Putting Politics Before Science

by Jack Stewart
Sept. 19, 2010
As the dust settles on the just-finished 2010 legislative session, much attention has been paid to the failure to pass bills restricting the use of plastic grocery bags or banning a particular chemical from certain plastics.

What was overlooked in these post-mortems – whether conducted by the bills’ supporters or opponents – is how small they seem when compared to a far bigger chemical management effort that remains under way in California.

The Green Chemistry Initiative is very much alive and moving rapidly from noble concept to concrete reality. This California-only effort is unprecedented in scope and complexity. It deserves close attention, and not just in Sacramento – its potential to benefit or harm L.A.’s economy and consumers is immense.

The Green Chemistry Initiative was launched in 2008 as a new way of thinking about the safety of consumer products. It empowered the Department of Toxic Substances Control to seek safer products by a systematic, science-based process that would balance environmental demands with the needs of consumers and the state’s economy.

Scientists, not politicians, would examine chemical ingredients in products, assess them for potential impact on human health and the environment, and give state regulators authority to require “safer chemical ingredients” if necessary. Industry and environmental groups alike supported this common-sense vision.

For two years, the DTSC worked to gather, weigh and evaluate tens of thousands of pages of input in order to develop the necessary regulations. The Green Chemistry Alliance, a group of associations and organizations representing employers and manufacturers, supported this process and participated actively.

Unfortunately, the process became a forum for activists to demand restrictions on thousands of chemicals and compounds regardless of the level of risk. For some environmental activists, any regulations that acknowledge the need to protect jobs or the interests of consumers represent failure. To them, environmental issues are all-or-nothing standoffs – no regulations are strict enough; no chemical is sufficiently benign; no job is worth protecting.

If California truly wants to protect consumers and workers, it will reject these demands and focus on protecting consumers through common-sense, scientifically based standards.

Viewing the Green Chemistry Initiative in all-or-nothing terms dooms it to failure. By insisting the DTSC broaden its focus to virtually all chemicals in use today rather than focusing on those known to present hazards, environmental activists would saddle it with an impossible task. No agency – certainly not one in a state with a $20 billion budget deficit and 12.3 percent unemployment – could hope to tackle the tens of thousands of studies, evaluations and regulatory actions these interests seek to dump on the DTSC.

Poor use of resources

Devoting countless hours and millions of dollars to bureaucratic proceedings over substances that occur naturally or pose no risk of actual exposure is a poor use of resources that could be focused on more legitimate concerns.

It may be true that the glass that holds your morning orange juice is made from sand, and that sand typically contains chemicals you wouldn’t want inside your body in large quantities. But, since you don’t plan to eat the glass, might not the state and the manufacturer focus their safety efforts elsewhere? No, say the activists pushing on the DTSC. The drinking glass has to go through the same intensive process as a product that actually exposes a consumer to a known carcinogen. If the manufacturer can’t handle the costs or the DTSC gets buried under an avalanche of paperwork, so be it.

And if L.A. employers shut their doors and still more Californians lose their jobs, well, it’s just collateral damage. Never mind the 37 percent erosion of the manufacturing sector the county already suffered over the last nine years.

A science-based rational system of green chemistry can protect consumers, stimulate innovation, inspire investment and create green jobs in the L.A. area and throughout the state. But a politically driven process that yields to the all-or-nothing demands of activists will create growth in only one sector – lawsuits.

If the activists get their way, California will be left with a massive stack of new regulations, a long list of damaged employers, lost jobs and no discernible improvement to public or consumer safety. It will have been a costly and avoidable failure.

California was right to begin a green chemistry process that balanced competing needs, set achievable goals and relied on science rather than politics. Now that the initiative is close to becoming reality, it’s more important than ever to remain committed to those principles.

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