Saving Environmental Health Leadership in California

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We have a whodunit on our hands here in California. Unfortunately it's a serious case, because the health effects will be far-reaching, and the ripples will hurt both people and science.

Under the cloak of the California budget crisis, a proposal has emerged from the Governor's office to completely eliminate California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). OEHHA is the small office inside Cal/EPA where all the health scientists work. It's a strange target if the goal is to save money. The total amount of taxpayer money funding OEHHA is only slightly north of $8 million, and the proposed elimination and moving of statutory functions would probably cost almost that much. This is 'budget dust', not a real belt-tightening measure. So we need to look elsewhere for the real motive.

In fact, there are a lot of suspects in this case.

  • The Styrene Industry has a motive because OEHHA is poised to list this ubiquitous Styrofoam and plastic chemical as a known human carcinogen (the link above goes to a pdf action alert from the manufacturers trying to stop this!)
  • PG&E has a motive because OEHHA has been trying to finalize a safe drinking water level for chromium (remember Erin Brockovich?) way ahead of the U.S. government; this cleaner drinking water proposal has been held up in the Governor's office - a coincidence??
  • Big tobacco has a motive because OEHHA was the first agency in the world to declare second-hand smoke to be a breast carcinogen, and we know from history that Big Tobacco holds grudges.
  • Dow Chemical has a motive because OEHHA is poised to make a decision that may list its chemical, bisphenol A (BPA) as "known to cause birth defects or reproductive harm", a designation that no other agency has yet made. BPA is notorious because of its hormone-disrupting effects and presence in baby bottles and food cans, which may need to be labeled in California if this chemical is designated as causing reproductive harm.
  • Even other boards and departments in Cal/EPA might have a motive, since OEHHA reviews their risk assessments and calls them on it when the decisions are motivated by politics, not by science and health protection.

You get the idea. This is a feisty little office of scientists who are actually trying to do their job, which is to scientifically assess health and environmental risks in our air, water, food, soil, and consumer products, and to protect public health.

Funny how it is with these David vs. Goliath fights. Sometimes the little guy does win, but sometimes he gets stepped on. But if our David gets stepped on we all lose. That's because OEHHA's scientists have international reputations and guide state, federal, and global decisions on toxic chemicals in the environment. Where California goes, others follow, but if the leader disappears, we will have the blind leading the blind.

Fortunately the fight's not over. The California legislature has an opportunity to fix the problem by preserving OEHHA as an independent entity inside Cal/EPA, and strengthen it by consolidating other risk assessment functions there. Streamlining should happen at Cal/EPA, perhaps in pesticide registration where functions can be trimmed and merged to be more efficient. Also, this is the perfect place to use fees, since taxpayers shouldn't be paying for all of this work, polluters should.

The legislature will be accepting testimony on this on May 28th.  With the monster budget sandstorm swirling through Sacramento, and the prospect that California will not be able to pay its bills come July, the air probably won't clear in time to help us solve the mystery in this case.  But regardless of whodunit, we must do everything we can now to ensure that when a budget deal is struck, the little bunch of heroic, dedicated Davids in OEHHA are left standing to continue protecting all of us, and our environment from toxic chemicals

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.