Editor’s Note: This article is in response to Assembly Member Jeff Miller’s piece published on August 30th, “State’s Green Chemistry Rules Could Have Californians Seeing Red” 

When California’s “Green Chemistry” law passed with bipartisan support in 2008, industry, health advocacy groups and consumer organizations applauded its broad vision of a systematic approach to reducing toxic chemicals in consumer products.

In the ensuing four years, those parties engaged in a vigorous discussion over the specifics of implementing the law.  As is the case with most innovative concepts, fine points and details were debated passionately by those with varying points of view.  The informal debate ended earlier this year, and with the release of our proposed Safer Consumer Products regulation, the formal dialogue now is under way.

At times, the basic concepts of our proposal can get lost in the din.

Albert Einstein once said:  “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

In its simplest form, California’s proposed Safer Consumer Products Regulation is designed to answer the question:  Is this toxic ingredient necessary, and is there a safer alternative? An answer to this question will take time, but having the right question in front of us focuses our collective effort to find truly safer ingredients.

For decades we’ve watched as one product after another was removed from stores because it contained a toxic ingredient.  This pattern continues today. News organizations recently reported on a study which showed that people with high levels of the chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA for short) in their blood are more likely to have heart disease or a stroke than those with low or no levels.  The chemical is ubiquitous, used in the process to make non-stick coating surfaces for pans and fabric that is waterproof and breathable. While there is no proof that PFOA causes heart disease or stroke, the study will likely generate concerns among consumers and may affect sales of products containing the ingredient.  Manufacturers of those products may soon be asking themselves:  Is this chemical necessary?  This process of examining chemical risk is costly for industry and at the very least confusing for consumers who sometimes feel they need a Ph.D. to comprehend the safety of the products they buy.

In August, Fox News and other media outlets reported personal care giant Johnson & Johnson’s pledge to remove dangerous chemicals from its toiletries and cosmetics during the next four years.   Procter and Gamble has made similar commitments, as have Clorox, Hewlett Packard, Method and many other large corporations.  Walmart made headlines when it committed to sell products that sustain people and the environment.

Scores of smaller companies have entered the market with safer products after asking the same questions:  Is this toxic ingredient necessary? And is there a safer alternative? It’s clear industry is already far ahead of our regulation. They recognize that consumer demand for safer products is on the rise.

The proposed Safer Consumer Products regulation builds upon the body of knowledge developed over many years by state, federal and international government agencies.  Our list of 1,200 “chemicals of concern” is a compilation of lists already widely accepted throughout the world.

Initially, we will focus on about five “priority products” that contain a chemical of concern, have what the regulation considers a significant ability to contribute to or cause adverse health or environmental impacts because of exposure to the chemical of concern.

Manufacturers of a priority product will perform a scientific assessment to search for and evaluate potential safer alternative ingredients.  If a feasible alternative can’t be found, the law authorizes a number of responses to that determination. Options range from requiring manufacturers to provide additional information to consumers, establishing administrative controls or use restrictions to limit the risk posed by various products and ultimately the potential for product bans.

Claims that we will require alternatives assessments for coffee or entire automobiles are misleading.  In practice, we will limit the number of priority products, focusing our resources on those handful of products that are in widespread use and contain one or more chemicals of concern. This gives us an opportunity to work with our partners in industry and health and environmental  groups .

Not everyone whose products contain any of the 1,200 chemicals of concern that we’ve identified will be required to do the analysis. Only manufacturers whose products make the list of priority products will be required to perform an analysis in search of potential safer chemicals.

Our regulation reflects consumer concern over the ingredients in the products we buy.  It also reflects the vision of many industry leaders as well as governments around the world.

California can be a leader in this effort, harnessing our innovative spirit and our technical expertise to fire imaginations and produce the products that people want.  This movement will open new markets and provide a higher level of safety for our families and our environment.