California Green Chemistry Initiative – “Rethinking the Way We Create Everything”

California's Green Chemistry Initiative challenges manufacturers to rethink the way everything is made. Photo: © Sebastian Kaulitzki -

California's Green Chemistry Initiative challenges manufacturers to rethink the way everything is made. Photo: © Sebastian Kaulitzki -

With a seemingly impossible job facing us as we strive to clean up the pollution industrialized nations have inflicted on the globe, it would be easy to fall into despair. It would be easy to think that nothing can get better, that we will continue to foul our nest until we kill ourselves and all our progeny. But there’s a glimmer of hope.

Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) spoke recently with Maziar Movassaghi, acting director of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control, about California’s Green Chemistry Initiative. We asked Movassaghi to tell us about the cutting-edge work the Green Chemistry group in his department is doing and what the rest of us can learn from them. — Publisher

MOVASSAGHI: We’re very excited about our Green Chemistry Initiative. This is really a positive environmental agenda where we’re tackling a problem that seems very immense. We’ve had more than 30 years of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) regulations. Having regulated what ends up in the waste stream, we realized that we, the environmental regulators, can never keep up with the ever-increasing number of chemicals and products as they come into the marketplace.

On top of that, our science has advanced to the point where we know that some of these products in use have detrimental impacts. We used to only think about hazardous waste as being something that’s corrosive. But now we are realizing you’ve got to look at the epigenetic impact: You’ve got to look at impacts on our reproductive cycles, on our genes, because we’re living, breathing creatures, and we’re part of the environment.

We’re excited that the governor has given us authority and that he created this Green Chemistry Initiative. Now we don’t have to wait for products to end up in the waste stream. We can go all the way up the food chain into the labs of chemists and companies and engage them to create ever-benign products — benign by design.

BPGL: When you talk about “benign by design,” do you mean that you’re striving for non-toxic items in the waste stream?

MOVASSAGHI: It’s a really fundamental shift for environmental regulation. We don’t wait for stuff to reach the waste stream. And we don’t think of waste as garbage, but as nutrients. If you think of waste as nutrients, you require that at the end of a product’s use, you should be able to grind it up, throw it in the ground, and have it be a nutrient for an organic product. Or, if it doesn’t fit that model, it should be able to be reused in an industrial process.

Now, whether it goes to create energy for material productions or whether it goes back into the reuse of the product, those are two ways of approaching it. But it’s really a different way of looking at our waste, as “waste is food.”

BPGL: How do you see this challenge affecting industries? What’s in it for them?

"We want people to make products — lots of products," says Muvassaghi. Photo: © Natalia Bratslavsky

Producing products with green chemistry is good for the environment and the economy. Photo: © Natalia Bratslavsky

MOVASSAGHI: This is a “positive environmental agenda” for industry, too, and this is another important fundamental perspective. When you look at any Fortune 500 company that puts out a sustainability report, what they’re really focusing on is reductions — reducing greenhouse gases, reducing paper usage, reducing water usage. That’s a good first approach, but what we really want to encourage is economic development and environmental benefits going hand in hand together.

So we want to encourage companies, big and small, to produce products — produce a lot of products — and have consumers use those products, but have those products be benign products by design. Regulations are a part of it, but regulations aren’t going to get us to an innovative market force. We have to engage companies, we have to create that space for them to be able to create these products, look at their existing products, and what they can take out of them, put back into them, meet consumer demands, but still make them benign.

BPGL: That sounds like a huge task.

MOVASSAGHI: We’re biting off a lot. It is a big task. We’re happy that we have a game plan to move forward. Let me put it in scope of how big the scale of our issues are. We know of chemical hazard traits of the variety of kinds that I mentioned, epigenetic types in addition to the traditional stuff — yet some of the best estimates are that there are  upward of 150,000 chemicals that are in use in commerce. So we need to expand our knowledge about what’s out there and how it’s being used. We have a big task, but it’s an exciting arena to be in.

BPGL: When you speak about chemicals that companies are using in consumer products, can you name a few that we should watch out for?

MOVASSAGHI: That’s what we’re trying to develop in our Green Chemistry Initiative. We are asking, “What is it that we need to take a look at?” And we’re not there yet.

For instance, in the emerging science of nanotechnology, the Woodrow Wilson Center has inventoried over 1,000 consumer products containing nanomaterials currently on the market. These are just the products where the manufacturers have identified these new  chemicals. The products range from new water treatment technologies to paints, aircraft components, electronics, cosmetics, sporting goods, and others.

