Chemistry at Work 2:California Businesses Making Products Safe from the Start
by Travis Madsen and Jordan Schneider, Frontier Group, and Dan Jacobson, Environment California Research & Education Center
Leading California businesses are showing that consumer products don’t have to contain toxic chemicals, threaten public health, or produce large amounts of waste. Safer alternatives exist, and they work. Companies that design their products to be safe from the start are seizing new business opportunities, gaining access to new markets, improving efficiency, and saving money—all of which gives them an edge over their competitors. These businesses are also building momentum for a new green chemistry industry in California.
This report highlights seven Golden State businesses that are identifying unnecessary hazards in their facilities, in their manufacturing processes and in the products they sell—and acting to eliminate them. They join many other businesses (including 12 profiled in Environment California Research & Policy Center’s 2010 report, Green Chemistry at Work) that are making Californians healthier and succeeding in the marketplace by following the principles of green chemistry.
However, the use of safer alternatives to toxic chemicals in commerce remains the exception, rather than the rule. California can protect public health, safeguard our environment, help companies remain competitive in the global marketplace, and set an example for the rest of the nation by finalizing the Safer Consumer Products Regulations, a key part of the state’s Green Chemistry Initiative.
When California businesses and institutions think seriously about how they design, manufacture or use products, they find opportunities to use safer alternatives—reducing hazards to workers and public health, preventing pollution, saving money, and creating markets for new and innovative products. For example:
- Johnson & Johnson, a worldwide family of companies including Los Angeles-based skin care company Neutrogena, pledged in 2012 to remove a host of problematic chemicals from its consumer products by the end of 2015. For example, the company plans to remove phthalates—toxic chemicals linked to reproductive and developmental damage—from hair spray, and to remove ingredients that may expose consumers to carcinogens such as formaldehyde or 1,4-dioxane. The company plans to develop alternatives and test them to ensure they are safer, positioning itself for future market advantage.
- Sherwin-Williams developed a paint using soybeans, winning a Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011. The paint produces less air pollution during and after application, helping California to prevent unhealthy smog, and enabling businesses across the state to meet air quality management district regulations.
- IBM, which has a major research center in San Jose, eliminated two toxic perfluorinated chemicals from its semiconductor manufacturing process in 2010. The chemicals do not break down in the environment and accumulate in the food chain, where they may contribute to developmental health problems, including premature birth.
- Green chemistry isn’t just creating opportunities for manufacturers, but it has also sparked new types of businesses that can help eliminate hazardous chemicals in California’s broader economy. Chemical Safety Software, based in Emeryville, developed technology to help researchers, chemists, product manufacturers and facilities managers identify substances of concern in every stage of the supply chain, from production to disposal, and replace them with safer alternatives.
- Many Trader Joe’s-brand canned food items come in cans that are free from bisphenol A, a chemical linked to a wide variety of harms, including obesity, low sperm count, miscarriage, diabetes and cancer.
There are major challenges for companies seeking to create safer products. California needs strong Green Chemistry Initiative policies to promote widespread adoption of safer alternatives to toxic chemicals. Existing state and federal chemical policies have key weaknesses—termed the “data gap,” the “safety gap” and the “technology gap” by experts at the University of California, Berkeley.
- The data gap: Existing chemical policies allow manufacturers to sell a chemical or product without studying or sharing information about its potential health or environmental hazards. As a result, consumers and businesses have difficulty knowing what ingredients are in a product, whether those ingredients are safe—or even knowing whether an alternative to a hazardous chemical is actually safer.
- The safety gap: Additionally, under existing policy, state regulators are unable to take effective action to address known hazards. As a result, California businesses may be allowed to sell products made with toxic ingredients banned in other countries.
- The technology gap: Finally, existing policy fails to promote adequate investment in green chemistry research, development, education and technical assistance.
California’s Green Chemistry Initiative is a great first step toward addressing some of these weaknesses. The initiative created the Safer Consumer Products Regulations, which will require manufacturers to seek out safer ingredients for their products. These regulations will help level the playing field for companies that are already working to do the right thing.
- The Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) should finalize the Safer Consumer Products Regulations immediately and move quickly to expand its analysis and regulation beyond the five initial product-chemical combinations slated for analysis in the first years of the program to comprehensively address the thousands of additional chemical hazards used in California.
Policymakers must do more to protect consumers from chemical hazards in California’s marketplace, both now and in the long term. In addition to finalizing and strengthening the Green Chemistry Initiative, policymakers should:
- Support green chemistry research, development and technical support to help develop a supply of safer, green chemistry alternatives.
- Require chemical manufacturers to demonstrate that a chemical is safe before allowing it on the market. This will help break the cycle of replacing one toxic substance with another and ensure that safer alternatives are actually safer.
- Regulators should require companies to provide comprehensive data on the intrinsic hazards of chemicals that they produce or import into California.
- Chemical testing should include specific consideration of potential impacts on infants, children and pregnant women; potential impacts of low-dose exposures; and potential interactions with other toxic chemicals.
- The reliability and adequacy of the information should be validated by government scientists and/or an independent third party free of conflicts of interest.
- Allowances for ingredient secrecy based on claims of “confidential business information” should be limited.
- Where there is uncertainty in the evidence, regulators should err on the side of protecting health and the environment by not allowing the product on the market.
- Ensure public access to information on chemicals and their uses.
- The public has a right to know about chemicals currently on the market, including their specific uses, potential hazards to health and the environment, and potential routes of exposure. When finalized, the California’s Toxics Information Clearinghouse, created by legislation in 2008, should be an easily understandable database of all chemicals currently in use. This tool should enable businesses and consumers to compare the safety of chemicals, identify missing data, and create demand for safer alternatives.
- Until health and safety data are available for a particular chemical, there should be mandatory labeling for consumer products indicating the presence of a chemical that has not been tested for its impact on human health.
If effectively implemented, California’s Green Chemistry Initiative can help en¬sure that consumers have access to safer products. By changing chemicals policy to help create demand for safer chemicals, the Green Chemistry Initiative can help develop a new green chemistry indus¬try in the state, driving investment and employment in developing safer ways of doing business and helping California companies to remain competitive across the globe.