My turn: ‘Green chemistry’ makes products safer. Here’s how California can do better

Gina M. Solomon and Martin Mulvihill, Special to CALmatters

Californians’ demand for healthier products is part of a trend toward healthy living that has changed our expectations of chemistry.

We led the nation a decade ago by launching a Green Chemistry Initiative to advance the safer use of chemicals.

On Tuesday, the environment committees of the Senate and the Assembly convene to review the status of this important initiative, and its centerpiece, the Safer Consumer Products Program. This is a time to celebrate its successes—and call for stronger action to protect Californians.

The Safer Consumer Products Program was designed to deal with “chemical whack-a-mole.” In this real-life version of the carnival game, individual toxic chemicals are banned or regulated, only to be replaced by similar chemicals that have not been studied and can be just as hazardous.

Take flame retardants.

In 2002, California scientists discovered toxic flame retardants, known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, PBDEs for short, in San Francisco Bay harbor seals, and in breast biopsy samples from California women.

PBDEs were linked to thyroid hormone disruption, neurological damage, and cancer. The Legislature banned most PBDEs the following year, but it soon became clear that other hazardous chemicals were replacing these toxicants in everything from furniture foam to children’s nap mats.

There is an alphabet soup of other toxic chemicals— from BPA to PCBs —that were removed from products, only to be replaced by toxic cousins. Parents may have thought their families were being protected, but many had no idea the replacement chemicals could be just as bad.

It was time for a new approach.

In 2008, then-Assemblymember Mike Feuer of Los Angeles and then-Senator Joe Simitian of Palo Alto carried legislation that established the Safer Consumer Products Program as the key component of the state’s Green Chemistry Initiative, to incentivize the use of safer chemicals in consumer products.

A recently completed independent study of the initiative, funded by the California Breast Cancer Research Program, found that California’s approach is important and innovative. However, after 10 years, much-needed improvements are needed:

  • California must ramp up its efforts. The federal government has abandoned its role to protect the public from dangerous chemicals. Our state agencies are our first line of defense and need to increase their scale of effort. This will require in-depth analysis of hazardous chemicals in products where replacement chemicals aren’t obvious, and faster action where toxic chemicals aren’t necessary and a safer path is clear. The program will require staffing and resources adequate to the task.
  • Good science needs good data. California agencies struggle to deal with thousands of problem chemicals in hundreds of thousands of products. This gargantuan job is rendered almost impossible because the program does not have clear authority to demand comprehensive information on product ingredients. Without good data it’s hard to make good decisions.
  • Healthy chemistry is California’s future. Consumers are demanding products that are safe for families and for the environment. Retailers and product manufacturers are asking their suppliers tough questions about chemical ingredients. Safer chemicals are increasingly a reality as companies small and large respond to the demand. Partnerships, such as the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry, bring together students, faculty, business and government to build an economically successful green and healthy chemistry industry that has the potential to rival clean energy technology.

California leadership can protect families and the environment from hazardous chemicals, and stimulate economic innovation. We applaud a decade of hard-won progress, and look forward to expanding this important effort with a stronger Safer Consumer Products Program.


Gina M. Solomon, is a principal investigator at the Public Health Institute in Oakland, [email protected], and Martin Mulvihill is the co-founder of SaferMade, a venture capital fund, [email protected]. They wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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