It’s amazing. All these technologies are in use, and we need to ask, “If they’re used to clean up the water and create cosmetics, have we looked at some unintended byproduct usages?” Because, in California, we have the famous example of us trying to clean the air by adding MTBE as a fuel additive to our gas. Then we realized, we’re really negatively impacting our water supply, because MTBE is so water soluble, and it gets into the water supply. So, our Green Chemistry Initiative really wants to look at regrettable substitutions as well. Right now, we’re still in the development phase, so I don’t have any specifics to give you.

BPGL: What is the reason that companies have used toxic chemicals for so long? Is it profit that drove them to make unhealthy products?

MOVASSAGHI: I’d say it’s two issues: one might be profit, always looking for a cheaper alternative. But when we’ve talked to chemists and toxicologists, even in big companies like S. C. Johnson, some of them were honest, and said, “Look, nobody asked us to look at these unintended byproducts.”
We had an interview with the gentleman who dubs himself as potentially the father of the plastic bottle. He’s a lot older now, and he said, “When I was a young chemist in the lab, all they told me was, ‘make a bottle that’s lightweight and plastic and easy to use.’ ” Nobody asked him to make a biodegradable plastic. If somebody would have asked him, he would have started on the research.

Another part of it is that we’ve only regulated what ends up in the trash and the waste. We’re now going to go into the chemists’ labs and engage them in that dialog. This is not science fiction. We’re actually in a partnership with Stanford University, where we’re working on designing a fully cradle-to-cradle, biodegradable plastic bottle from methane gas that’s generated out of landfills. When these bottles are later collected and taken back to the landfills, they will generate more methane that will go back into the production cycle. So the plastic bottle doesn’t end up on a beach, doesn’t end up in your local creek or your park; it becomes a cradle-to-cradle plastic bottle.

This kind of technology is doable; we just have to ask our chemists and our engineers in these companies to do it. One should never underestimate the ingenuity and creativity of the American workforce. And that’s what we’re tapping into.

BPGL: You mentioned, “Waste equals food.” William McDonough talks about reusable cars that consumers would return to the automobile manufacturers in five years. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about? Is what you’re doing based a lot on McDonough’s work?

Will manufacturers make cars that are "benign by design?" Photo: © Vasily Smirnov -

Will manufacturers make cars that are "benign by design?" Photo: © Vasily Smirnov -

MOVASSAGHI: McDonough is one of the folks who has really influenced this arena, and we’ve talked with him and tried to learn from him. But we’ve talked to a number of folks. John Warner, who is the father of green chemistry and wrote the book Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, has been very influential in this arena as well. He also talks about waste as being food.

The car example is one that people can probably relate to, because a lot of folks have seen those Toyota commercials where a bunch of people show up, and in a beautiful, pristine area, put a car together. Then, eventually, the car degrades back into nature. That’s the world we want to get to.

But, right now, it seems like we are focused on single end points. For instance, we might focus on greenhouse gases that might push us to say, “Okay, car manufacturers, go make lighter cars, so they use less fuel.” But what seems to be proposed for those lighter cars might have other consequences, like if they have a lot of plastics, they might off-gas in a car. That’s just one example.

BPGL: So, basically, green chemistry is about rethinking the way we create everything. You look at the long-term effects of every single piece that goes into a product, and every process that we use to create it. Then you can take every product at the end of its life and reuse it to make something new. You’re not talking about recycling, as in “crumple a plastic bottle and throw it in the recycling bin.” What you’re saying is, when the product’s useful life is finished, it becomes the new raw materials for the next product. Is that correct?

MOVASSAGHI: Exactly. Recycling was a big step forward, but recycling rarely extends the life of a product. At the end of the day, you’re still throwing it away. For example, a lot of us here in the office are very diligent about double-sided printing and buying recycled paper. But if you look at the energy usage that goes into recycling paper, some types of recycling reintroduce chemicals to get the paper to be white again, or fluffy again, or bond again, and they’re actually making that recycled paper product toward the end of its life even more toxic than virgin paper.

BPGL: That’s frightening.

MOVASSAGHI: That’s why green chemistry is a fundamental shift in thinking. This is a buzzword, but it’s really a paradigm shift. If you think of every single product out there, it’s daunting. In some ways, it’s hampered the creativity and imagination of regulators, because, even in places like the European Union or our Canadian counterparts, they’ve developed a lot of ways to look at lists, but what do you do with the lists?

