California to overhaul chemical regulations

09 September 2008

California is poised to become the first US state to effectively ban the use of potentially carcinogenic perfluorocarbons (PFCs) from food packaging by 2010. But the state's chemical industry is urging the state's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to veto the legislation.

Legislation approved by the California Assembly and the state Senate in late August prohibits concentrations of more than 10 parts per billion of PFC in food packaging from1 January 2010. 'There is no reason for us to continue the production of this toxic chemical when there are safe alternatives that responsible corporations are already using,' said the bill's author, state Senator Ellen Corbett. 

The US Environmental Protection Agency classes one PFC, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), as a 'likely carcinogen'. It has also been linked to impaired foetal development, altered male reproductive hormones, as well as functional changes to the liver, thyroid gland, and immune system. But the degree to which these chemicals are a threat to human health remains controversial.

"We believe that this issue is being forthrightly addressed and don't see the need for the California legislature to impose its will arbitrarily on what is already a national phase-out protocol"
- John Ulrich

Industry representatives say the bill would give politicians undue influence over scientific issues, and they note that the US federal government already regulates PFOA. 'We believe that this issue is being forthrightly addressed and don't see the need for the California legislature to impose its will arbitrarily on what is already a national phase-out protocol,' says John Ulrich, an official with the Chemical Industry Council of California (CICC).

In January 2006, the EPA started a voluntary PFOA Stewardship Program, under which eight key companies agreed to reduce plant emissions and product content of PFOA and related chemicals by 95 per cent by 2010 - and eliminate them altogether by 2015.

Beyond EPA's efforts in the US, several other countries are now working on curtailing PFCs. For example, in late June the European Union banned the distribution and use of PFOS, except for use as anti-reflection coating required by the semiconductor industry. Canada and Sweden are among the other countries taking steps to restrict the use of these compounds.

Meanwhile, the California legislature has separately approved two bills to implement Schwarzenegger's 'green chemistry' initiative. The legislative package, passed on 31 August, directs the California Environmental Protection Agency to develop a process for reviewing industrial chemicals and ensuring their safe use.

The initiative has garnered the support of industry lobbyists, who say the bills will create a framework to allow scientific input on chemical evaluation and regulation. But, others express concern that the legislation allows too much information to be classified as trade secrets.

All three chemical bills are among hundreds that are in limbo because of disagreement over the state's budget. Schwarzenegger  has threatened to veto all legislation until a resolution is reached. 

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA


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