Economic powerhouse California leads the nation in consumer and environmental watchdog initiatives. The state’s bans, phase-outs, and regulatory requirements serve as a strong incentive for manufacturers to change products.
Recently, the Assembly health and toxics committee held its first hearing on AB 319, a bill introduced by Assemblymember Wilma Chan (D-Alameda), that would ban the manufacture and sale of toys and childcare products containing phthalates and bisphenol A. These chemicals are found in hard, clear-plastic bottles, dishes, teething rings, vinyl books, and beach balls. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they are also found in the bodies of most Americans.
EPA research biologist Earl Gray testified that scientists have conducted lab tests on phthalates for 25 years, and findings have shown disruption in the production of testosterone that can result in low sperm count, malformations of sexual organs, and disruption of the endocrine system. Biologist Frederick von Saal, who has conducted dozens of studies of bisphenol A, told legislators that no state or nation has assessed the literature on the harmful effects of low doses. Bisphenol A has been associated with changes in brain, pancreas, and thyroid function, as well as hormone levels and behavior. It has been linked with the increased secretion of insulin, which can lead to Type II diabetes, obesity, and hypertension.
Testifying against the bill were chemical and toy industry representatives and their own researchers. Jim Lamb, senior vice president of the Weinberg Group, an organization representing manufacturers, said that the research findings were not relevant because testing has been done on rats using much higher chemical concentrations. Compelling manufacturers to make products with the “least toxic alternative” would force them to use chemicals that have been tested even less than the compounds in question, he said. Toxicologist Lorenz Rhomberg from the American Plastics Council said no regulatory body has restricted the use of bisphenol A, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Products Safety Commission.
Some manufacturers, such as Evenflo and Medela, already have phased out phthalates and bisphenol A in baby bottles and other products. Newer products sport “PVC free” labels, meaning that they don’t include the polyvinyl chloride plastics that contain phthalates. These compounds have been banned in the European Union and 14 other nations. After the hearing, AB 319 was killed in committee. Chan is considering reintroducing the bill or attaching it to a different piece of legislation.
Children’s exposure to toxic substances has been the focus of other activity in Sacramento: In January, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) made California the first state to categorize secondhand tobacco smoke as a “toxic air contaminant.” This ruling may revive legislative efforts to ban drivers from smoking when children are in the car and curb smoking in multifamily dwellings.
CARB’s ruling was bolstered by the California EPA’s new research findings documenting a causal link between secondhand smoke exposure and pre-term delivery; asthma induction in adults; breast cancer in younger, primarily pre-menopausal women; heart disease and lung and nasal sinus cancer in adults; and sudden infant death syndrome. The report, which underwent a four-year scientific review process that included public comment, contained the first-ever outdoor monitoring of secondhand smoke exposure near designated smoking areas in California.
Children are the winners in California Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s lawsuit against 71 major retailers and distributors of costume jewelry containing lead. The businesses, which sell the lead-laced baubles mainly to children and teens, failed to warn consumers about lead-related health risks, a requirement under California’s Proposition 65. In January, many of the retailers reached an agreement with the state that includes a $1.8 million settlement, new standards for lead-free and low-lead content jewelry by 2008, and an industry-financed education program. While many companies agreed to the settlement, litigation continues with Wal-Mart, Jordache, Papaya Stores, Gerson Co., and Royal Items.
Meanwhile, Proposition 65, which requires warning labels on foods containing chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects, faces a potential challenge from the federal government. In December, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the National Uniformity for Food Act. The bill has a good chance of passing in the House, where over 226 representatives, including Central Valley lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, cosponsored it. In the Senate, its fate is uncertain; Dianne Feinstein is urging her congressional colleagues to reject the proposal.
The National Uniformity for Food Act would prohibit states—after a three-year waiting period—from establishing or continuing food safety warning rules that differ from FDA rules. States could petition the FDA for an exemption, but they must prove to federal regulators that the stricter rules “would not unduly burden interstate commerce.” The legislation would effectively gut the food-labeling component of California’s Prop 65.
For his part, Lockyer is pressing for greater enforcement of Prop 65, including forcing french fry and potato chip manufacturers to post warning notices over the chemical acrylamide and demanding that canned tuna producers post labels warning of mercury. Both of these represent ongoing California lawsuits that would collapse with the passage of the National Uniformity for Food Act. For more information, contact California League for Environmental Enforcement Now (CLEEN) at (510) 654-6148 or firstname.lastname@example.org.