In California, we want to say the lists are just not enough. We want to engage and think about and develop a way to have these alternatives put out there that are safer — not the safest, because TSCA has taught us, it takes 30 years to figure out what is the safest alternative. We don’t have the luxury of waiting 30 years. We banned PCBs 30 years ago, and if you go to some parts to California, PCB is still very persistent.

So we like to jump-start the circle a little bit. As a way of not making this daunting, our first approach is going to be to look at products that get used by — and get touched, licked, tasted by — sensitive sub-populations: children, seniors, pregnant women, and so on.

The Green Chemistry Initiative focuses on using safe chemicals in everything we make. Photo: © Juozas Rupsys -

The Green Chemistry Initiative focuses on using safe chemicals in everything we make. Photo: © Juozas Rupsys -

BPGL: Do you think it makes sense in every product to be made with cradle-to-cradle in mind? For instance, when you buy a file cabinet, you want that file cabinet to last a good long time. So, would we think cradle-to-cradle with everything, or just for certain things that are designed to have a shorter lifespan?

MOVASSAGHI: I’m of the big belief that cradle-to-cradle can encompass all products eventually down the road. Because it’s not everything in a file cabinet that’s toxic or limited reuse. It could be simply that a veneer is added to make it look good. It could be that a particular paint is added to make it rust proof. And sometimes changing one or two simple chemicals gives you the same functionality, gives you the same performance. And when the life is over for the file cabinet, you could easily put it back into reuse.

BPGL: What do you suppose are going to be your greatest challenges? Are the people who make the chemicals and the products that use dangerous chemicals fighting against green chemistry? After all, you’re going to be taking some money away from them.

MOVASSAGHI: It’s very surprising. When I first started in this process, I really expected that’s where we were going to have our biggest challenge. But to my surprise, I’ve had companies like S. C. Johnson, Caterpillar, and others come in here. And when they talk to us, it’s very obvious that they recognize the economic potential of having green products.

I’m not talking about greenwashing, like taking their existing product and slapping a green label on it. They recognize that consumers are getting more sophisticated and are asking for and are willing to pay for products that are green. So they recognize the market potential. Plus, if you are an S. C. Johnson, and you’re potentially dealing with a knockoff that is cheaper, this is a way that you could differentiate yourself in the market and really make a profit and still be green.

BPGL: You could capitalize on it.

MOVASSAGHI: Yes, you could capitalize on it. I was talking with a Boeing representative, who said, “Are you going to make us have cradle-to-cradle Boeing 747s?”

And I said, “A Boeing jet is not quite in the same category as a toy kids may constantly put in their mouths. But, eventually, if you guys can take out, for instance, some mercury switches or some of the glues in the carpet in your planes, you could market your planes as greener than what Airbus is doing. Doesn’t it make sense for you?” And we saw light bulbs going off in their heads.

Not all of industry is opposed to us. The stickiest part is going to be, how do you keep all of the industry folks engaged? Sometimes I have competitors in the room together, and they tell me separately, “We want to talk with you, but we’re afraid that our competitor is going to find out our financial business practices that might hamper us.” The trick here is creating a neutral space that folks can engage each other and have this dialog without being afraid of revealing confidential business practices.

BPGL: What advice do you have for folks who might want to lobby their legislators to get something like California’s Green Chemistry Initiative implemented in other states?

MOVASSAGHI: The advice is actually the same as we gave here in California: Look at what’s happening in your own backyard.

Legislators are just like a big portion of the population – they’re concerned when we see rising rates of autism, and we see rising usage of these chemicals and products. What tend to happen, usually, are two things: There are the regrettable substitutions. When we ban a particular chemical, the manufacturer slaps one electron on it, and it’s suddenly not that chemical; so it’s not regulated. Or sometimes you have bans without plans. You ban a particular chemical, but there’s no enforcement resources to go out and make sure it’s not out there in the marketplace.

So don’t take those approaches, try to bring the different stakeholders in the room and have a discussion about safer alternatives. That way you don’t have to waste all your resources in trying to figure out how bad is bad. Try to say, “Well, this thing is showing up in places it shouldn’t show up. Some early indications are that it’s harmful, so let’s start thinking about a safer alternative.” It’s a fundamental shift, and sometimes folks look at it askance, like, “What do you mean, we shouldn’t ban things?”

