Safer Consumer Products Related News

Guest column: Debbie Raphael - Meeting consumer demand for safer products

CW Briefing, September 2013

After five years of collaboration among manufacturers, consumers and environmentalists, California’s game-changing safer products programme will go into effect on 1 October.

Crafted by the state government’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), with extensive public input, the Safer Consumer Products Regulations take a preventive approach to keeping dangerous chemicals out of everyday products, and they give consumers greater confidence that the products they buy ultimately will be safe. For industry, these regulations will provide a more predictable process for ensuring product safety, and offer a competitive advantage for innovators who see an opportunity in the growing market for toxic-free or toxic-reduced products.

This will be a significant shift from previous policy – or lack of policy – which eliminated harmful chemicals only after they had already been on the market for many years. In the past, toxics in products were dealt with on a case-by-case basis when found to have harmed consumers or our environment. By then, it was often too late. 

These historical approaches never examined the potential harm of substitute chemicals, which often turned out to be more harmful than the chemicals they were intended to replace. In the late 1970s, for example, methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) was heralded as a new gasoline additive, replacing one that had been deemed neurotoxic. MTBE, it was later found, seeped into groundwater, compromising its quality and raising concerns over its potential carcinogenic effects at high doses.

After relying on “single product bans” for so many years, California is once again at the forefront of the effort to protect consumers from harmful chemicals. This new programme kick-starts a movement to systematically evaluate alternative ingredients by requiring that manufacturers ask: “is this ingredient necessary, and is there a safer alternative?”

We are a bellwether state, and our new regulations send a message to industry and consumers that a predictable process for identifying safer ingredients in products is here to stay.

There is ample evidence that some visionary companies are successfully making the transition. Hewlett Packard, Staples, cleaning product suppliers, Method and Clorox, and the latest addition, Walmart (CW 13 September 2013), recognise that consumer demand exists and will continue to grow.

Other industries doing business on a national or international scale are watching us closely to see how the regulation actually works.

Priority products

Under the statute, the state will develop a list of chemicals that are candidates for elimination, based on a variety of hazardous traits as determined by authoritative scientific organisations, and their history of exposure. It will then develop a group of product types, known as “priority products”, containing at least one of those chemicals. 

Up to five of these priority products will be selected by April 2014, and manufacturers of these products will have to conduct an “alternative analysis” to determine if a safer, nontoxic ingredient is suitable. If no other ingredient is feasible, the DTSC has the ability to apply one of several regulatory responses that would reduce risk or phase out the chemical.

Eventually, products will end up with the safest ingredients possible, and avoid substituting ingredients that are even worse. It is a practical, meaningful and legally defensible programme that was developed in a careful, deliberate and collaborative manner. It gives consumers confidence that someone is watching out for what goes into everyday products. 

Businesses will have plenty of time to adjust. Each priority product must go through a review process, including a public comment period that could take up to a year. In addition, we will prepare a work plan that will identify potential priority product categories for the next three years.

The programme starts out small, but it sends a big message. Innovative and forward-thinking companies will realise the opportunities for growth that stem from this cutting-edge regulation. Smart businesses are already planning ahead, looking for alternative chemicals they can promote as non-toxic, family friendly and environmentally safe. 

By doing so, they are exemplifying the pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit that has long been California’s hallmark. 

It is fitting that the implementation of our efforts take place very near the anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring. Her work first drew the world’s attention to the fact that the chemicals we use can have unknown consequences for our health and our environment. Her warning call still resonates today as we move forward into a new area of chemical management policy.


Guest column: Debbie Raphael - Meeting consumer demand for safer products

CW Briefing, September 2012

California’s proposals to require manufacturers to seek less toxic ingredients for consumer products will help build consumer confidence in the goods they buy and allow firms to pursue growth on the basis of safer products.

People all over the world are concerned about toxic chemicals in the products they buy. Common sense tells us: if it’s something I’m putting on my body or in my home, a product shouldn’t contain any ingredient that could harm me.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to discover that a product we assumed was “non-toxic” actually contains a potentially harmful ingredient. We have all turned on the television or clicked on a news article about product recalls and potential health impacts from the things we buy. We then change our purchasing habits only to find suspicion gathering around another trusted product.

Societal responses

Currently, we as a society respond in one of three ways. The first involves the evolutionary process of government action. Over time, scientific knowledge builds to the point where a government agency decides it must act. While the evidence is usually widespread and well documented, we often see health or environmental impacts long before a ban goes into effect.

In the second, a consumer group, news organisation or health institution reports that a product contains a harmful ingredient. Much publicity ensues and consumer confidence in that product erodes to the point where the manufacturer may choose to reformulate the ingredients or take the product off the market.

A third approach involves legislative bodies responding to an outcry for change, leading to bans on a particular chemical in a particular product. While the latter two approaches offer a much quicker route than the first approach, they can result in unforeseen consequences when the substitute ingredient turns out to be equally toxic as the one it replaces.

Each of these options is effective, but carries limitations. Typically millions of consumers have already purchased the product, and the manufacturer must pour resources into reformulation and restoring customer confidence. Ideally, design decisions to minimise impacts to human health and the environment happen long before products reach the marketplace.

California’s proposed Safer Consumer Products Regulation, released in July (CW 30 July 2012), augments these options by creating a predictable process for reducing toxic ingredients in products. In its simplest terms, the Regulation requires manufacturers whose consumer product contains a toxic ingredient to ask: “Is this ingredient necessary? Is there a safer alternative? Is that alternative ingredient feasible?” In addition, by listing the chemicals that the State will be examining in consumer products, manufacturers have the opportunity to design out the use of those chemicals ahead of time.

Meaningful change

The basic concepts we propose are not new. In fact, some in industry are way ahead of us. Many companies fully recognise that a reasoned and thorough analysis of alternative ingredients or product design eliminates expensive recalls and avoids costly political battles while building customer confidence. They are building a strong market share among the rapidly increasing number of consumers who demand safe products. The recent announcement by personal care giant Johnson & johnson to phase out harmful ingredients in its products is just the latest indication that companies recognise the need to take the toxics out of the things we buy every day.

We strongly believe that requiring manufacturers to analyse alternative ingredients and design safer products is a sound and ultimately profitable approach. We’ve seen companies large and small – many of them based in California – grow and create jobs around the development of safer alternatives. More importantly, these regulations create a systematic approach that protects our children, our environment and ourselves. It brings about meaningful change.

Ours is a small, but critical, first step. We plan in the first phase to look at a handful of chemical/product combinations. We will take the time to develop a process that meets the needs of consumers, manufacturers and retailers.

We anticipate other governments may adopt similar approaches, industry will develop innovative solutions and the movement toward safer products will grow. California adopted the Green Chemistry law in 2008 because consumers wanted assurances of safety, and industry wanted a science-based and predictable process for examining chemical ingredients.

We believe our regulation meets those goals.

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The views expressed in contributed columns are those of the expert authors and are not necessarily shared by Chemical Watch.

Debbie Raphael became director of California’s Department for Toxic Substances Control (, the state government department responsible for the proposed Safer Consumer Products Regulation in May 2011. She is a scientist and a former programme manager for the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

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