The Return of the Product Ban Bills

“The dose makes the poison,” is a fundamental scientific principle, recently lost on some members of the Legislature. Also honored in the breach: the Legislature’s 10-year old commitment to let the state scientists and regulators decide whether certain chemicals in consumer products are safe for use in California – the so-called Green Chemistry program. Instead, legislators are crowning themselves experts in toxicology, and the first product under their microscope is cosmetics.

AB 495 (Muratsuchi and Wicks) would ban thousands of safe cosmetic products from being sold in California so long as those products contain any of the enumerated chemicals in the bill. Some of the chemicals on the list, like lead and asbestos, are not added by the manufacturer and occur naturally in organic ingredients such as citrus. The bill undercuts the integrated nature of hazard and exposure by presuming that the mere presence of these chemicals in cosmetic products indicates that using the product will cause people harm. The bill circumvents the Green Chemistry program entirely and exploits scary sounding chemicals to move forward non-science based public policy.

Another example from the bill is the ban of cosmetic products containing formaldehyde, a chemical which is sure to conjure up creepy imagery of preserved specimens floating in jars full of formaldehyde solutions. But formaldehyde in very low concentrations is used safely in cosmetics as a preservative to kill microorganisms and prevent or inhibit their growth in products precisely to keep the cosmetic safe for human use and extend product shelf life. Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical found in the air we breathe and even in our own bodies when synthesizing amino acids and metabolizing medications. We all have about 2.5 micrograms of formaldehyde in each milliliter of our blood, and it’s in many foods, especially fruits and vegetables—but we aren’t banning fruits and vegetables, so why are we in cosmetics?

Determining the toxicity of any given product is complicated and requires rigorous science. As I wrote last year, it was precisely because the Legislature acknowledged that it was not the proper forum to adequately assess the impacts of chemicals on humans or the environment that the Legislature agreed to create the Green Chemistry program. Yet, each year without fail, bills like AB 495 surface attempting to jam through the highly politicized legislative process product ban bills that are based on flimsy science. This type of public policy making will not lead to safer products or more consumer confidence in the marketplace. Instead, product bans too often force companies to substitute these otherwise safe chemicals for regrettable substitutes. That is why California improves the safety of cosmetic products and other consumer products by supporting the Department of Toxic Substances Control and the work their scientists are doing to advance the Green Chemistry program. Not to sound like a broken record, but we need to restore science-based public policy making in California.

Adam Regele, Policy Advocate