When someone with $8 billion a year in purchasing power tells the world what they don’t want, marketers and manufacturers pay attention.
That’s what’s happened recently in New York, where state agencies operate 16,000 facilities and a fleet of 17,000 vehicles and generate more than 800,000 tons of waste a year. Those agencies are now working with an official policy that urges them, for the sake of public health, to avoid products, equipment and other items containing any of 85 toxic chemicals whenever safer, cost-effective alternatives are available. The goal is to minimize New Yorkers’ exposure to these chemicals as much as possible and prevent them from ending up in the state’s landfills.
The unprecedented step is a victory first and foremost for the people of the New York, but potentially also for other states that may be inspired to follow the Empire State’s example. If they do, New York’s “Chemical Avoidance List” gives them a huge head start in developing their own policies.
Two days before the end of 2010, the Interagency Committee on Sustainability and Green Procurement approved the policy directing all state agencies to consider avoiding the 85 toxic chemicals. The list consists of known and probable human carcinogens identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Toxicology Program as well as substances that accumulate in the human body and don’t readily break down in the environment. They are known as persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals, or PBTs for short.
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“Thanks to the support of more than a hundred environmental, health and labor groups, we succeeded in convincing the state to adopt the most comprehensive chemical avoidance purchasing list in the country,” said Anne Rabe of the national Center for Health, Environment & Justice. “This will have a major impact on greening the marketplace with New York State's annual buying power of $9 billion.”
Although it is advisory only and agencies are not required to follow it, The Green Procurement Chemical Avoidance List is a powerful model for exercising consumer choice on a grand scale to protect public health from toxic chemicals in products, building materials or equipment. Notably, the New York list includes three flame-retardants that are frequently added to furniture, carpeting, computers and other electrical equipment and can disrupt brain development and hormone system (octa, penta and deca forms of polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs). Also on the list are PFOA, the carcinogenic chemical used in manufacturing Teflon-related products, and bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine-disrupting compound found in food packaging and in polycarbonate plastic bottles.
The process that produced the list demonstrates the essential ingredients that led to its ultimate success. It was the product of a four-year effort that brought together multiple environmental groups, including the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, the Grassroots Environmental Education, the Great Neck Breast Cancer Coalition, the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition, the Western New York Council for Occupational Safety & Health and many others.
“Things happen successfully only through team effort,” said Karen Joy Miller, a member of the Sustainability And Green Procurement Advisory Council that played a key role in developing the final list.
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Supportive officials of New York’s state agencies, especially the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Office of General Services also played a leadership role. Former Gov. David A. Paterson signed the executive order creating the interagency committee in April 2008, and newly installed Gov. Andrew Cuomo renewed it shortly after taking office.
The fact that the list of chemicals to be avoided was drawn from broadly accepted federal priority lists of toxic chemicals lent greater authority to the process.
“This policy has the potential to substantially reduce the public’s exposure to several carcinogens that are currently released into our environment through common consumer products,” said Laura Weinberg, president of the Great Neck Breast Cancer Coalition.
Patti Wood, executive director of the Grassroots Environmental Education, added, “Once again, New York State is taking a leadership role in protecting its citizens from environmental toxins. We hope that this will help other states move forward with similar measures.”
Environmental Working Group applauds the inspiring efforts of these activists. The protection of public health – and the hard work of purchasing officers seeking to make best decisions for their communities – will be greatly aided by the decision in New York.
Executive Order 4 on State Green Procurement & Sustainability, issued in 2008 and renewed by Governor Andrew Cuomo http://www.ogs.state.ny.us/EO/4/Default.asp
December 29, 2011 Policy of the NYS Interagency Committee on Sustainability and Green Procurement “Consideration of Chemicals in the Development of Green Specifications” http://www.ogs.state.ny.us/EO/4/docs/chemFINAL.pdf
First Annual Progress Report on New York State Green Procurement and Agency Sustainability Fiscal Year 2008‐2009 (source of statistics in this blog). Available at http://www.ogs.state.ny.us/EO/4/Docs/FirstAnnualProgressReport.pdf