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A crucial year for California's Green Chemistry Initiative

A crucial year for California's Green Chemistry Initiative

Picture of Victoria Schlesinger

Vietnamese nail salon employees, Latina housecleaners, and strawberry field workers may sound like varied groups, but they share a common burden in California: Many of them suffer from respiratory ailments, headaches, children with birth defects, and cancer due to the products they use while on the job.

According to a 2008 UC Centers for Occupational and Environmental Health report, "200,000 Californians were diagnosed with a preventable chronic disease attributable to chemical exposures in the workplace; another 4,400 died prematurely as a result." The report also found that immigrant, minority, and low-income groups in California are most likely to be exposed to high levels of harmful chemicals at work. 

Statistics such as these have motivated Bay Area workers to change their employment conditions and have led the state to become a national leader in eliminating toxic substances from products and industrial processes through its Green Chemistry Initiative launched in 2007. But whether California remains a leader in the eyes of environmentalists and workers will be determined in Sacramento over the next nine months.

By September 2011 regulations must be in place to implement the state's two groundbreaking green chemistry laws that allow toxic chemicals to be quickly removed and replaced in products sold in California. Predictably, industry is arguing for a gradual approach to regulation due to the recession; advocates say aggressive regulation cannot come too soon given little is known about the health effects of almost 80,000 chemicals used in US products today.

How researchers will decide which of these 80,000 chemicals to study first is a significant problem, and the Breast Cancer and Chemicals Policy (BCCP) group in California has developed an interesting approach. To tackle the huge backlog of untested chemicals, BCCP first analyzed the most deadly disease among American women in their 30s through 50s: breast cancer. Studies show that breast cancer disproportionately affects older African American women as compared to Caucasian women and that exposure to environmental toxins can greatly increase the risk of developing cancer. Those most exposed to chemicals while on the job in California are low-income, minority communities. 

By deconstructing the biological processes that can precede breast cancer - changes in tissue, hormone levels, and cell function, as well as physiological states, such as obesity or early puberty - the BCCP developed a model to identify chemicals that can contribute to those early signs of harm. That's a very different, less expensive, and faster approach as compared to traditional testing methods.


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