Toxic Risk Assessment Could Be Thrown Out With the Budget Dust

0

To the dismay of environmentalists, and health and consumer advocates, the one state office responsible for assessing the risk of toxins in the environment, consumer products and food could become a victim of California budget cuts.

Scientists and public health workers are alarmed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal to eliminate the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), an independent entity within the California Environmental Protection Agency and staffed by some of the nation’s top scientists.

A lobby effort by environmentalists, scientists and others is underway to preserve the office. But the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment faces the prospect of disappearing amid a summer of slashing as Schwarzenegger and lawmakers seek to close a $24 billion budget gap.

On May 22, 73 scientists and public health leaders signed a letter to the governor and legislative leaders urging them to keep OEHHA intact. “Eliminating an independent OEHHA would do little to help the budget situation, but it would strip California of essential leadership and expertise in environmental health,” reads the letter.

“In California we’re well ahead environmentally because of OEHHA,” said Julia Quint, a retired toxicologist with 15 years of experience in the Department of Public Health.

OEHHA’s best-known function is to help enforce Proposition 65 by publishing an annual list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. OEHHA also provides hard science and recommends pollutant standards and health and safety regulations to CAL/EPA and other agencies.

Many of its activities are statutory mandates, including some under the governor’s much touted green chemistry initiative.

Under SB 509, OEHHA is required to define the list of hazardous chemicals to be included in the mandated Toxics Information Clearinghouse. OEHHA is also called to help the Department of Toxic Substances Control develop a regulatory system for identifying toxic substances in household items.

Besides specific mandates, OEHHA is expected to help develop green building guidelines, assess alternative fuels and research safer alternatives to the toxic flame-retardants found in hundreds of consumer products.

“I don’t see how [green chemistry] can work without that robust science behind it,” said Quint.

If eliminated, OEHHA’s functions would potentially be doled out to the Department of Toxic Substances Control, Air Resources Board, Department of Pesticide Regulation, Department of Public Health and other agencies.

The proposed dissolution of OEHHA is part of the governor’s proposed reorganization and consolidation program, which the administration says would save the state $50 million over the next two years, just 0.002% of total needed cuts. Eliminating OEHHA would save a fraction of this, well under $150,000.

OEHHA’s proposed budget for 2009-10 is under $20 million, only $8.3 million of which comes from the General Fund, which is sourced by income, corporate and sales tax revenues. The rest of its budget comes from special regulatory fees.

The minute savings achieved by closing the office has environmentalists wondering if there isn’t an ulterior motive in dissolving OEHHA.

“There are people who would absolutely like OEHHA to go away,” said Quint.

Gina Solomon, senior scientist at the National Resources Defense Council, points out in a blog that OEHHA has few friends in powerful industries like tobacco and chemical manufacturers. Among its many finding, a 2006 OEHHA report found exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk for breast cancer. The report led the California Air Resources Board to list secondhand smoke as a toxic air contaminant, the first agency in the world to do so.

Some say a lesson is to be learned across the country in New Jersey, where the state government recently broke up and downsized a scientific division with duties similar to OEHHA within that state’s Department of Environmental Protection. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the disbanding happened soon after the scientists released a report warning of the potential toxic effects on humans of the compound hexavalent chromium, found at polluted sites slated for redevelopment.

Conspiracy theories aside, environmentalists and scientists suggest that OEHHA could be preserved by cutting down on its take from the General Fund and increasing its funding from special fees. The Legislative Analyst’s Office has been recommending the same for years.

Many of OEHHA’s functions could be paid for by fees collected through the state’s regulatory programs, about $5 million of it, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. This could include penalties collected from Prop 65 infringers and funds from the pesticide fee collected on all first sales of pesticides into the state, said Bill Magavern, director of Sierra Club California.

Such a shift would probably require fee hikes or shifts.

“The fact is they should raise the fees,” said Magavern. “They need to get over their fee phobia.”

OEHHA supporters say the office’s job is too important to risk carving it up and reducing its independence. “The scientists and physicians at OEHHA ensure the high quality and rigor of the policies that are put forward through Cal/EPA; their position of semi-independence allows them to assess health risks from an unbiased scientific perspective, making them essential to policymakers,” reads a letter to policy-makers sent by groups including the American Lung Association of California, Sierra Club of California and Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles.

Groups opposed to OEHHA’s elimination will be presenting a counter-proposal on Tuesday, June 2 at the two-house conference committee on the budget. The counter-proposal will consist of streamlining some redundant processes at Cal/EPA and transferring funds to OEHHA from special fee accounts, said Solomon, who’s helping to craft the proposal.

For example, $1.8 million in additional funds could be transferred to OEHHA for the current year through the Safe Drinking Water Account, which has significant reserves, said Solomon. OEHHA sets safe drinking water standards for the entire state, yet doesn’t get paid anything for it, she said. Additional funds would be gathered from other special fee accounts related to OEHHA’s work.

“The package is remarkably painless,” said Solomon. “There actually is money sitting out there that’s not competing with social welfare programs.”

Jill Replogle has worked as a freelance journalist in the Bay Area and Central America for eight years. She is now a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Jill is currently an intern for Protect Consumer Justice, a project of the Consumer Attorneys of California.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here