Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Jan Lee headshot

California Targets List of Toxic Chemicals in Consumer Products

Words by Jan Lee

California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control has announced the beginning of a new program that will be designed to monitor and regulate toxic substances found in consumer goods.

On Thursday the DTSC implemented the first phase of the agency’s new “Safer Consumer Products” program by releasing the names of three types products it says contain substances that are toxic to the human body and are under regulatory consideration by the state.

The three Priority Products are:

  • Children’s padded sleeping products like sleeping mats and bassinets that contain unreacted diisocyanates, a known carcinogen

  • Spray polyurethane foam (SPF) materials used for insulation that contain unreacted diisocyanates, a suspected carcinogen

  • Paint and varnish strippers, and surface cleaners that contain methylene chloride, a known carcinogen

Debbie Raphael, the director of department at the DTSC, stressed that at this stage, the department was not banning these substances. “We are starting a conversation with manufacturers.”

Raphael noted that months of effort was put into researching each of the products and the associated chemicals used in them, and that the DTSC is hoping to engage product manufacturers in removing these substances from standard consumer use by finding safer alternatives.

Deputy Director of the DTSC, Meredith Williams, said that researchers have been able to confirm that there are already products on the market that can replace the use of diisocyanates in children’s products and paint and varnish strippers. The spray polyurethane foam, however, does not yet have a safe alternative on the market. The department was therefore appealing to manufacturers to find alternative manufacturing processes that don’t require the use of unreacted diisocyanates. According to the DTSC, exposure is known to cause asthma and skin rashes and is suspected to cause cancer.

“People become more sensitized to them after one use,” said Williams. She admitted, however, that finding an alternative for the chemical in this product may be difficult, since the diisocyanates act as a propellant for the foam insulation.

“This will be a challenge for manufacturers,” she said.

Williams said the goal of the announcement was also to encourage (California) consumers to make "educated decisions" about the items they buy and "to be aware of the possible exposure" to toxic chemicals that may be under state review, but are not yet under new regulations.

“I want to stress again, this is not a ban. This is a process,” said Williams. Consumers who purchase any of these kinds of products are encouraged to read the labels and ask questions. If they are unsure about whether the products they are buying contain these toxic substances, “ask the manufacturer. If that fails, ask the retailer.”

The department’s Safer Consumer Products regulations went into effect in October 2013, and is directed toward increasing review and regulation of toxic substances in consumer products. The department said that if warranted, it may choose to ban these three toxic substances from use or sale in California, following a 12-month review process. For now, however, the program’s aim is to encourage discussion and research into alternative methods for manufacturing these consumer products.

The Oakland, Calif.-based Center for Environmental Health released a statement Thursday welcoming the DTSC’s decision to include these three products on its new Priority Products list. CEH says it has been attempting to raise awareness about the dangers of diisocyanates, which are currently being used in children’s bedding products as a flame retardant. The nonprofit organization recently launched litigation against manufacturers that use the chemical in children’s bed products.

“The state’s action today is a small but important step in the drive for safer products made without harmful chemicals,” said Michael Green, CEH’s executive director. “Our work has already demonstrated that national makers of children's nap mats can eliminate all flame retardants, which are completely unnecessary and can harm children’s health. We expect any other companies that make these products will be able to work with DTSC and follow suit quickly.”

Federal regulations concerning toxic chemicals in consumer products have not been updated for more than 30 years. The CEH said that although Congress is currently reviewing proposals to update these rules,  current proposals in both the House and Senate could preempt these efforts. If passed, they could also preempt state regulations like California’s Prop 65, which has been successful in pushing for better oversight of manufacturing processes for consumer products sold within the state.

Image of baby in bassinet by Shingleback

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Read more stories by Jan Lee

More stories from Investment & Markets