UC Berkeley News


Report by Berkeley researchers sets framework for California leadership in 'green chemistry' policy
Authors warn that failure to craft forward-looking policies will negatively affect state's citizens and businesses, with impacts on everything from public and environmental health to government

| 16 March 2006

California should take the lead in establishing a comprehensive policy for chemical production and use, according to a new report by Berkeley researchers presented to state legislators this week. Failure to do so could mean that the state will face a growing set of health and environmental problems and risk being left behind by the global economy.

A report by Berkeley researchers, presented to state legislators on Tuesday, 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. Efforts to mitigate environmental impacts at the new sites will cost an additional $250 billion. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

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 while producing less hazardous waste.

The report 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. It 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 EU sets the pace

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 encourages manufacturers of electronic products to use new materials that are easier to handle during recycling and recovery, while making EU marketers of those products responsible for reducing electronic waste. A second law bars the use of hazardous substances, including lead, mercury, cadmium, and other toxic materials, in electrical and electronic equipment sold in the EU. (A third piece of legislation, currently under consideration, would require EU producers and importers to submit toxicity and use information for about 30,000 chemicals, and would introduce 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," says Michael Wilson, assistant research scientist at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the School of Public Health, the report's lead author. "California should be on the leading edge of these technologies, including green chemistry. This would not only respond to concerns about the state's long-term productive capacity but address a whole host of chemical problems that are affecting health, environment, businesses, and government in the state."

Commissioned in 2004 by the California Senate Environmental Quality Committee and the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials, "Green Chemistry in California: A Framework for Leadership in Chemicals Policy and Innovation" was released to the committees on Tuesday, March 14, by the California Policy Research Center, under the aegis of the UC Office of the President. Its lead author is Michael Wilson, assistant research scientist at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the School of Public Health. Co-authors are Daniel Chia and Bryan Ehlers, both of whom worked on it while graduate students at the Goldman School of Public Policy. The report was guided by a 13-member advisory committee made up of faculty members from Berkeley, UCLA, and UC Riverside, and scientists from the California Department of Health Services

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," the report says, "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."

Deadly risks in the workplace

The report 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 [that] persist in the environment and accumulate in human tissues" contribute to the childhood diseases of asthma, neurodevelopmental disorders, and certain cancers. Data in the report show that 23,000 California workers each year are diagnosed with a deadly chronic disease attributable to chemical exposures in the workplace; another 5,600 die as a result of a chronic disease induced by workplace chemical exposures.

A number of leading California businesses, including Kaiser Permanente, Catholic Healthcare West, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and IBM, are working to implement chemical policies to avoid the use of toxic substances, and Wilson says 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 longstanding weaknesses in federal chemicals policy, especially the Toxic Substances Control Act," he observes. "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 United States could lose its competitive edge in this arena."

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

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