CA Launches Green Chemistry Inquisition

FEB. 6, 2012


No one expects the California Green Chemistry Inquisition.

In post-industrial California, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control has launched an inquisition called the Green Chemistry Initiative to determine if there are safer alternatives to the use of some 3,000 chemicals used in commercial products.  California’s chemical inquisition was authorized by the state legislature under AB 1879 and its counterpart SB 509, both signed into law in 2008 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The European Union suspects that the Green Chemistry vetting process could be used to erect a trade barrier to commercial products made outside California. Entire industries could he hauled into hearings, tortured with endless proofs that their product or byproducts have no safer alternatives and possibly put out of business in California.

Imagine every supermarket in California having to morph into a pricey Whole Foods Market just to stay in business.  Or imagine clothing stores having to guarantee that they sell “organic” hemp clothing.

What will happen with drinking water treated with chemicals such as fluoride is anyone’s guess.  Some chemicals are not easily removed from water, raising the question about the future use of recycled water to alleviate drought.  Or what about chemotherapy, which is designed to be toxic? Would the safer alternative be no treatment? The Green Chemistry Initiative raises more questions than if offers to provide potential answers thus far.

The Federal Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory agencies already review many of the 3,000 chemicals that California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control considers in the category “chemical of concern” — COC’s. Many private industries offered comments to the new green laws.  One of the repeated questions by private industry is: Why doesn’t California prioritize the “chemicals of concern” to those chemicals that have not been already reviewed by the FDA or regulated by the EPA? Why add yet another bureaucratic layer of duplicate regulatory oversight if it is not for erecting trade barriers, as the European Union suspects?

The Green Chemistry Initiative is a bureaucratic process requiring every maker of chemical products to submit data to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. Green chemistry is the “design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances.”  But nearly all substances are potentially hazardous, depending on their dosage and exposure.

‘Chemicals of Concern’

A major stimulus for California’s Green Chemistry Initiative is the concern by several California sanitation and water districts about man-made chemicals found in drinking water and wastewater.

For example, the Los Angeles County Sanitation District is concerned about the following chemicals:

17b-estradiol: a natural sex hormone needed to prevent bone deformities. It is also sold in ointments including vaginal ointments and contraception products approved by the FDA in Sept. 1999.

Triclosan: an antibacterial and antifungal agent used since 1972 in trash bags.  Triclosan can react with chlorinated tap water to produce dioxin as a byproduct. Dioxins can block the thyroid, pituitary and other glands. Plain soap is thought to be just as effective as antibacterial soap with Triclosan. The FDA and European Union already regulate Triclosan.

Caffeine: a natural stimulant found in coffee, tea and chocolate. It is also a common ingredient in cola and energy drinks. Coffee and other products can be sold “decaffeinated,” where the caffeine is reduced to small levels. It is also a natural pesticide that paralyzes and kills insects that feed upon plants. If regulatory agencies are seeking safer substances to replace synthetic pesticides, perhaps caffeine would be a natural alternative.  The FDA already regulates caffeine.

NDMA — N-nitroso-DiMethlyAmine: a highly toxic organic chemical that, like all substances at high dosages, can cause cancer. It is an industrial by-product and waste product. It can also be a by-product of water treatment and sanitization by chlorination. It breaks down in minutes when exposed to sunlight. In deep soil, it should break down in a few months. It can be found in tobacco, cured meats, beer, fish, cheese, toiletry and cosmetic products such as shampoos. NDMA can form in the body from naturally occurring compounds called alkylamines. Alkylamines are produced from natural fatty acids, which are plant oils that are essential for human growth and health. The FDA and EPA already regulate NDMA.

1,2,3-Trichloropropane or TCP: a solvent only regulated in California. Not much is known about TCP. It is a synthetic agent used as a building block to make pesticides and elastic products. DOW Chemical does not produce TCP but puts out the best information on it.

Hydraine: no information could be found online on this chemical.

Quinoline: an aromatic compound mainly used as a building block to other chemicals. There are no studies of whether quinolone is a cancer-causing agent.  It is used in processing oil shale or coal. Why the Los Angeles County Sanitation District is concerned about fracking agents in its water is a question to be answered. There has been no known intrusion of the substance into any of the eight ground water basins in Southern California.

