Risk Policy Report, November 29, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: The U.S. chemical industry is afraid -- very afraid -- that Europe's embrace of a precautionary chemicals policy (REACH) will create enormous pressure to adopt inherently safer "green chemistry" principles and practices.]

Anticipating a long-overdue California academician's report on the pursuit of "green chemistry" practices and acknowledging the likely acceptance of a sweeping European plan, the chemical industry is mobilizing lobbying efforts to dissuade state lawmakers from restricting their production practices. Legislative crackdowns sparked by these developments would cost California jobs and businesses and pose implementation problems, industry sources said.

Green chemistry is the development of alternative strategies for chemical production without relying on or creating chemical hazards. A study soon slated for release by lead author Michael Wilson, an industrial hygienist at the University of California, Berkeley, may suggest that green chemistry practices represent the best system for dealing with deficiencies in California's current chemical regulations, industry sources speculated.

Wilson recently spoke at an industry meeting, and is expected Dec. 14 to give an update on his study at a California Manufacturers & Technology Association conference in San Diego. The study is slated for release to the state Legislature soon, likely early next year, and is expected by industry sources to result in substantial new chemical policy legislation.

Wilson would not comment but in 2004, he praised practices such as those favored in the European Union's (EU) Registration, Evaluation & Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) legislation.

REACH is a collection of regulations being advanced in the EU to restrict the use of some chemicals. Chemical manufacturers would be required to register their products in a central EU database; EU also will place restrictions on the use of certain high-priority chemicals such as carcinogens. EU's parliament approved REACH on Nov. 18, although several key issues need to be resolved, according to news reports.

REACH is seen as promoting green chemistry because it advocates the substitution of chemicals the EU deems more harmful for chemicals considered less harmful. Several EU countries already offer green chemistry subsidies to companies.

The concept of green chemistry was invented in the United States; American chemical manufacturers, regulators and environmentalists are expected to watch as the EU implements these new REACH restrictions.

"U.S. states -- starting with California -- are looking into enacting their own versions of this law," states a recently released Competitive Enterprise Institute-funded report on REACH

Industry sources are especially wary of green chemistry measures that might be pursued by the Legislature and worry that regulations arising from the legislation might be cumbersome and unwieldy. "We've got to be really careful that we don't put the policy ahead of the science," an industry source said. Doing so can result in harmful environmental consequences, the source said, citing California's failure to properly assess the impacts of the gasoline oxygenate additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) on groundwater supplies.

MTBE was considered "green chemistry" when it came out, the industry source says.

If green chemistry were to be pushed in California, the actual definition of "green" would face the most scrutiny from industry and environmentalists, a second industry source says. If a company manufactures a product the state defines as a hazardous substance, but uses sustainable methods, it is uncertain whether the product would earn the green chemistry designation. This designation would likely become heavily lobbied by the industry, the source says, and might become a way for state government to unfairly fix markets.

Industry disputes the common argument by advocates of green chemistry that the alternative chemicals are very marketable. "Very, very few [chemicals] are sold to end-users," the source said. If the products they become part of do not possess other green ingredients, the products may not even be sold as green, the source said.

For the most part, consumers care about quality, service and price, tending to give the last factor the most weight, the industry source said. High compliance costs might mean companies would not want to take on the additional burden of going green. Additional restrictions on California companies may cause more of them to leave the state, or may provide a disincentive for them to move to the state, the source adds.

Many European companies have received subsidies to develop and market the green chemicals, presenting an uncompetitive burden on U.S. chemical companies, the first source says. However, the second source says many American companies have European branches and may even have benefited from the subsidies.

Environmentalists did not return calls for comment on green chemistry practices.