Restoring Science-Based Public Policy in California

There is a saying, “science without policy is still science, but policy without science is just gambling.” Using science to inform public policy leads to better outcomes because science is systematic, repeatable and evidence based. Public policy informed by science removes an array of nonscientific reasons that can lead to nonsensical policies, such as personal and political beliefs, one’s faith, lessons from experience, trial and error learning, and reasoning by analogy.  Although these factors are important for informing one’s judgment, public policy affecting human health and the environment must be guided by the science.

It is precisely for this reason that 10 years ago, the California Legislature agreed to create a formal process to entrust state scientists to inform public policies with regard to toxic chemicals affecting human health and the environment. Recognizing that the Legislature was not the proper forum to adequately assess the endocrinological impacts of chemicals on humans or the environment, two groundbreaking laws were enacted in 2008 – Assembly Bill 1879 (Feuer) and Senate Bill 509 (Simitian), together known as the “California Green Chemistry Initiative.” The California Green Chemistry Initiative was to restore science-based policy making, reduce toxic chemicals, and promote “green chemistry” – consumer products that greatly reduced or eliminated entirely the generation of hazardous substances in the design, manufacture and application of the products.

Yet, a decade after the California Green Chemistry Initiative was enacted, the draconian legislative bans on consumer products or chemicals, without scientific justification, appear to have returned to the California legislature. In the 2018 legislative session, there were a number of product ban bills that circumvented the Green Chemistry Initiative entirely. For example, AB 2998 (Bloom) banned a manufacturer from selling or distributing juvenile products, mattresses, or upholstered furniture that contained “flame retardant chemicals” – a broad catchall term without specifying to any particular chemical, thereby banning not only all existing chemicals used to retard fires, but also any future green chemistry flame retardants as well. Another example was AB 958 (Ting), a bill banning take-out food packaging containing a fluorinated chemical, a chemical which the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) already had on its latest priority product work plan.

Criticism of the California Green Chemistry Initiative is that it operates too slowly. But uninformed policies that rush to ban entire swaths of products or chemistries are not likely to lead to any safer outcomes. We should support the bipartisan process that lets the scientists study and inform the Legislature about what products or chemistries are hazardous to human health or our environment. The good news is, the 2018 budget allocation of $1.2 million to the Green Chemistry Initiative may be indicative of the Legislature’s commitment to the process and should help expedite the state agency’s review of chemicals of concern. Let’s restore science-based public policy making in California.

Adam Regele, Policy Advocate