Why California is leading the way on chemical policy reform

California is in the last stages of promulgating groundbreaking regulations that will require manufacturers to seek safer alternatives to potentially harmful chemicals in consumer products. These regulations come after four years of animated discussion and unprecedented input, extending to thousands of comments submitted by a broad range of stakeholders.

As the regulations come closer to fruition, however, the standard arguments are surfacing about their potential impact on the state’s economy, including comparisons to the economic impacts of the European Union’s REACH chemical regulation, which came into effect in June 2007.

It is therefore probably worth noting that no less an entity than German chemical giant BASF stated in September of this year that REACH was “worth the money.” In the same report, CEFIC, the European Chemical Industry Council, stated that while it is too early to see any impact on innovation, it expects that REACH “will indeed benefit human health and the environment.”

More importantly, however, it behooves us to remember at this juncture why California, other states such as Maine and Washington, and a sizeable national and global movement are pushing for chemicals policy reform. The externalized costs to society of chemical use are large and growing. On the flip side, the potential to grow a green economy is already here; one example is B or Benefit corporations. B Corps are a new type of corporation which uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. More on that shortly.

The Costs of Chemical Exposure

It has been difficult, at best, to put hard numbers on the externalized costs to society of human health and environmental impacts of industrial chemical use. Clearly this is another data gap we need to start to fill; our best data are at least a decade old. However, even conservative estimates of disease burden and costs based on a handful of diseases with clear linkages to environmental exposures are already in the billions of dollars. Overall estimated costs of exposure to toxic substances in 2001 were estimated at $568 billion to $793 billion per year for Canada and the United States combined. As a contextual reminder, California constitutes 13 percent of the U.S. economy.

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