But internal memos uncovered by a House committee show the Bush administration is working with the nation's chemical industry to weaken Europe's new rules. And business interests have a near-perfect record in shooting down California reforms they consider "job killers."
The European policy, dubbed REACH Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals could revolutionize the way chemicals are regulated worldwide.
It requires companies to show their chemicals are safe prior to reaching the market. The status quo allows chemicals on the market with limited safety testing.
It also abandons the traditional practice of reviewing chemicals on a case-by-case basis. Instead, regulators would have the power to ban entire classes of chemicals.
Manufacturers of particularly hazardous compounds those considered carcinogenic, bioaccumulative or toxic to reproductive systems would have to prove no alternative exists before they could sell such substances, then show they've reduced risk of harm by all technical means.
"REACH will turn on the lights," said Daryl Ditz, coordinator at the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, D.C. "So far the public, government authorities even most companies are in the dark about the health and environmental consequences of chemicals."
That assumes REACH makes it past the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers without further weakening.
The Bush administration, working with chemical industry lobbyists, has fought it almost every step of the way, according to administration documents quoted in a report by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Government Reform.
The documents e-mails, cables and memoranda from the State Department, U.S. Trade Representative's office, Commerce Department and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency portray a wide-ranging lobbying effort against European reform, according to the report.
One such cable, from former Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2002, directed officials at 36 U.S. diplomatic posts outside of Europe to complain to foreign governments that REACH "appears to be a costly, burdensome and complex regulatory system, that could prove unworkable in its implementation."
Reacting to the report, released last spring, the American Chemistry Council said the Bush administration played a "legitimate and wholly appropriate role" in raising questions about the global impact of REACH.
"Trying to prove something won't hurt you is a very difficult standard, especially in today's world," said Ron Zumstein, vice president of health, safety and environment at Albemarle, a Louisiana-based chemical company.
That's a similar argument used by opponents of reform here.
In February, California lawmakers introduced several bills aimed at improving environmental health and tracking trace pollutants.
One, by Assemblywoman Wilma Chan, D-Oakland and chairwoman of the Assembly Health Committee, would ban toxic chemicals including bisphenol-A and certain additives known as phthalates from children's toys and baby bottles.
Another by Chan would require chemical manufacturers to provide the state with more information about the industrial chemicals they use. Senate President Pro-Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, and Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, issued a call for a statewide "biomonitoring" program to track contaminants in people.
Similar measures have died in the past after the state Chamber of Commerce labeled them "job killers." But Chan, who ushered a successful ban on two common flame retardants through the Legislature in 2003, believes that as science sheds more light on these compounds, lawmakers will not stand in the way.
"This has become a mainstream issue," said Davis Baltz, program director of Marin-based Commonweal, an environmental health group supporting the biomonitoring bill along with the Breast Cancer Fund.
"It doesn't matter what side of the aisle you're on. It is something you have to support as a baseline issue."
To read more of A Body's Burden, visit www.insidebayarea.com/bodyburden/.