BPGL: Then in each state, you’re suggesting bringing legislators together with industry.

A bottle may be regulated as a "bottle," a "container," or a "storage device." Photo: © schuchnig -

A bottle may be regulated as a "bottle," a "container," or a "storage device." Photo: © schuchnig -

MOVASSAGHI: Let me give you an example. We were talking with our counterparts in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There are a total of only 35 staff at FDA looking at food packaging. A single firm from the East Coast made a presentation to us about how they look at what they do for their clients. I asked, “How many people do you have working on this?” That single firm had 65 people working on food packaging. And that’s just one of many firms, many food companies.

Government resources are always going to be a challenge. But to us, you’ve got to bring in industry; you’ve got to bring in the environmental folks; you’ve got to bring in the elected officials, and have a mutual discussion. This is a way to innovate, re-industrialize the country, but re-industrialize it in a green way.

BPGL: What are some generic examples of products you are working on right now that affect some of the sensitive populations?

MOVASSAGHI: This is a much harder question than we even anticipated, because there is no common taxonomy on how you define products. Sometimes, depending on a federal to state level, or between different trade associations, a bottle is a bottle in one place; it’s a container someplace else; it’s a storage device someplace else. But the kind of things we’re looking at are anything from baby bottles to prosthetic teeth for seniors to any of these kinds of products.

BPGL: Are you in favor of the proposed Kids-Safe Chemicals Act that’s being supported by the Environmental Working Group?

MOVASSAGHI: That is one approach, but it still relies a little bit too much on waiting for stuff to end up in the waste stream.

The EWG has been a valuable partner from the environmental side. If I could pat ourselves on the back, in addition to California and the Department of Toxic Substances Control actually having a green chemistry program like no other place in the world, the other thing is our ability to keep together this grand coalition of folks that ranges from the Environmental Working Group to the Sierra Club to the League of Conservation Voters and the Dows and DuPonts of the world. That’s usually not an easy thing to do when you’re a regulatory agency.

Julia Wasson
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Environmental Working Group Gets “Feisty” about Chemical Pollution

EWG's proposed Kid-Safe Chemicals Act will protect children from toxic chemicals. Photo: iStock © jean schweitzer

EWG's proposed Kid-Safe Chemicals Act will protect children from toxic chemicals. Photo: iStock © jean schweitzer

Recently, Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) wrote in praise of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and encouraged readers to consider supporting the important work of this nonprofit organization. Yesterday, I had the privilege of speaking with Ken Cook, who heads EWG. We wanted to know about EWG’s history, its major areas of focus, and what he sees as the most critical issue on the group’s docket today. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

COOK: I started the Environmental Working Group in the early 1990s, with my colleague Richard Wiles, whom I consider to be a co-founder of the organization. He brought to us a lot of talent — in particular, a great deal of information, knowledge, and experience on toxic chemicals, specifically pesticides.

BPGL: You publish an impressive amount of research at EWG. Who are your researchers?

COOK: They’re all on the staff. We have chemists, engineers, a lot of public health experts and so forth. Over the years, we have built up a program that is heavy on original research and computer analysis. We were one of the first groups in the public interest community, and certainly in Washington, to have a full-time database programmer (who is still with us, by the way).

We started churning out major studies based on government data that hardly anyone had ever seen except the government bureaucrats who were paid to collect it and store it. We started using that information to help make the case for all kinds of policy reforms within the areas of toxic chemicals and pesticides, but also agricultural subsidies.

We’ve done research on the use and destruction of public lands out west by oil and gas exploration and hard-rock mining. The damage that’s been done out there has been tremendous.

And, we’ve put the names of all farm subsidy recipients in the country on line. That has gotten us some notoriety, but it has also had a big influence on the farm subsidy debate.

BPGL: What is the most pressing issue you are working on at EWG today?

COOK: The issue that’s coming to a boil in Washington right now is a debate over reform of the decades-old law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which covers industrial chemicals in this country. This is the group of chemicals that is used in consumer products and automobiles, building materials, and so forth. Not pesticides, but just about every other category of chemical.

This is central to the Environmental Working Group today. We’ve been mounting this campaign, hoping that we’d get momentum for a reform of this federal law for almost ten years. And now we’re right on the cusp of it.

Just today [Tuesday], in fact, there was a big step forward by the American Chemistry Council, which is the trade association of the chemical industry here in Washington. They have announced a set of ten principles to modernize the 1976 law. And we’re encouraged.

