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All kinds of consumer goods, from children’s sleepwear and toys to cosmetics, cleaning products and food, contain toxic chemicals that endanger our health and the environment.

Over 85,000 industrial chemicals are on the US market today and 2,000 new ones are introduced each year – without any assurance of their safety. Government agencies must prove that chemicals cause harm before taking action to protect health.

As UC Berkeley researcher Michael Wilson said in testimony August 3 before the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials, “Some chemicals are known to contribute directly to both acute and chronic health problems. Many other are suspected to play a role, but the potential health and environmental effects for the great majority are unknown.”

Increasingly, journalists are drawing attention to potential health risks from toxic chemicals. Just last week [8/9], the New York Times reported that 7- and 8-year-old girls are developing breasts – earlier than girls born 10 to 30 years ago. Early puberty is a risk factor for later breast cancer, among other problems, and scientists suspect it may result from hormone-disrupting chemicals in the environment.

Mounting evidence supports the need to prevent exposure to toxic chemicals, especially as more chemicals enter the market. Ultimately, the US needs a comprehensive, proactive federal chemicals management policy. Such a policy would identify toxic chemicals before they are used commercially and force the use of safer alternatives. In the meantime, however, we can support and expand state and local efforts that promote safer alternatives to high-priority toxic chemicals.

This is the focus of a recent Perspectives article published by UC Berkeley’s Health Research for Action. My coauthors and I believe that shifting the focus to safer alternatives completely changes the dynamics of controlling chemical hazards. Instead of waiting until a hazardous chemical has been released into the workplace and the environment, we should prevent the hazard by replacing or redesigning the materials, processes, and practices involved with it. This is a different way of doing business, which has economic as well as health benefits.

States will need to explore the options and select the best approach for them. In Massachusetts, the Toxics Use Reduction Act (TURA, passed in 1989) requires businesses to report the amount of toxic chemicals they use and prepare plans to reduce their use. Businesses can receive training and technical assistance from the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at UMass Lowell, which is funded by a fee levied on companies that use chemicals.

The assistance has been particularly helpful to small companies that lack the resources to find or develop safer alternatives or work processes. According to a program report, between 1989 and 2008 TURA “helped the state’s largest toxics users reduce use by 40 percent, waste by 71 percent and on-site releases of toxic chemicals by 91 percent.”

California’s 2008 “green chemistry” laws to protect the public from toxic chemicals in consumer products have yet to be implemented. Draft regulations for implementation are now being fine-tuned; this was the subject of Wilson’s August 3 testimony.

A significant obstacle to protecting the public is overcoming the functional silos that exist between environmental and occupational public health agencies. Occupational and environmental health are often treated as distinct so we manage them separately. Workers often get lost in discussions of toxic exposures. We forget that hazardous chemicals and products are made and used in the greatest quantities in workplaces – where they first expose workers.

However, when we consider the full cycle of chemical production, use, and disposal, we can see the direct links between worker occupational health and safety and environmental health and safety. By integrating workplace, community, and environmental concerns we can develop comprehensive solutions that better protect workers and communities from chemical hazards without shifting harm from one group to another.

A number of state and local initiatives have enabled companies to reduce use of chemicals in manufacturing, services, and other sectors. The solutions have improved worker and community health, and have sparked innovation and economic development. For example, successful research to reduce perchlorothelyene in dry cleaning has led to local and state regulations to phase out the toxic chemical, as well as legislation to help businesses switch to a new, nontoxic technology.

To better protect workers and communities and lay the groundwork for a comprehensive federal chemicals management policy, we recommend a number of actions at the state and local levels, including:

  • Enabling public health departments to access manufacturers’ chemical use information in order to prioritize chemicals of concern;
  • Expanding support for the development of safer alternatives and work processes;
  • Expanding training for workers, unions, and businesses;
  • Integrating occupational health concerns when developing environmental chemical legislation and regulations;
  • Developing regulations that drive innovation and require the adoption of safer alternatives when available.

Once alternatives are developed, businesses should be required to use them or prove why their use is not feasible in a particular workplace or work process. Continued use of hazardous chemicals should not be accepted.

Holly Brown-Williams is Director of Policy at Health Research for Action
at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, and a coauthor of
“Preventing Toxic Exposures: Workplace Lessons in Safer Alternatives.”