Budget Cuts are a Bonanza for Toxic Chemical Industries

by Richard Holober, Consumer Federation of California, Capitol Weekly

Sacramento is in the grip of budget cuts that will harm programs that serve tens of millions of Californians. One agency slated for destruction protects Californians from toxic exposures. If eliminated, the result could be increased rates of cancer, neurologic and reproductive damage and illnesses linked to harmful chemical exposures in our homes and in the environment.

Governor Schwarzenegger has announced plans to eliminate the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). This small but effective enclave of scientists and physicians evaluate the health impacts that air pollutants, drinking water contaminants, pesticides, and consumer products have on all Californians, especially infants and children. Their work provides valuable science-based recommendations to protect the public.

Elimination of OEHHA would save the state about eight million dollars, but the cost to Californians, and to our public health services could be hundreds of times greater over many decades, as we will surely pay for the treatment of illnesses that would have been prevented by the reduced exposures to toxics that this agency would identify.

The science helps to shape California’s regulations to reduce contaminants in our food, consumer products and the environment, and also serves as a catalyst for environmental health protection policies in other states, nationally, and globally. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies including the National Academy of Sciences often invite OEHHA scientists to participate in advising for their own evaluations.

Elimination of OEHHA is a misguided effort to reduce state general fund expense. While there is no evidence of foul play, some of the chemical companies that would applaud the Governor’s proposal include:

‘    Military contractors such as Aerojet and Kerr McGee should be thrilled to eliminate OEHHA because it is reevaluating the toxicity of perchlorate, a rocket fuel contaminant in drinking water, and may soon issue a recommendation for a more stringent standard for tap water.

‘    PG&E and other companies that have polluted California with chromium would be glad to bury OEHHA because it has almost finalized a safe drinking water level for chromium way ahead of the U.S. government. This cleaner drinking water proposal has been held up in the Governor’s office.

‘    Big tobacco would be happy to get back at OEHHA because it was the first agency in the world to declare second-hand smoke to be a breast carcinogen.

‘    Dow Chemical should want to dissolve OEHHA because it is poised to make a decision to list bisphenol A (BPA) as known to cause birth defects or reproductive harm, a designation that no other agency has yet made, and may require labeling in California if this chemical is designated as causing reproductive harm.

California has higher standards in regulating environmental contaminants than most states and many federal agencies that oversee chemicals, thanks in large part to OEHHA, which operates independently from the intense influence of the chemical industry. Examples of OEHHA purview are Proposition 65 and the California Green Chemistry Initiative.

Proposition 65 identifies carcinogens in our environment. The California Green Chemistry Initiative, newly signed by Governor Schwarzenegger, identifies the most dangerous chemicals in our environment and helps guide our industries toward making safer products. Both of these policies would be significantly weakened with the elimination of OEHHA.

Last week 73 scientists and public health experts, and 43 environmental organizations wrote to the Governor expressing their profound concerns about the plan to eliminate OEHHA. The letters pointed out that ‘Eliminating OEHHA would be a major mistake that would not achieve the goal of saving money, while stripping California of essential scientific expertise in environmental health.’

California’s immense budget gap puts the Governor in a tough bind. It has led him to propose wholesale cuts without fully evaluating the real costs and the harm they would cause. Less than half of OEHHA’s funding ‘ about $8.3 million, is derived from the state’s general fund. OEHHA’s entire budget, including special funds and non-governmental funds, is about one percent of the total cost of Cal EPA, the agency within which it resides. And OEHHA receives much less in the way of fees than do other departments within Cal EPA.

Environmental leaders, scientists and public health experts are working to identify fees and other new sources of revenues that would eliminate virtually all general fund cost for OEHHA. We urge the Governor to work with them to preserve an agency that makes California a leader in preventing harmful toxic exposures.