I’m sure we’ll probably disagree on more of the fine points than we agree on, but they have stepped up and said, “We need a standard that protects human health. We don’t have that now. We need much more data on chemicals than we have now, in terms of their health and environmental effects, and so forth.” The debate is really starting to unfold, and we’re smack in the middle of it.

BPGL: What actions would you recommend for the average consumer? How can we help support a change in this legislation — besides the obvious action of contacting our legislators?

COOK: First of all, we’re in favor of people getting informed and getting engaged with the debate. The best thing to do, in our opinion, is to go to our website, find the page marked “Kid-Safe Chemicals,” and learn about the legislation.

We feel that this is going to be the basis for the conversation, just like the Cap and Trade concept is in the climate change debate. The Kid-Safe Chemicals Act is going to be the foundation around which the debate is built over the next couple of years.

It’s our opinion that consumers can do two things. You can protect your family and take smart, sensible steps to substantially reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals, such as reducing your exposure to pesticides by shopping from our list (Shoppers Guide to Pesticides) on fruits and vegetables. If you can find them organically grown, you should shop that way. But if you can’t, there are other fruits and vegetables that are pretty low in pesticides, and our list shows you which ones they are. And, you can take steps to reduce exposures in personal care products and furniture items. All those tips are on our website.

But we also know at this stage that we can’t just shop our way out of this. We’re going to have to require some change in government policy that can provide some smarter, more up-to-date rules of the road, if you will, about what kinds of chemicals can be used in what products. And the thing that’s driven the message home for us is the research we conducted looking at chemicals in people, because, if you’re finding chemicals showing up in the blood of people, there’s no question that exposure has happened. So then, the question is, Is the exposure serious enough to be concerned about? How do we cut down on it? Is that something we can, or should, be expected to do as a consumer? Or is that something we should expect companies to do by reformulation, shifting to chemicals that don’t get in people, aren’t as hazardous, and so forth?

And, of course, the ultimate concern is raised when you find chemicals in umbilical cord blood — which we did in a study a few years ago, where, for the first time, we looked at a wide range of toxic chemicals in umbilical cord blood. In just ten babies, we found 280+ chemicals — and that’s when we spent $10,000 in chemical labs for the analysis. If we’d spent $15-, or $20-, or $30,000, for example, who knows how many chemicals we might have found? Maybe 600 or 800 or 1,000 or more. We have another study forthcoming.

BPGL: What will be the difference in the new study? Or will it be a repeat of the original?

COOK: We’ll be screening for some new chemicals and some that we’ve already looked at. And we’ll have an unusual group of babies. I don’t want to reveal who they are just yet. We’ll be releasing that in September. But we did look at some new chemicals that we hadn’t looked for in the previous study.

Most of the chemicals we studied are in everyday consumer products. And we did detect those chemicals in most or all of the ten babies in the second set that we tested.

Ken Cook, President and Founder of EWG. Photo courtesy: Environmental Working Group

Ken Cook, President and Founder of EWG. Photo courtesy: Environmental Working Group

BPGL: Are these results also from prenatal tests?

COOK: Yes. These are prenatal, umbilical cord blood tests.

We’ve already documented that babies are born with chemicals that were banned in this country 30 years ago. It’s shocking to people, but the umbilical cords of babies born in 2004 — the babies we tested through the American Red Cross research program — contained PCBs and DDT and other chemicals that were banned in the 1970s.

The lesson there is that you don’t want to wait too long. If you know a chemical is dangerous, and it lasts, you definitely want to take steps to ban it, because it will be around for a long time.

BPGL: Did you test for BPA in the second study?

COOK: I’d rather not say yet, but we’re looking for a wide range of chemicals.

BPGL: Your wife gave birth not long after the results of the first study came out. How did the results of the study change your life and your wife’s?

COOK: It had a big effect. The whole point of what we experienced, my wife and I, was that we realized that, as much as we would be careful in what we bought, what we put in the baby’s room, what we fed the baby, all those steps — we were just as careful as we could possibly be — we know that that’s not enough.

I came to resent having to go to my own website [for product safety information], because I came to the conclusion — as she did, and I think a lot of other parents do — that with all the things on the mind of an expectant family, the last thing you feel like you really ought to have to do is what the government ought to be doing, which is standing behind the safety of everyday products, and making sure that, if babies are exposed to them, they’re going to be okay.

