The Mount Everest of toxic chemicals in everything with which we interact can be petrifying. What are all those ingredients in every product I use in the shower every morning? How toxic is the bathroom cleaner I used? What's keeping my wrinkle-resistant dress shirts such bright colors? When I ride the Ferry to work in the morning, I wonder what those beautiful Brown Pelicans are eating from the Bay. What is on the receipt I get with my morning coffee? What am I exposed to all those hours I spend in my cubicle at work? While we can use our purchasing power and small adjustments in our behavior (like skipping the receipt) to reduce our exposure to some toxic chemicals, the problem is bigger than individual shopping decisions. We need a regulatory agency to identify the most harmful chemicals that we all deal with (or some of us are exposed to in excess), to remove them from the market, and to replace them with safer alternatives. Fortunately, California's response to the problem is starting to make progress on toxic chemical reform.
In October 2013, California launched the Safer Consumer Products Program (SCP) - run by California's Department of Toxic Substances Control - with an aim to reduce toxic chemicals in the products we buy and use in our homes and at work. The Program selected three Initial Priority Products during its roll-out, and SCP has been slowly making progress on its four-step process to assess the necessity of and safer alternatives to the chemicals of concern. On April 16, 2015 the Program released a Three-year Work Plan setting the stage for what the Program will tackle through the end of 2017. The Priority Product Work Plan is a menu of options from which the Program will select products to undergo alternatives analysis and regulatory response over the next three years.
The Work Plan
The Work Plan includes seven categories of varying complexity and scope from which upcoming products can be chosen.
1. Beauty, Personal Care, and Hygiene Products
Nearly all of products you use to get ready in the morning - soap, shampoo, body lotion, deodorant, hair products, and cosmetics - are covered in this category. The Work Plan explains how vast of an undertaking reforming this group of products could be. For example, the California Department of Public Health's Safe Cosmetic Program has a database of over 45,000 products that contain one or more chemicals listed as a carcinogen or reproductive or developmental toxicant on California's Proposition 65 list, by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), or by U.S. EPA (Page 17). 63 different chemicals in these products are on one of those lists. More than four hundred companies manufacture these products. And that only covers makeup! Because many of these products are applied directly to the body, and chemicals can be absorbed through the skin or be inhaled, there is high exposure for users. Furthermore, as the products are washed off the body they may pass through wastewater treatment plants and expose wildlife in the environment. Any beauty, personal care, or hygiene product used on the body that contains a chemical on the Candidate Chemical list is a possible target for upcoming regulation under the Work Plan.
2a. Building Products: Painting Products, Adhesives, Sealants, and Flooring
2b. Household, Office Furniture and Furnishings
These two categories combined cover the built space of our homes and workplaces. The authors of the Work Plan articulate the need for these two categories as follows:
"According to the Air Resources Board, Californians spend 87 percent of their time indoors. Consequently, products used to build and furnish indoor working and living spaces have a high potential to cause ongoing exposure to any Candidate Chemicals they contain. Exposure can occur as we breathe chemicals that are emitted from products into the air, or when we absorb chemicals through the skin from direct contact with buildings and their furnishings. Normal wear and tear can degrade building materials and furnishings and create dust. Young children often touch floors or furniture and then put their hands in their mouths, resulting in direct ingestion of dust and the many chemical contaminants that dust has been documented to contain. Flame retardants, stain repellants, plasticizers, phenols and metals have been found in indoor dust studies." (Page 20)
In addition to the hazards to young children as described, workers are characterized as another population who are at increased risk for exposure to hazardous chemicals in building products. This category is more limited in scope than some of the others - only painting products, adhesives, sealants and flooring are covered in the Building Product category; only household and office furnishing products that are treated with flame retardants or stain resistant chemicals (or both) will be considered for regulatory action in this next phase.
3. Cleaning Products
Another broad category: air fresheners, detergents, deodorizers and cleaners designed for ovens, windows, bathrooms, surfaces, scouring, carpets, spots, floors, and general-purpose are covered in this category. Often times, the chemical formulation that improves the performance of cleaning products also makes it harmful to people or the environment. While custodial workers are a particularly vulnerable population, the Work Plan also indicates that people may be exposed to chemicals in these products after use when the volatile chemicals affect indoor air quality or pass through wastewater treatment plants after being washed down the drain. Many cleaning product chemicals are highly persistent, they don't breakdown into less harmful components, and contaminate our environment for a long time to come. The Work Plan highlights the need for further investigation of the hazard traits of the many thousands of chemical compounds used in fragrances especially.
Increasingly, manufacturers have been responding to consumer demand for clothing that is color fast, wrinkle resistant, stain resistant, and water repellant among other qualities, by adding a variety of chemicals - many of which appear on the Candidate Chemical list because they are toxic, bioaccumulative or environmentally persistent. There is concern about these chemicals causing harm to people or the environment at all stages of the clothing's production and use from manufacturing, daily wearing, laundering, and disposal.
5. Fishing and Angling Equipment
When recreational anglers lose fishing equipment into the lakes, rivers, streams, bays and oceans where they fish, any hazardous chemicals in that equipment can potentially harm birds and other wildlife. The Safer Consumer Product Program is particularly concerned with small, dense fishing weights and gear. Similar products have been shown to cause lead poisoning in a variety of bird and animal species around the world that have ingested them.
6. Consumable Products used in Office Machinery
Did you know many cashier register receipts contain BPA? The Program has listed consumable and refillable components of office machinery products like thermal paper, ink and toner cartridges that contain Candidate Chemicals like bisphenols, azo dyes, phthalates and volatile organic compounds as possible Priority Products for upcoming years. Workers who use office machinery continuously throughout the day have the highest potential for chemical exposure from these consumable office products.
What Comes Next?
Later this year, the Program is expected to announce another three (or so) Priority Products containing a particular chemical, or class of chemicals, that will undergo the process of assessing if the chemical of concern is necessary and if there is a safer alternative to replace it with. Before DTSC finalizes the next Priority Products from the categories in the Work Plan, there will be public workshops and a formal chance for public comments. DTSC has made a significant effort to engage all stakeholders in the process including manufacturers, industry groups, academic researchers, workers' rights proponents, environmental advocates, health scientists, and the general public.
Simultaneously, DTSC expects to begin the rulemaking on the Initial Priority Products in the next couple months. California's rulemaking law (the Administrative Procedure Act) includes a 45-day public notice and comment period. Stay tuned for a chance to show your support for the agency's work to eliminate toxic chemicals from consumer products.