University of California at Berkeley  [Printer-friendly version]
March 14, 2006


Weak U.S. chemical disclosure laws prevent industries from seeking
safer alternatives
The United States has already fallen behind globally in the move
toward cleaner technologies, including green chemistry, say the
report's authors.

[Rachel's introduction: The long-awaited "Wilson Report" shows how
California could take the lead in developing safer chemicals.]

By Sarah Yang

BERKELEY -- 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 [1 Mbyte PDF download]
by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Center for
Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH).

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

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

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

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

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.
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

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.