When I give our “10 Americans” talk, one of the first things I look for in the audience ahead of time, if I can, is any pregnant women. I want to tell them a little bit about the talk in advance, and say, “Just stick with me. We’ve all been through this. Instead of getting angry, let’s get even. Instead of getting paralyzed, let’s get feisty here.”

BPGL: I’ve wondered about the diversity of topics that you focus on at EWG. How did you get started working in the different major areas you address?

COOK: We started off working mostly on agricultural subsidies. After that, we got involved in pesticides when Richard Wiles came on board, and we developed that area into the broader issues of toxic chemicals.

In the case of public lands, we had a number of prospective supporters come to us and basically say, “Look, we saw what you did on a range of other topics, can you take on the damage being done to our public lands by oil and gas exploration and hard-rock mining?” So, in some ways, the ability to do this kind of research has attracted support.

And now we’ve added a new dimension, which we’re very excited about. It’s very relevant to your work [at Blue Planet Green Living], which is, our online presence has just sort of exploded. We are developing a very large list, approaching 600,000 people who are online supporters. It’s a very active group, and we get suggestions from them, all the time, on topics to look into.

We can’t always look into all of them, or even most of them, but they say things like, “Tell us about toxic chemicals under the sink. We’d like to know what’s in those products.” We get that question all the time. We’re doing research in California now that should begin to shed some light on it, and begin to get us working more in that area. We get questions about nutrition, as another dimension of food safety. We’re starting to do some research on that.

[Our work] has evolved from the basic skill set we put together in forming the Environmental Working Group — the ability to analyze large sets of data; commission original laboratory work; do good, smart writing; and, at the same time, do quantitative analysis — that, in combination, has really helped us make the case to supporters to take on this range of issues.

BPGL: Who are EWG’s major supporters?

COOK: Almost all of our support comes from major donors and foundations, with a growing list of online supporters — we’re very encouraged that we’re able to add more and more of those every day. We’ve been fortunate to put together the kind of content that people want, and more of them are writing and giving us even a small contribution. As you know, on the worldwide web, you can reach a lot of people very quickly and, if they value what you’re doing — as many people do our Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database website and our food news website — even small amounts of money make a big difference.


Environmental Working Group has a long list of helpful guides to protect your family and pets from environmental toxins. A few of the resource links are included here. For a full list, go to the “Health Tips” section of the EWG website.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Toxic Substances Control Act Hearings — A Hopeful Start

We noted on Tuesday that the Toxic Substances Control Act would soon be under review. Yesterday was the opening day of the House of Representatives’ hearing: “Revisiting the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.” The goal of the hearing is to reform the TSCA. The Honorable Bobby L. Rush (D-IL) opened the hearing with the statement that appears below. With this auspicious beginning, we hold out hope that our lawmakers will take bold, yet carefully considered, action to safeguard the health of our nation and our planet.

Yet, this is only the beginning. We must not become complacent and accept mere lip service. We at BPGL urge all Americans to let your congressional officials know that you’re counting on them. All of our lives — and especially those of our most vulnerable citizens — depend on the strength and enforceability of the TSCA. — Julia Wasson

The Honorable Bobby L. Rush’s statement appears below:

Many hazardous chemicals travel our highways in tankers like this.

Many hazardous chemicals travel our highways in tankers like this.

WASHINGTON, DC — “I want to welcome the Members of the Subcommittee to our first hearing of the 111th Congress. I am honored to chair this distinguished subcommittee and I will strive to serve all of its members honorably.

“I truly look forward to working with everyone on a productive legislative and oversight agenda.

“In this regard, our first hearing of the 111th Congress is an ambitious one and represents a new addition to the subcommittee’s jurisdiction. Today’s hearing will explore the major issues surrounding the Toxic Substances Control Act, also known as TSCA.

“TSCA was enacted in 1976 and originally consisted of one title, which remains the heart of the statute.  While Congress, over the years, has added additional titles to TSCA addressing individual chemicals and substances, Congress has done very little with regard to Title I. TSCA and Title I have never been reauthorized or reformed, and very little oversight has been conducted on the statute’s effectiveness.  Today, I hope to start a deliberative process that reverses this Congressional inaction of the past. By most accounts, TSCA is badly in need of reform. While opinions may vary on the degree and nature of the reforms needed, there is a broad consensus among a diversity of stakeholders that TSCA needs to be reexamined.

