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Guest column: Debbie Raphael, California's DTSC

After five years of collaboration among manufacturers, consumers and environmentalists, California’s game-changing safer products programme will go into effect on 1 October.

Crafted by the state government’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), with extensive public input, the Safer Consumer Products Regulations take a preventive approach to keeping dangerous chemicals out of everyday products, and they give consumers greater confidence that the products they buy ultimately will be safe. For industry, these regulations will provide a more predictable process for ensuring product safety, and offer a competitive advantage for innovators who see an opportunity in the growing market for toxic-free or toxic-reduced products.

This will be a significant shift from previous policy – or lack of policy – which eliminated harmful chemicals only after they had already been on the market for many years. In the past, toxics in products were dealt with on a case-by-case basis when found to have harmed consumers or our environment. By then, it was often too late. 

These historical approaches never examined the potential harm of substitute chemicals, which often turned out to be more harmful than the chemicals they were intended to replace. In the late 1970s, for example, methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) was heralded as a new gasoline additive, replacing one that had been deemed neurotoxic. MTBE, it was later found, seeped into groundwater, compromising its quality and raising concerns over its potential carcinogenic effects at high doses.

After relying on “single product bans” for so many years, California is once again at the forefront of the effort to protect consumers from harmful chemicals. This new programme kick-starts a movement to systematically evaluate alternative ingredients by requiring that manufacturers ask: “is this ingredient necessary, and is there a safer alternative?”

We are a bellwether state, and our new regulations send a message to industry and consumers that a predictable process for identifying safer ingredients in products is here to stay.

There is ample evidence that some visionary companies are successfully making the transition. Hewlett Packard, Staples, cleaning product suppliers, Method and Clorox, and the latest addition, Walmart (CW 13 September 2013), recognise that consumer demand exists and will continue to grow.

Other industries doing business on a national or international scale are watching us closely to see how the regulation actually works.

Priority products

Under the statute, the state will develop a list of chemicals that are candidates for elimination, based on a variety of hazardous traits as determined by authoritative scientific organisations, and their history of exposure. It will then develop a group of product types, known as “priority products”, containing at least one of those chemicals. 

Up to five of these priority products will be selected by April 2014, and manufacturers of these products will have to conduct an “alternative analysis” to determine if a safer, nontoxic ingredient is suitable. If no other ingredient is feasible, the DTSC has the ability to apply one of several regulatory responses that would reduce risk or phase out the chemical.

Eventually, products will end up with the safest ingredients possible, and avoid substituting ingredients that are even worse. It is a practical, meaningful and legally defensible programme that was developed in a careful, deliberate and collaborative manner. It gives consumers confidence that someone is watching out for what goes into everyday products. 

Businesses will have plenty of time to adjust. Each priority product must go through a review process, including a public comment period that could take up to a year. In addition, we will prepare a work plan that will identify potential priority product categories for the next three years.

The programme starts out small, but it sends a big message. Innovative and forward-thinking companies will realise the opportunities for growth that stem from this cutting-edge regulation. Smart businesses are already planning ahead, looking for alternative chemicals they can promote as non-toxic, family friendly and environmentally safe. 

By doing so, they are exemplifying the pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit that has long been California’s hallmark. 

It is fitting that the implementation of our efforts take place very near the anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring. Her work first drew the world’s attention to the fact that the chemicals we use can have unknown consequences for our health and our environment. Her warning call still resonates today as we move forward into a new area of chemical management policy.

The views expressed in contributed articles are those of the expert authors and not necessarily shared by Chemical Watch.

Debbie Raphael, Director, DTSC

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