Center for Environmental Health Challenges Big Business to Create a Healthier World (Oakland Mag)

Noelle Robbins, Oakland Magazine, May 2, 2008

Ask parents about lead in toys, and many may share horror
stories of Christmas 2007, when, rife with anxiety, they sought safe, nontoxic
gifts for their children. Ask Target, Wal-Mart and Toys ‘R' Us officials, and
they'll likely remember hasty recalls and shelf-clearing purges as they
reassured panicky consumers of product safety. Ask staff members of the Center
for Environmental Health, and they will say they were just doing their job when
their testing raised the alarm about excessive lead levels in toys just in time
to shake up holiday shopping.

What is this tiny nonprofit that has big business thinking
twice about consumer safety?

Mostly it's a dozen hard-working people, in a humble cottage
on a quiet street in Oakland,
taking on monumental environmental health issues. The CEH has successfully
challenged corporate giants and government bodies in pursuit of healthier lives
for individuals, families and communities around the world. The inspired leader
of this small but mighty nonprofit, Michael Green, received a 2007 Compassion
in Action Award from the Committee of 100 for Tibet and the Dalai Lama
Foundation. He staunchly believes action and compassion are crucial for solving
the environmental health issues CEH tackles on a worldwide basis.

Taking a global perspective, Green explains there are more
than 80,000 chemicals in what he calls the international "chain of
commerce"-the interwoven strands of business that bind together the
manufacturing process, point of purchase and, finally, the disposal of
products. The first link of the chain begins with the men, women and, often,
children who toil in manufacturing plants (many in impoverished nations around
the globe), and ends in the homes and dumps of well-to-do consumers in
developed countries. All along the chain, these thousands of potentially
harmful chemicals are seeping into human bodies and water sources, air and
earth. The vast majority of these chemicals have never been tested for their
health impact, but the health dangers of some have been well known for a number
of years. And yet they continue to be detected in a wide range of products at
unacceptable levels. Take lead, for example. Although the United States
has banned lead-based paints for years, lead in children's toys persists as a
problem in this country. Exposure to lead affects mental and behavioral
development in small children; even a small dose can have a negative impact.
Taking up the slack for understaffed and under-funded federal agencies, CEH
tests for lead in a variety of products using the X-ray fluorescence analyzer
in its Oakland
headquarters and confirms with independent labs. Finding the lead is the first,
and easiest, step in consumer protection.

Raising the alarm and, more importantly, demanding changes
along the chain of commerce is far more challenging. This is where action
becomes more than just a word and exactly where CEH efforts have produced
significant results. This tiny nonprofit has powerful legal recourse to
confront retailers who import and sell tainted products, thanks to California
Proposition 65. This proposition, passed in 1986, mandates that the citizens of
have the right to be informed about exposure to chemicals that cause birth
defects, cancer or reproductive harm. It also addresses enforcement of laws on dangerous
chemicals and actions that pose a risk to public health and safety, and it
places the burden for correction on offenders. CEH literally takes this law
into its own hands when lead-tainted products are discovered. In the past
decade, the organization has filed notices (of intention) to sue hundreds of
times over. During that time CEH has taken on industry giants Wal-Mart, Johnson
& Johnson, Walt Disney Company, Toys ‘R' Us and Target over lead, not only
in toys, but in lunchboxes, baby powder and bibs, as well. Because of these
efforts, these products are no longer on store shelves. But lead contamination
of the environment can come in more subtle and surprising ways.

For example, Caroline Cox, research director at CEH, says
500,000 pounds of lead enter the California
environment every year from tire weights. "The weights that balance tires fall
off, are ground up and create dust that enters water, soil and houses," she
says. Chrysler, a manufacturer of tire weights, is a defendant in pending legal
action. The goal is to push Chrysler to switch tire-weight material to steel,
which although slightly more expensive, is far less toxic to the surrounding

Ultimately, and perhaps ironically, CEH staff contends that
it is in the best financial interest of companies that produce and sell these
products to have safety issues raised. "Companies want consumers to trust their
products. They do not want to risk losing market share or suffering damage to
their brand image," says Green, suggesting that, based upon his dealings with
the likes of  Wal-Mart, many "companies are ready to be regulated, perhaps
more than the federal government is ready to impose regulations."

Green acknowledges that his staff of 12 is hardly in the
position to fill in all the gaps created by lack of government enforcement of
standards and regulations. But the diverse interests and expertise available at
CEH translates into a myriad of projects broadly addressing environmental
health issues and consumer and community concerns. In many cases, these are
action- and compassion-oriented initiatives designed to empower low-income
populations traditionally lacking political and business clout.

Christine Cordero, community health coordinator, says, "When
you protect those with the least, you protect everyone." Cordero sees her role
as "translating science for community activists, creating access to education
and providing direction on how to be good environmental allies." Sue Chaing,
pollution prevention director, expands on CEH's notion of action and
compassion, describing current CEH activities targeting the disposal and
recycling of electronic waste. "Computers aren't designed for recycling," she
says. Even though consumers feel virtuous responding to e-waste collection drives,
problems plague the recycling process further down the line. Chaing says many
e-waste centers send used computers to China, for example, where they are
disassembled by a cheap labor force. Children and prisoners, with no legal or
health protections, are exposed to numerous toxic chemicals and heavy metals as
they break computers down into smaller components.

To reduce the individual and environmental exposure to toxic
hazards inherent in these working conditions, CEH works with large institutional
purchasers of computers and other electronic products to encourage a market
demand for safe, sustainable manufacturing and disposal practices. Chaing works
as a liaison between Health Care Without Harm and the Computer TakeBack
Campaign, which targets the hospital industry to facilitate policy changes that
protect workers who produce electronics, users and communities where e-waste is
discarded or recycled. One of CEH's corporate partners in this effort is the
Kaiser Health Care System, a major player in the chain of commerce that can
exert tremendous influence on manufacturing and disposal policies.

Ansje Miller, policy director, emphasizes that CEH's
approach is more carrot than stick. For example, Miller says, the CEH is
working on the Green Chemistry Initiative with the governor, an initiative more
about safer chemicals than outright chemical bans. CEH unfalteringly applies an
action-and-compassion approach to production, consumption and disposal of the
everyday necessities and luxuries many take for granted, reminding consumers
they play a key role in addressing the environmental health issues that impact
every link in the chain of commerce.

Charlie Pizarro, CEH associate director, says, "I was raised
to believe we all have obligations. It is more than an economic decision; it is
an ethics decision, where we buy products. It is conscious purchasing." And it
is having choices.

Cox, the research director, concurs. "The thing that ties it
all together, that is the most important, is alternatives-alternatives to
toxins. We at CEH believe when you give people [including big business] choices
and reasons to use alternatives, they are happy to make the switch," she says.
"There is no logical reason to put lead in lunchboxes [or toys]. When you can
change industry and how it does business, from a legal and health perspective,
that is really exciting."