California is considering pioneering and controversial legislation aimed at protecting citizens from potentially harmful chemicals in a wide array of consumer products - everything from deodorant to plastic toys.
Several bills now percolating through the state legislature - two of which passed the Senate this week - propose ways for manufacturers to study and identify trace elements in products that could cause health problems. They want to hold the companies accountable if they don't alert consumers.
Because of California's record as a trendsetter in reforms from taxation to affirmative action, the debate over the pending legislation is fierce. Industry officials worry the new measures could mandate - as has already been done in Europe - significant and expensive changes by some of the largest global manufacturers of beauty products. It would apply to items from lipstick to rubber ducks to baby pacifiers.
Indeed, some companies and other opponents wonder whether the new precautionary approaches will be based on proper science. They also see it adding unnecessary costs to their products, forcing some smaller companies out of business..
"There is wide certainty in the public-health community and the environmental community that US federal laws are too vague or lax and thinks new state laws like these are the wave of the future," says Charles Warren, a former regional administrator for the US EPA, now cochair of environmental practices group for Bryan Cave LLP. At the same time, he says, "there is a tremendous hue and cry from the chemical industry saying, 'Wait a minute, you are going to be taking action against products with such chemicals before the evidence is in.' "
Legislators here say they are responding to pressure from their own constituents following decades of increased awareness of the dangers of chemicals in the environment.
"People have become more aware of the long-term patterns by consumers to think products are safe at the outset ... that they want to get ahead of the curve and come up with common-sense solutions," says Wilma Chan, chairwoman of the California Assembly's health committee.
National observers say the US is woefully behind the global curve in facing such issues - Revlon, L'Oreal, Procter and Gamble, and Unilever have already announced alterations in their products in Europe - and will continue to lag unless states forge ahead.
"California is doing what Europe has been trying to do for the past five years and the US federal government has no willingness to tackle," says Joel Tickner, a professor in the department of community health at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Besides banning over 1,000 chemicals from cosmetics last year, the European Union is poised to overhaul regulations on substances in electronics by 2007.
Assemblywoman Chan has two bills in the offing, one seeking bans to several chemicals which have been shown to accumulate in the human body possibly harming the unborn. She also proposes targeting substances that are used by children under three. One takes aim at bisphenol A, an element in some plastics like baby bottles, another at phthalates, an element in some rattles and teething rings. Such substances are also used in upholstery, packaging, wall and floor coverings.
Another bill - which passed the Senate this week - would require cosmetics manufacturers to disclose ingredients in their products which have been shown to cause cancer. "Like most Californians, I believed that the FDA protected me form unsafe chemicals in the lotions, creams, and sprays that are part of all our daily grooming habits," says SB 484 sponsor Carole Migden.
Response to the Migden bill has been vociferous from industry opponents and backed also by some concern by the scientific community on issues of clarity and fairness.
"SB 484 would require the reporting of chemicals even though they are present in forms or at levels that pose no risk to health," said Pamela Bailey, president of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association in legislative hearings.
Some academics agree that the practice of listing substances known to be dangerous could be confusing to consumers, and possibly unfair to manufacturers.
"In all of these debates, the key point that is not often understood is that it's the dose that makes the poison," says Dr. Carl Winter, an expert in toxicology at the University of California, Davis. "The tendency is to exaggerate toxicity. It's a slippery slope where to draw the line on what represents a legitimate concern and what restrictions should apply."
Some critics are more open to yet another approach being posited by Sen. Deborah Ortiz - called bio-monitoring - which monitors the tissue of volunteers to determine which chemicals might require more research and regulation. "It makes better sense than trying to predict exposure," says Mr. Winter.
Some say that because the measures are costly to both businesses and taxpayers they will meet resistance, and could be struck down by Governor Schwarzenegger even if they pass. Yet the fact that so many bills are percolating at once, say others, shows that Californians are bringing debate back to a long-term premise of American jurisprudence.
"The long-term mantra in America has always been, there's no evidence to prove there is a danger - until we find out later that problems have occurred," says Shawn Collins, a Chicago lawyer who has represented individuals and corporations injured by corporate wrecklessness with chemicals. "Now they are trying to at least consider that the proof should come up front."