INSIGHT: New York opens new front in war on chemicals

07 January 2010 17:36  [Source: ICIS news]

A sanitary system minus PVCBy Joe Kamalick

WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--New York State has opened a new front in the war against chemicals, but most of the combat casualties may well be among the state’s employers and workers, according to industry officials.

To implement an April 2008 executive order by Governor David Paterson designed to “green” the procurement policies of hundreds of state agencies and public authorities, a committee of multiple state agencies has proposed a list of 85 chemicals that state purchasing officers should avoid in buying goods and services.

Known as the “Chemical Avoidance List,” the roster of 85 substances would, if given final approval by the state government, “encourage all state agencies and other affected entities to avoid the purchase of products, services and technologies that contain and/or use substances found on the Chemical Avoidance List”.

The committee also recommends that state agencies “use safer alternate substances and products, services and technologies which, at a minimum, avoid the use of targeted chemicals”.

It should be noted that the proposed policy only recommends that the listed chemicals and products containing them be “avoided” and that the policy does not specifically call for an outright ban on use of those substances or their derivative products.

Good thing, too. 

Otherwise, New York state agencies might have to forego purchasing and using such contaminated products as light bulbs, appliances, computers (due to mercury content), mothballs, leather furniture (naphthalene), cell phones (beryllium), batteries (nickel), hospital disinfectants (ethylene oxide) most carpeting, wallpaper and shower curtains - and pretty much any sort of indoor plumbing because they contain vinyl chloride in some form.

This could get ugly, to say nothing of inconvenient for state workers.

New York’s state capital is Albany, a city well north of the snow line in winter months.

Picture the famous Norman Rockwell painting of a shovel stuck in two feet of drifted snow halfway to an outhouse, with deep footprints marking the rest of the way to “the necessary” as it used to be called.

If you eliminate PVC pipe and other vinyl chloride products from plumbing and building products, it’s back to the outdoor privy.

State officials note that the Chemical Avoidance List is simply an advisory document, that the state intends no outright ban of the listed substances.

But chemical industry officials warn that an avoidance policy for purchasing managers in such a major economic player as the state government would quickly become a de facto ban against listed substances and their derivative products.

“An avoidance policy, even if it is short of a ban, puts you on a path to product deselection and eventually to banning products,” said Steve Rosario, executive director of the New York State Chemical Alliance, an industry trade group.

If the avoidance policy were to be approved and put in force, it would have a major impact on a broad range of manufacturing, Rosario argues.

Because state government is such a major purchaser of goods and services, manufacturers and vendors would be wary of producing or carrying products that state agencies might refuse to buy.

Manufacturers would not go to the trouble of producing one set of products for use by state agencies - products free of the listed avoidance chemicals - and a separate but parallel line of products for distribution and sale to non-state buyers. The state would work its will in the marketplace.

“This would have a huge impact on companies making products in New York but who would be unable to sell those products to state agencies even if they could sell them out of state,” Rosario said.

“This makes no sense,” he added. “At the end of the day, when you talk about product deselection, it has to have a negative impact on your operations.”

“Does this mean that a company might relocate its production facility or decide to build its expansion plant in another state over this one policy matter? I couldn’t say,” Rosario added.

“But this is one more regulatory issue among many others,” he noted. New York is a tough state in which to do business in the first place, and this is something more that adds to the cumulative impact on business and manufacturing.”

“Our state politicians are fond of saying that their number one priority is jobs, jobs, jobs,” Rosario said, “but policies like this make it increasingly difficult to keep jobs here in New York.”

Jim Cooper, vice president for petrochemicals at the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA), shares Rosario’s complaint that the chemicals avoidance list fails to provide any objective exposure or context information for use by purchasing managers that might be charged with avoiding those substances.

Nor does the New York chemical avoidance list identify possible alternatives to the listed substances, Cooper notes.

“I look at that list, and I have to ask, okay, why is there no list of substitutes to guide people?”

Cooper cited the listing of ethylene oxide, noting that it is probably the most commonly used disinfectant and sterilizing compound in hospitals, that ethylene oxide is widely and safely used for that purpose in a nitrogen mixture.

“What can hospitals use for disinfectant and sterilization of equipment if the state says they should avoid ethylene oxide?”

Cooper also believes that such a chemicals avoidance policy would become a de facto ban, “an unfortunate unintended consequence”.

Indeed, Cooper argues, the proposed New York policy is a products ban in the sheep’s clothing of avoidance.

“In the governor’s executive order, that is the goal,” Cooper said. “They want to try to manipulate the marketplace by using the state’s purchasing power.”

Both Cooper and Rosario said their organizations likely will file comments with the state’s Interagency Committee on Sustainability and Green Procurement - the source of the avoidance list - in hopes that cooler heads will prevail.

“We’re not opposed to green chemistry,” Cooper said. “Indeed, we support it, because our basic materials will go into whatever green chemicals are developed.”

“The marketplace is already moving in that direction, but in a systemic way with safety assessments and comparing ingredients,” he said. “But New York just hasn’t put much time and thought into how to go about this.”

“We’re not opposed to the end, green chemistry, but we are opposed to the means policymakers sometimes want to use to get there,” Cooper added.

Rosario said his state chemical alliance has offered its expertise and resources to the interagency committee as it does further work on its avoidance policy.

“I think the interagency committee will take us up on that offer,” he said. “If they do, I am optimistic that we can develop something that will achieve the committee’s stated goal without causing harm to industry in New York.”

Picture again the Norman Rockwell outhouse amid deep snowdrifts - except the shovel is missing because it probably would have vinyl chloride in its handle, shaft or even the blade.

So state workers would have to high-step through deep snow to get to the privy - which has only a sliver-prone wood bench inside ‘cause the PVC toilet seat is gone too.

To discuss issues facing the chemical industry go to ICIS connect
Paul Hodges studies key influencers shaping the chemical industry in Chemicals and the Economy

By: Joe Kamalick
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