Tests of umbilical cords show that a newborn's body contains nearly 300 compounds -- among them mercury from fish, flame retardants from household dust, pesticides from backyards, hydrocarbons from fossil fuels.
Every day, about half a dozen chemicals are added to the estimated 83,000 already in commerce. In the United States alone, about 42 billion pounds of chemicals are produced or imported daily. Although California has no major chemical manufacturing plants, it is a large user: About 644 million pounds are sold daily in the state, according to a University of California report on green chemistry published in January.
Many chemicals are probably benign, but basic health and safety data are lacking for about 80%. Some, such as chlorine gas, are so highly poisonous that a minuscule amount can kill. Others can raise the risk of cancer and other diseases. Animal tests show that some suppress the immune system, obstruct brain development, deplete testosterone, mutate cells, turn genes on and off or alter reproductive organs.
Since the 1960s, when the pesticide DDT nearly wiped out the bald eagle, public policy has dealt with the risks on a chemical-by-chemical basis: Ban a few, restrict others and clean up the mess left behind.
Meanwhile, nearly half of the nation's waterways are classified as impaired by pollutants, the air of most cities is shrouded with soot and smog, and the multibillion-dollar bill to clean up the Superfund list of hazardous waste sites keeps growing. Chemicals have moved pole-to-pole via oceans and winds, turning animals and humans around the globe into unwitting lab rats.
Scientists and regulators continually try to figure out whether various chemicals pose a threat, and to what degree, yet they rarely come up with definitive answers. Even when a proven hazard is banned, it can take decades, perhaps centuries, for it to dissipate. Sometimes, its replacement is just as risky.
"California's hazardous waste sites are still growing. And they're still leaking," said Maureen Gorsen, who directs the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is spearheading a Green Chemistry Initiative launched by Gov. Schwarzenegger. "We need a massive chemical shift. We need to move to the beginning, to the design part, what goes into the products we use rather than what comes out the end."
A simple formula
The laboratory inside Shaklee's corporate headquarters in Pleasanton, Calif., looks like any other. But it's missing a lot: chlorine, formaldehyde, glycol ethers, solvents.
Wearing a white lab coat, senior scientist Arshad Malik starts with a beaker of water. He mixes in a vegetable-based thickener, then pours in a blend of coconut oil and sugar extracted from corn. Finally, he adds a drop of a preservative.
Malik is demonstrating the deceptively simple formula for Shaklee Corp.'s household cleaner, the workhorse of its "Get Clean" line.
Gone are the petrochemicals and formaldehyde. Although cheap and effective, they emit toxic vapors.
When Shaklee began searching for a green surfactant, the ingredient that dissolves dirt and grease, no chemical company seemed interested in inventing one made from vegetables. Not until Shaklee called Germany and talked to chemists at Cognis, a specialty manufacturer.
The result: a biodegradable mix of coconut oil and sugar.
Josef Koester, marketing director for Cognis' Care Chemicals North America, said his company created the coconut-and-corn surfactant by incorporating a simple concept: "Using less chemistry."
Over the past few years, this less-is-more approach has become big business for companies going green. Even Clorox, which got its name from chlorine, launched Green Works, a nontoxic line of cleaners, this year.
Two of the biggest innovators in household products are California companies: Shaklee, which is sold person-to-person, and San Francisco-based Method Products, which sells through Target, Costco and other large retailers.
"What is driving this market now is concern over bioaccumulation of chemicals in the body," said Jim Greene, Shaklee's vice president of product development.