Fiona Ma for State Assembly

Plastics Set Off Alarm

 SACRAMENTO - Responding to an unusually large number of consumer product recalls last year - many of them involving lead in everything from toys and candy to clothing and lunch boxes - several Bay Area lawmakers are pushing for better state regulation of chemicals believed to be toxic.

One bill, labeled the "Toxin-free Toddlers and Babies Act" by Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, would ban the chemical bisphenol A from toys and child-care products sold in California, such as baby bottles. Another measure, by Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, D-Hayward, would prohibit several ingredients used in deodorants, hair dyes and acrylic nails. Yet another, by Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, would bar a toxic grease-resistant compound found in pizza boxes, which she said can get into heated food, and, when ingested, can become a carcinogen.

More than 25 bills have been introduced - an increase from previous years - some of which will be presented to the full membership of the Assembly and Senate in the next two weeks.

"We're seeing more bills in the Legislature dealing with toxic chemicals, largely in response to the number of contaminated products that have been found to be on the market," said Sierra Club California Director Bill Magavern.

"There's a growing realization," he said, "that the government does not have an effective system to keep these toxic products out of our homes."

The measures are pushed by pro-environment Democrats eager to protect the public's health, and opposed by business-friendly Republicans, who say that science doesn't prove the chemicals are that bad.

Both sides support their claims with dueling scientific and governmental studies from all over the world.

Opponents of the bills complain about a lack of detailed information on whether a chemical being banned is better or worse than the chemical that replaces it.

Assemblyman Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita, said that when MTBE was added to gasoline in the 1990s to reduce pollution, it was later linked to adverse health effects. Then ethanol became a replacement, and studies have since blamed it for respiratory illness.

"If the science warrants a change or warrants a ban, I am willing to support that, and to be very aggressive in supporting that," Smyth said. "However, I think we have been moving ahead of the science, and again, in putting up replacement chemicals."

The effort to ban bisphenol A, or BPA, from shatter-proof plastic baby bottles, cites Canadian regulators who deemed the chemical so dangerous that stores in Canada pulled children's products from shelves.

Yet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration calls the chemical safe. "Clearly, they haven't found a risk," said Steve Hentges of the American Chemistry Council.

Even if the bills pass the Democratic-controlled Legislature, it's unknown if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would sign them into law.

Schwarzenegger likes to be known as an environmentalist, but he's also a champion for business, a sector that financially supports his political campaigns.

Lawmakers behind this year's flurry of bills, though, are hopeful because the governor last year agreed to ban the chemical phthalates from infant toys, a measure carried by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco.

Now Ma is proposing AB 2694, which would prohibit lead in amounts larger than "trace levels" in children's toys, because it's said to harm the central nervous system.

Another measure, AB 1860, by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, would allow state regulators to order mandatory recalls of unsafe products. Compliance with the federal government's recalls is voluntary.

"If the federal government refuses to act," Ma said, "then states will."