California Legislature Approves New Measures for Regulating Chemicals

Published November 1, 2008

A far-reaching proposal written in the closing days of the California legislative session would give state regulators broad authority to identify, study, and regulate chemicals in consumer products.

The two-bill deal—Assembly Bill 1879 and Senate Bill 509, negotiated among legislators, the Schwarzenegger administration, and environmental and chemical industry groups—would codify the administration’s “Green Chemistry Initiative.” The legislation would fundamentally change the way the state handles suspected hazardous materials.

Both bills have passed the legislature and await action by the governor. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) had indicated he would not sign any bill until the state has a budget, which was delivered to him by the legislature, two months late, on September 16.

At press time, Schwarzenegger had indicated he would veto that budget. Thus, along with hundreds of other proposed laws, the legislature is holding the two chemical bills and not sending them to the governor.

Identifying Chemicals of Concern

Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) sponsored Assembly Bill 1879, which would give the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control until January 2011 to establish a science-based process to identify and evaluate problem chemicals. It also would give the department authority to regulate chemicals, including banning their use altogether in California.

Senate Bill 509, sponsored by state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), would create a state-run Web site where consumers could search for information on chemical hazards.

Rejecting Federal Expertise

State environmental regulators have traditionally focused mainly on problems such as air pollution and hazardous waste disposal, while chemical regulation has been left to the federal government. But environmental activist groups have complained for years that federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration should move more assertively in regulating chemicals.

“We [may] have lunchboxes that contain lead,” said Maureen Gorsen, director of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, quoted in the August 25 Sacramento Bee. “When you throw them out, we can treat them as hazardous waste. But a kid could eat out of it every day … and there’s not much we can do about it right now.”

Gorsen didn’t explain how lead allegedly separates from the lunchbox and enters children’s food, or how long a child would have to eat from such a lunchbox for any actual harm to occur.

Similarly, the two pending bills are silent on the magnitude of risk that is unacceptable. That decision would presumably be left to an advisory panel.

More Bureaucratic Power

Public policy experts question the wisdom of putting more power into the hands of regulatory bureaucracies.

“Having failed to achieve its goal of prohibiting suspected toxic chemicals, the California Legislature is doing an end-run and handing authority to an agency that is unelected and unaccountable to the people. This is unwise. A truer, free-market approach would have accountability remain where it is—with the elected officials,” said public policy analyst Joshua Treviño, president of Treviño Strategies and Media.

A More Uniform Approach

Even so, the attempt to foster some form of cooperation and input from affected businesses is viewed by many as a welcome change in California.

Activist groups have recently targeted one allegedly harmful chemical after another for restriction or elimination, despite assurances from scientists and the federal government that the targeted chemicals pose no serious health or environmental threats. Consumers and businesses are hopeful a more cooperative process will avoid unnecessary and unjustified restrictions.

The pending approval of the Simitian and Feuer bills, plus the stated preference by Schwarzenegger for more cooperative, broad-based chemical legislation, will likely doom two other bills intended to ban chemicals from microwave popcorn bags and some plastic baby bottles.

The California legislature rejected those measures—Senate Bill 1713 and Senate Bill 1313—in early September, but they remain scheduled for future consideration.

Tom Tanton ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.