San Francisco Expected to Adopt Green Purchasing Law

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San Francisco is about to become a little greener. The city is expected to pass a law requiring all official agencies to buy products that pose only minimal health risks. That includes everything from toilet bowl cleaner to playground equipment. The "green" purchasing law would be the first of its kind in the country. Sarah Varney of member station KQED reports.


The nation's first green purchasing law could soon take effect in San Francisco. The Board of Supervisors there is expected to pass an ordinance today. It would require all city agencies to buy cleaning supplies, building materials, even batteries that pose the least amount of risk to human health. Sarah Varney reports from member station KQED.

SARAH VARNEY reporting:

Each year, the city of San Francisco buys 288 gallons of toilet bowl cleaner, 5,100 gallons of disinfectant and 882 gallons of glass cleaner. That's a lot of squeaky clean windows. But all this cleanliness could be exposing residents, especially children, to toxic synthetic chemicals that some studies suggest are linked to breast cancer, autism and infertility.

Dr. JAMES LECKIE (Professor of Environmental Engineering and Science, Stanford University): The presumption has always been that if we don't intend to put them into food or water, then we don't evaluate them.

VARNEY: But synthetic chemicals are accumulating in human blood, fat, semen and breast milk, says Dr. James Leckie, a professor of environmental engineering and science at Stanford University and an expert on human exposure to synthetic chemicals. Leckie says people, whether at home or out and about, breathe in aerosols, absorb chemical residue through their skin and swim in lakes and rivers that contain remnants of carpet cleaner, for example.

Dr. LECKIE: We live in a chemical world. We swim in a chemical world. You're talking on a telephone; if you're holding it, it's made of some type of a polymer material; that's synthetic. Your desk has a finish on it; that's synthetic.

VARNEY: Leckie says San Francisco's new law will likely reduce exposure in and around city buildings and will cut back on the chemicals draining into waterways. But how much reduction is needed? Scientists don't agree on what constitutes a safe amount of chemicals in the human body, `So San Francisco,' says Debbie Raphael, the city's toxics reduction manager, `has decided to be better safe than sorry.'

Ms. DEBBIE RAPHAEL (Toxics Reduction Manger, San Francisco): Any time we purchase something, we will ask these questions: How little harm is possible? What safer alternatives exist? How can we reach our goals as a city, not ignore costs? But how can we include environment and public health in our decision-making process?

VARNEY: During a three-year test period of what is officially called the healthy purchasing program, Raphael says city janitors did find products they considered less toxic for people in nearly all cases and still managed to bring a shine to the city's bronze bannisters. Under the new law, suppliers will also have to share the ingredients of their products.

Ms. RAPHAEL: Communities, end users, visitors; we all have a right to know what is in the products that we are using and we are being exposed to. And that is, the burden is on industry to supply us with that information. It's not up to the taxpayers to determine what is safe or what the effects of chemicals are.

VARNEY: `Someone had to start somewhere,' says Raphael, `and $600 million worth of toilet bowl cleaner and windshield wiper fluid is no chump change.' She suspects as more cities demand healthier, greener products, innovative manufacturers will find a way to keep their business.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney in San Francisco.

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