Existing Regulations

What the above snapshot of seven “chemicals of concern” to the L.A. County Sanitation District indicates is:

  1. The FDA and EPA already regulate most of the substances.
  2. There is no priority placed on those chemicals that are not already regulated by the FDA and EPA or for which there have been no studies about their potential health effects.
  3. Many substances are beneficial as well as toxic.
  4. Most of the chemicals are not dumped into local water basins by industries but are excreted into sewer systems through human waste. Some of these are prescribed medicines, plausibly including chemotherapy agents that are designed to be toxic.
  5. Finding safer alternatives to the chemicals’ use may result in undesirable unintended consequences. An example is when MTBE was substituted for ethanol in gasoline in California to prevent ethanol producers in other states from capturing the market, with disastrous consequences on local groundwater supplies.  MTBE and ethanol are used as gasoline additives to reduce smog in the summer season.
  6. One of the substances, caffeine, is not a synthetic chemical but a natural substance.
  7. Some of the “chemicals of concern” could be potentially safer substitutes for more toxic substances, such as caffeine as a safer alternative for synthetic pesticides.

Green Chemistry Omits the ‘Environment’

Paradoxically, California’s new Green Chemistry Initiative omits any consideration of the environment. Environmentalists are searching for the proverbial tree while they miss seeing the forest.

If what makes any substance toxic is the dosage (“the dose makes the poison”), then it follows that concentrating any substance can make it toxic. But California’s Green Chemistry Initiative omits any consideration of the environmental context that may concentrate any chemical or even any natural substance.

The Trap Makes the Poison

One of the most well known environments that traps substances and makes them potentially toxic is the inversion layer.  In a normal atmospheric environment, the air temperature decreases with altitude. The higher you go, the colder it gets.  However, when an inversion layer occurs, the temperatures reverse and air high above the ground is warmer than the air below it.  The result of an inversion layer is the trapping of particles in the air, resulting in smog and unhealthy air.  It isn’t the substance alone, but the trap that causes the exposure to any substance to become a potential health risk.

The same trapping process can occur in “energy-tight” buildings, resulting in “sick building syndrome.”  Asbestos, formaldehyde, radon, toxic mold, secondhand smoke, carbon monoxide and even anthrax are potentially harmful if they become airborne in newer buildings made tight for energy efficiency.

Perchlorate is a natural and man-made molecule that can be relatively harmless on the ground surface even at high levels.  But if it becomes trapped in an underground water basin, it can be potentially harmful.  If diluted with other water, however, it can be rendered harmless.  “The solution to pollution is dilution.”

Cal Chamber: Green Chemistry Law is ‘Unworkable’

The California Chamber of Commerce has commented of the Green Chemistry laws:

1. The laws are nearly limitless and thus make the private investment process uncertain and risky;

2. There is no prioritization of chemicals;

3. The minimum level of exemption from the Green Chemistry list is “unworkable”;

4. Curiously, there is no process in the law to remove a chemical from the list;

5. Small companies do not have the resources to comply with a safer alternative chemical assessment;

6. The Safer Consumer Product Alternatives goes beyond the scope of the law;

7. The law could result in banning a product when there is no safety issue

8. The 180-day and 12-month deadlines to submit product assessments are unrealistic as it may take years to conduct such assessments;

9. The law nullifies its own guarantee of non-duplication of regulation; and

10. The law avoids any economic impact criteria.

The California Chamber of Commerce summarizes its comments to the Green Chemistry law as follows:

“The issue is not whether there is a data gap; but rather, how can the state manage its finite resources to best identify and prioritize the uses of the chemicals of greatest concern in consumer products. We urge the Department to proceed with caution, and recognize the value of harmonizing the program with works previously done in the European Union and other states and countries on chemical use regulation.”

Green Chemistry or Counter-Industrialization?

As any toxicologist can tell you, everything is potentially hazardous, depending on its dosage and time exposure. Even drinking too much pure distilled water can be lethal.

What is considered “pure” or a “risk” in a technological society depends on social culture.  As former U.C. Berkeley professor Aaron Wildavsky once observed in his book, “Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers,” one must look deeper into what form of social organization is being attacked and what form is being defended.

Thus far, California’s Green Chemistry Initiative looks more like an inquisition than legal due process.  Industrialization is being attacked and a post-industrial risk-free society and potential trade protectionism are being defended.

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  1. LGMike
    LGMike 7 February, 2012, 13:41

    California already BLOCKS items not produced in the State, take a look at our 20% premium on gasoline because “other providers ” out of stage can not produce the “clean version” California requires. If this were true, then the price of gas in Western Arizona must be made outside of California because in most cases it is lower priced year round. Funny, then why are the gas trucks delivering gas from California to these stations (and I doubt if they are a different blend) which sell much lower. How about the Made in California milk lie.
    Are you telling me that cows in California are better than cows in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah or any other state are inferior and should be stopped. This is just two issues which are “in violation” of the “Commerce Clause” of the Federal government because it is imposing an unfair competition on providers outside of the state. Ask yourself Californians, could you use the money saved for something else in your budget.

    Reply this comment
  2. Sven
    Sven 8 February, 2012, 14:47

    Take 1 arsenic and 2 polonium and then we can talk.

    Reply this comment

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