It's hard to imagine modern civilization without modern chemistry, but chemicals have a bad rap in the green world. There's a good reason. Pro-business policies at the federal level have been in place since the mid-60's and to date there is a backlog of 60,000 untested chemicals, chemicals which appear in a wide range of consumer products -- from foods and pharmaceuticals to toys and floor sealers. According to recent a study at UC Berkeley, several hundred new chemicals are added to manufacturing lines each year without any government approvals. Some of the chemicals are benign, but according to a recent report (PDF) from UC Berkeley, several thousand could be highly carcinogenic.
Even the super green state of California lacks a regulatory framework for identifying and ranking chemicals of concern. Dr. Maureen Gorsen, director of the California Department of Toxics Control (DTSC) says that what is now needed to catch up with this hazardous backlog is a high-speed, algorithmic method for checking new and existing untested chemicals. As she says. "Consider Google. There are billions of web pages on the internet and trillions of variables, but through mathematics and software programs they all get sorted. We should be able to use algorithms in the same way to make toxics assessments."
The current process for testing a new chemical can take six or more years. It's just not fast enough to keep up with the chemical industry. So California just passed legislation (AB1879) which will require DTSC to establish a method for identifying hazardous chemicals and to specify regulatory responses to chemical manufacturers. Gorsen is shooting for a year early, hoping to have the nation's first set of regulations completed by the end of the year. This marks a major turning point for California, what Gorsen calls the "Green Chemistry Revolution" in which toxicity is rapidly identified and safer, non-toxic alternatives are enforced.
The DTSC just published the California Green Chemistry Report (PDF) which spells out the State's 6 policy recommendations to usher in the era of green chemistry. Developed with some of the world's leading scientists, the report defines 6 strategic goals:
1. Expand pollution prevention - reallocate funds to prevent toxics from entering the life cycle of a product in the first place.
2. Develop a Green Chemistry Workforce through new and existing educational programs.
3. Create an online Product Ingredient Network which discloses all chemical ingredients by product.
4. Create an online Toxics Clearinghouse, a database of toxicity of each chemical.
5. Accelerate safe product standards, replacing chemical bans with regulated chemical alternatives.
6. Move toward "cradle-to-cradle" standards and establish a Green Products Registry to educate consumers about the best products.
California's vision is to have every product designed and manufactured with its entire lifespan in mind. The desire is to move beyond "cradle to grave" thinking (which assumes that products at the end of their life need to be safely disposed) to "cradle to cradle" thinking, in which every component of a product at the end of its life is completely reusable and poses no threat to the environment or human health.