Consumers to Pay the Price for State Environmental Regulations

Consumers could soon face higher prices, reduced choices and lower-quality products, thanks to a slew of chemical regulations that are advancing in various states. These regulations are unlikely to provide any measurable benefits, and instead would reduce consumers’ access to a myriad of products, from children’s toys and canned food to paint and building materials.
These regulations, pushed largely by environmental activists, may prevent consumers from knowing why certain products become more expensive or don’t work as well.

The key problem with these state laws is that they focus on “hazard” rather than risk. While “hazardous” attributes certainly sound scary to the average consumer, hazard alone is not an appropriate justification for regulation. For example, bathing presents hazards associated with slip and fall injuries. Yet, we don’t ban bathing. Instead, we manage risks by using bath mats and taking other safety precautions.

Chemical policy, likewise, should focus on managing risks based on demonstrated science, so consumers can safely enjoy the benefits of chemical products. Unfortunately, California, Washington, Minnesota, and Maine have hazard-based chemical laws on the books.

California leads the pack with its nonsensical “Green Chemistry Initiative,” which was passed by the state legislature in 2009. The state finalized its regulatory outline for the law just last year, and now has begun to identify “chemicals of concern” and consumer products that use them. The goal is to force companies to reformulate products that have been safely used for decades in order to remove “hazardous” chemicals. And if companies don’t act, California regulators will, by issuing regulations to force product reformulations.

California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has established a list of about 1,200 “candidate chemicals,” based on their hazard profiles. Last March, it identified specific products that use these chemicals and will soon finalize a rule calling on manufacturers of these goods to conduct “alternatives analyses.” Such analyses supposedly will determine if companies can switch to “safer”—i.e., politically more popular—chemicals for their product formulations. And this is just the beginning of a potential onslaught of such product regulations.

DTSC’s first round of regulations focuses on three product categories that include chemicals used in polyurethane spray foam (used for insulation), paint and varnish strippers and flame retardant children’s foam bedding.

These calls for such forced product reformulations are not based on science. For example, there is very little, if any human data, indicating that methylene chloride could be carcinogenic at trace levels in consumer products. But DTSC is targeting paint and varnish strippers that use this chemical because the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified it as “possibly carcinogenic” because it causes tumors in rodents exposed to high levels.

This classification does not mean the chemical has any health effects in humans exposed to low levels. Remember, it is the dose that makes the poison. The levels of such chemicals in these foods—as well as traces of methylene chloride in paint strippers—are simply too low to pose significant risks. In fact, a healthy human diet contains many chemicals that cause tumors in rodents exposed to high levels. For example, IARC classifies chemicals that naturally form in pickles, broccoli, carrots and many more healthy foods as “possibly carcinogenic.”

Despite the assumption that manufactures can find safer products, businesses may be forced to use less tested, newer products that may pose greater risks or simply not work as well. California’s targeting of flame retardants in children’s foam bedding, for example, may encourage some manufactures to use inferior products or no flame retardants at all. But will regulators be accountable should more children die in fires as a result? Probably not.

State lawmakers and citizens should vigorously oppose such irrational chemical policies. After all, when regulators are empowered to act arbitrarily, consumers end up paying the price without gaining any verifiable benefits.