Green chemistry regs going off track

Chemicals, both naturally occurring and man-made, are essential to our daily life. But if applied incorrectly, they have the potential to cause harm. Identifying these potentially harmful chemicals and finding safer alternatives will reduce risks to public health and safety. That’s why California’s groundbreaking process to regulate chemicals is important to us all.

As a member of the state Assembly in 2008, I was proud to join my colleagues in authoring the original Green Chemistry Initiative that established the regulatory process that phases out harmful chemicals in consumer products once safer alternatives have been identified. We envisioned a rigorous scientific process that would identify and prioritize the chemicals that are most hazardous to the general public. We wanted an objective process that would focus on consumer safety, not on which chemical was the focus of the latest story or special interest attack. We wanted safety driven by science, not by someone’s personal feelings or interest.

However, I am growing increasingly concerned that the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, the agency responsible to adopt these regulations, is taking the “ready, shoot, aim” approach to identifying and prioritizing chemicals.

Notwithstanding numerous requests to the department for the selection criteria and methodology used to identify chemicals of concern, DTSC has been unable to provide a science-based rationale for why the chemicals or seven product categories are on its priority list. The agency has acknowledged it is not employing a numerical weighting or ranking system, but instead is taking a subjective approach, using “professional judgment and policy objectives” to select which chemicals should be phased out of the consumer market.

The question is not whether these chemicals should be considered but why they have been selected and how the determination was made. Without a clear, science-driven rationale, the department is open to criticism that the selection appears to be either arbitrary or political. If California’s landmark approach to chemical safety is to be successful and adopted by other states, a transparent and scientifically rigorous process is necessary to give consumers confidence that the products they purchase are safe for their families and the environment.

As DTSC moves forward with its three-year work plan, the department must be able to do the following: Defend and make transparent its selection methodology; demonstrate that the products identified meet the department’s own threshold of potential widespread harm; and ensure the department’s conclusions for such selections are supported by credible, relevant scientific sources.

As a scientist myself, I appreciate the complexity of the department’s responsibility. I commend it for taking the first steps in this new process of product selection. However, I urge the DTSC to provide the scientific rationale behind these decisions, and to ensure that a sound methodology is in place so that consumers can rest easy knowing that evidence-driven science is behind decisions, and not politics influenced by industry or advocates.

Sam Blakeslee, a former Assemblyman and state senator, is founder of the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.