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UC Berkeley Press Release

New report sets framework for California "green chemistry" policy

– California should take the lead in establishing a comprehensive policy for chemical production and use or face a growing set of health and environmental problems and risk being left behind by the global economy, according to a new report by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

The report is the first in the nation to establish a state framework for a move toward "green chemistry," in which policies are designed to motivate industry investment in the design and use of chemicals that are less toxic, do not accumulate in the body, and break down more readily in the environment. Green chemical manufacturing processes also use safer materials and less energy, and they produce less hazardous waste.

Commissioned in 2004 by the California Senate Environmental Quality Committee and the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials, the report was released to the committees today by the California Policy Research Center, under the aegis of the UC Office of the President. It says that greater incentives for innovation are needed to motivate industry leaders and entrepreneurs to invest in green chemistry. These include improvements in information on chemical toxicity, enhanced regulatory oversight and greater funding for green chemistry research in California.

The report recommends that California develop a comprehensive chemicals policy to implement these changes and that the legislature convene a chemicals policy task force as the first step in this process.

The United States has already fallen behind globally in the move toward cleaner technologies, including green chemistry, say the report's authors. The European Union (EU), for instance, has already passed landmark legislation in the push toward environmentally safer materials. One law, the Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronics Equipment (WEEE), is intended to encourage the use of new materials in electronic products that are easier to handle during recycling and recovery; it makes manufacturers who sell electronic products in the EU responsible for reducing electronic waste.

A second EU law, the Restriction of Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (RoHS), bars the use of hazardous substances, including lead, mercury, cadmium and other toxic materials, in electrical and electronic equipment sold in the European Union.

A proposed third piece of legislation, the Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) framework, will require EU producers and importers to submit toxicity and use information for about 30,000 chemicals, and it introduces an authorization procedure for the use of up to 1,400 very hazardous chemicals.

"The European Union is emerging as a global leader in clean technology and chemicals management, and they are changing the nature of production globally," said Michael P. Wilson, assistant research scientist at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health and lead author of the report. "California should be on the leading edge of these technologies, including green chemistry, which would not only respond to concerns about the state's long-term productive capacity, but it would address a whole host of chemical problems that are affecting health, environment, businesses and government in the state."

According to the report, a relatively weak U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) has provided little incentive for U.S. manufacturers to invest in green chemistry technologies. For instance, the TSCA has not required chemical producers to generate and make public toxicity and exposure information for some 99 percent of synthetic chemicals in commercial use.

"As a result, U.S. consumers, industry, and small-business owners are unable to identify safer chemical products on the market, and it is very difficult for industries to identify hazardous chemicals in their supply chains," the report states. It also notes that "there is growing scientific concern over the biological implications of chemical exposures that occur over the course of the human lifespan, particularly during the biologically sensitive period of fetal and child development. Hundreds of chemicals persist in the environment and accumulate in human tissues."

The report states that chemical exposures contribute to the childhood diseases of asthma, neurodevelopmental disorders and certain cancers. It also presents data showing that 23,000 workers each year in California are diagnosed with a deadly chronic disease that is attributable to chemical exposures in the workplace and another 5,600 die as a result of a chronic disease induced by workplace chemical exposures.

It cites a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimate that 217,000 new hazardous waste sites will appear in the United States by 2033, on top of 77,000 sites in existence today, and that efforts to mitigate environmental impacts at the new sites will cost an additional $250 billion.

The report notes that a number of leading California businesses, including Kaiser Permanente, Catholic Healthcare West, Intel, HP, Apple and IBM, are working to implement chemical policies to avoid the use of toxic substances, and that a California chemicals policy would help them do so.

"California businesses need better information about the safety of chemicals, but they have been frustrated by long-standing federal chemicals policy weaknesses, especially the Toxic Substances Control Act," Wilson said. "Correcting these weaknesses in California will go a long way toward supporting our businesses and addressing pressing public and environmental health problems; it will motivate chemical producers to begin investing in green chemistry technologies. Without California leadership, the U.S. could lose its competitive edge in this arena."

California stands much to gain, or lose, in this scenario, said Wilson. The report highlights the projected 50 percent state population growth to 55 million people by 2050. Effectively managing that growth in a sustainable way - with its accompanying social, economic and environmental issues - needs to begin now, said Wilson. A sustainable chemicals policy is an integral part of preparing for the state's future needs, he said.

Moreover, the chemical industry plays a key role in California's economy. In 2004, the industry employed approximately 81,000 people and produced $28.6 billion in worker earnings and $1.7 billion in state and local tax revenues, according to figures from the Chemical Industry Council of California.

"California already plays a leading role in a number of innovative areas, such as energy efficiency," said Wilson. "By acting in the near term, the state could become a global leader in green chemistry innovation."

The report was guided by a 13-member advisory committee made up of faculty members from UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC Riverside, and scientists from the California Department of Health Services.

Co-authors of the report are Daniel Chia and Bryan Ehlers, both of whom worked on it while graduate students at UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy.

The California Policy Research Center is a program of the University of California that was established to apply the university's extensive research expertise to the analysis, development, and implementation of state and federal policies on issues of statewide importance.

A full copy of the report (PDF format) and other related information is available from the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health website.