“The scope of TSCA is very broad, and its intent is ambitious. TSCA is meant to provide adequate data on the potential health and environmental risks of all chemical substances and mixtures in the United States.  Furthermore, the statute is supposed to provide EPA with adequate regulatory tools to protect the public from unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment. Unfortunately, the statute has seemingly been a failure on both of these basic policy goals.

“Critics contend that the TSCA has failed to generate data on the health risks of the approximately 80,000 chemicals currently in use and the approximately 700 new chemicals introduced into commerce every year. Even though Sections 4 and 5 of TSCA authorize EPA to force companies to test their chemical products and generate risk data, the hoops the agency must jump through in order to exercise this authority have proven to be too burdensome. Rulemakings take years to finalize, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and are subject to constant legal action by companies who do not want to comply. As a former EPA Assistant Administrator once said, “It’s almost as if we have to, first, prove that the chemicals are risky before we can have the testing done to show whether or not the chemicals are risky.”

Asbestos kills thousands of people each year, yet isn't banned by the TSCA.

Asbestos kills 8,000 Americans each year, yet hasn't been banned under TSCA.

“Furthermore, once the EPA has made a determination that a chemical poses a health or environmental hazard, they have been unable to act on this determination. Section 6 of TSCA provides EPA with broad authority to regulate and ban toxic chemicals, but the burden of proof for action has proved so high that banning a chemical is virtually impossible. I think most Americans would be very surprised to learn that asbestos — a known carcinogen that kills 8,000 Americans every year — has not been banned by the EPA under TSCA, because the courts have ruled that EPA did not meet its evidentiary burden of proving that asbestos is an “unreasonable risk” to the public. If TSCA is incapable of providing EPA with the regulatory tools to ban asbestos, then the statutes seem to be in need of serious repair.

“I want to make clear that I believe reexamining TSCA is not only good for public health, but it’s good for business. I do not believe that this hearing should reflect the old divisions of public health versus business, or the environment versus business. I appreciate the innovative spirit of American businesses and further recognize the importance of fostering that innovative spirit, especially during these perilous economic times. But the public’s faith in the safety of its products and the chemicals that make up those products has been seriously shaken. I believe that reforming TSCA and re-establishing that faith will ultimately be a boon for American businesses of every stripe.
“Today’s hearing is only the first in a series on TSCA. Today, we kick off the process in a deliberative fashion, and I hope that we can all work together in a bipartisan fashion.

“I yield back the balance of my time.”

Statement by the Honorable Bobby L. Rush, Chairman
Committee on Energy and Commerce
Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection
Hearing: Revisiting the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976

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House Panel Takes on Toxics Reform

Amid growing concern that U.S. chemical regulations are not adequate for protecting human health, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee this week will investigate the current law to assess its effectiveness at governing the thousands of chemicals in commerce today.

The TSCA sets standards for more than 82,000 chemicals.

The TSCA sets standards for more than 82,000 chemicals.

The House Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection Subcommittee will meet Thursday to discuss the Toxic Substances Control Act, which was first established in 1976 to govern the roughly 82,700 chemicals in commerce.

Critics have called for an overhaul of TSCA, saying U.S. EPA cannot properly assess chemicals’ toxicity because of a high burden of proof — the government must prove a chemical poses a health threat before it can act. However, regulators also need proof before they can require companies to provide more information about a chemical.

Since TSCA was enacted 32 years ago, EPA has used it to evaluate the safety of 200 chemicals and banned five.

The Kid Safe Chemicals Act proposes protections for babies and children.

The Kid Safe Chemicals Act proposes protections for babies and children.

In response, three Democrats, including new Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) last year introduced legislation to require chemical manufacturers to provide health and safety information on chemicals used in products such as baby bottles and food wrappings instead of presuming a substance is safe until proven dangerous.

“The United States’ current regulatory approach to chemicals is in dire need of being modernized,” Waxman said in a statement when the bill was introduced.

The bill, the “Kid Safe Chemical Act,” was also sponsored by Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), who may be confirmed as President Obama’s Labor secretary this week. It would be the first effort to reform TSCA since it was enacted more than three decades ago (E&E Daily, May 21, 2008).

Industry groups have argued that while there is some room for improvement, TSCA is fundamentally protective to human health.

The hearing is set for Thursday, Feb. 26, at 10 a.m. in 2123 Rayburn, Washington, D.C.

Sara Goodman, E&E Reporter

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