Imagine you’re in the market for a fire extinguisher.  What do you
suppose might be the first question you’d ask of the store clerk who
hopes to sell it to you?

"Does it come in other colors besides red?"  Perhaps you’d ask this,
but it’s not likely to be your first question.  The same goes for "Is
that handle ergonomically designed?"

Chances are the question at the forefront of your mind would be, "Will
this thing actually put out fires and make my home safer?" If you’re
about to pay for a safety measure, you’d want to know whether the
investment will, in fact, enhance your safety.

The fact is, though we as a California consumers are about to make a
very significant investment in enhanced safety and it’s not at all
clear that we’re going to be any better off as a result.

Two years ago, California took the first steps to implement a system of
"green chemistry," which is a popular and growing trend toward
identifying and using the safest materials possible in manufacturing
consumer goods.  Instead of focusing on how to mitigate the impact of
dangerous substances in consumer goods, the thinking goes, the efforts
of business and government should be focused on keeping them out of the
product in the first place.  

It sounds like a fine idea, and it is. Environmentalists welcomed the
initiative, and businesses signed on to the effort in the earliest
stages.  Businesses, after all, know better than most how inefficient
and expensive the old method of chemical management has been; each
legislative session features a handful of measures targeting one
chemical or another, most of the time without a shred of science (other
than political science) to support them.

But as is often the case with fine ideas, something went awry between
the concept and the execution.  Today, the Department of Toxic
Substance Control (DTSC) is poised to finalize the rules for
California’s Green Chemistry Initiative and nobody is asking whether
this fire extinguisher will actually put out fires.

There are plenty of reasons concerns to believe it won’t.

The draft regulations seem to overlook the need for the DTSC to focus
its efforts on the greatest potential hazards to consumers.  Common
sense says the panel should concentrate on products where the user or
others have an actual risk of being exposed to a substance that may
cause harm.  But common sense seldom gets a seat at the table in
regulatory proceedings.

Instead, the DTSC is likely to find itself charged with the impossible
job of dragging each of the tens of thousands of chemicals used in
commerce today through a quagmire of regulatory proceedings – even if
the chemicals in question have been used safely for decades or pose no
threat of actual exposure. Conceivably, no product can be left off the
department’s to-do list.  The costs – which you, by the way, will pay –
will be shocking.

To the rulebook, a chemical is a chemical.  And a dangerous chemical is
a dangerous chemical, regardless of where it’s found or how the product
in question is used.  For example, under the regulations, there is no
difference in approach or process between a toxic metal that finds its
way into a baby’s pacifier and the same toxic metal used in soldering
electronic components on an airplane.  One poses a danger to a
vulnerable population.  The other keeps you and your fellow passengers
in the air.  But the rules don’t care about petty differences like
that.  Both are going to go through the same paperwork, expense and

The pertinent question for regulators who really want to make products
safer is not whether there are trace amounts of a given chemical present.
After all, everything from the baked potato on your plate to your very
body is home to host of chemicals that are defined as toxic.  What
matters is exposure – which is a calculation that considers how the product is used, who uses it and for how long.  

A set of rules that ignores this important difference can’t hope to
accomplish its stated purpose.  It will be an enormously expensive fire
extinguisher that doesn’t put out fires.

California consumers already are being asked to shoulder the burden of
12 percent unemployment and a $20 billion budget deficit.  It seems
only fair that if the state is going to ask them to pay for a
first-in-the-nation safety system, that system should actually make
them safer.