Daily Breeze (Torrance, Calif.)  [Printer-friendly version]
January 16, 2008


By Terence Chea, The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO -- Toxic chemicals sicken and kill thousands of people
in California each year and cost the state an estimated $2.6
billion in medical expenses and lost wages, according to a report
set to be released today.

The study by University of California researchers details the
economic, environmental and public health effects of industrial
chemicals and calls for state policies to phase out dangerous
substances and promote safer alternatives.

"This area is an essential piece of a sustainable future," said
Michael Wilson, a research scientist at the UC Berkeley School of
Public Health. "We don't have a comprehensive policy on how
chemicals and products are designed, used and disposed of in this

The report, "Green Chemistry: Cornerstone to a Sustainable
California," was commissioned by the California Environmental
Protection Agency and endorsed by 127 researchers at UC campuses
and national laboratories in California. The researchers are
scheduled to brief state lawmakers on their findings on Friday.

The researchers estimate that in 2004, more than 200,000 California
workers suffered from chronic diseases linked to workplace exposure
to industrial chemicals. Another 4,400 people died of those
diseases, which include cancer, emphysema and Parkinson's disease.

Those illnesses cost state businesses, insurers and families $1.4
billion in hospitalizations, drugs and other medical expenses, as
well as lost compensation to workers who could no longer work,
according to the report. Another 240,000 cases of asthma and other
childhood diseases related to chemical exposure cost the state
another $1.2 billion.

While the study focuses on 2004, the most recent year for which
data is available, the numbers are representative of the effect of
chemical exposure in California in a typical year, said Paul Leigh,
an economist at the UC Davis School of Medicine who analyzed
existing data to develop the estimates.

Farmworkers, welders, hairdressers, beauticians and spray painters
are among the workers most likely to be exposed to toxic chemicals
on the job, according to the report.

The European Union is far ahead of the United States in passing
laws to ban toxic chemicals in favor of more environmental friendly
alternatives, so many products that can't be sold in Europe are
shipped to the U.S., Wilson said.

"As the rest of the world starts moving ahead, we become a market
for the stuff no one else wants to buy," he said.

The report's authors urged California officials to take the lead in
promoting "green chemistry," saying it represents an enormous
opportunity for economic growth and could create a more predictable
market for manufacturers.

"Their business liability could be reduced if they had some kind of
clear standard," said UC Berkeley researcher Megan Schwarzman.

Chemical companies would welcome a more comprehensive state policy,
rather than a "piecemeal" approach targeting specific chemicals or
products, said John Ulrich, who heads the Chemical Industry Council
of California.

Ulrich said the chemical industry was moving toward developing and
marking safer, more eco-friendly products, pointing to Oakland-
based Clorox Co.'s new line of "green" cleaning products that have
been endorsed by the Sierra Club.

"Green chemistry is the natural evolution of a forward-looking
industry," Ulrich said. "I think companies need to be looking in
that direction, and they are looking in that direction."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year launched the California Green
Chemistry Initiative to bring together scientists, policymakers and
industry officials to develop policy recommendations for chemicals.