Viewpoints: A preventive approach to keeping harmful chemicals out of everyday products

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013 - 12:00 am

Persistence and energy prevail. During the past five years, those who believe in making consumer products free from toxic ingredients traveled a long and sometimes tortuous path that has led to the nation’s first comprehensive process for making the goods we buy safer.

Starting today, California’s Safer Consumer Products regulation will set in motion a process that reduces the use of hazardous substances in the design of products and industrial processes. Its aim is to create safer, more sustainable products that do not threaten our health or environment. The use of fewer hazardous substances means cleaner air and water, safer workplaces and healthier Californians.

Last week, my department published a list of about 150 chemicals that we will use in selecting the first chemical/product combinations, or “priority products” that will be subject to our new regulations. Manufacturers will then ask: Is there a safer alternative to replace these chemicals in these products?

These seemingly small but significant steps usher in a new, preventive approach to keeping potentially harmful chemicals out of everyday products and give California’s innovative industries added incentive to lead the way in developing products that consumers around the world want to buy.

It is significant that we take this step at the 51st anniversary of publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal book “Silent Spring,” which documented the degradation of our ecosystem by the chemical DDT and launched the modern environmental movement.

Ten years after publication of the book, the federal government responded by creating a system to evaluate and regulate chemicals in commerce. Unfortunately, this law, now 40 years old, has not kept up with our understanding of the harmful impacts of chemicals on human health and the environment.

The strategy taken by many states was to ban specific chemicals in specific products. But this approach lacked a coherent process for analyzing alternative ingredients and ensuring that substitute chemicals were safer than the original. It was a reactive policy that looked at products on a case-by-case basis and only after the product had been on the market for many years. Often the ban came too late, after our bodies as well as the environment had already been exposed.

Now California and other states are putting in place laws that aim to move product designers away from the use of toxic chemicals and toward the use of safer alternatives.

Our Safer Consumer Products regulation is a dramatic shift toward a more reasonable, protective and economically viable approach. Historically, manufacturers who sold products in the Golden State were expected to ask only: “Is it legal to use this ingredient?” The question now will be, “Is this ingredient necessary, and is there a safer alternative?”

Up to five priority products will be proposed by April, and once the process for finalizing their identification is complete, manufacturers that wish to sell these products in California will have to conduct an “alternative analysis” to determine if a safer ingredient is suitable. If no other ingredient is feasible, we can apply one of several regulatory responses to reduce potential harmful effects or phase out the use of that chemical.

Although we start small, we send a big message. Innovative and forward-thinking companies will realize the opportunities for growth that stem from these cutting-edge regulations. Smart businesses already are planning ahead, looking for alternative chemicals they can promote as safer for people and the environment.

It’s not a new concept to many innovative companies. Hewlett-Packard, Johnson & Johnson, Staples, Method cleaning products and many others recognize that consumer demand for safer products is growing, and they are reaching and transforming to meet it.

Last month, the retail giant Wal-Mart announced it will require suppliers to phase out up to 10 potentially harmful chemicals from cleaning products, cosmetics and personal care products sold in its stores. That came on the heels of another consumer product giant, Procter & Gamble Co., announcing that it will eliminate phthalates and triclosan from its beauty products by 2014.

DTSC’s Safer Consumer Products regulations will provide the rest of the industry a process for ensuring product safety.

My hat is off to those from industry, environmental, public health and consumer groups who gave much time and thought to the creation of California’s Safer Consumer Products regulations. Many years of discussion led us to this point, and many participated in those discussions. That work has paid off for consumers and businesses that see a vast and bright future for safer products.

Debbie Raphael is director of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Read more articles by Debbie Raphael

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