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San Francisco Considers Cleaning Up $600 Million in Annual Purchases

Contact: Sarah He, Office of Supervisor Sophie Maxwell (415) 554-7671 Debbie Raphael, San Francisco Department of the Environment (415) 355-3711 Lena Brook, Clean Water Action (415) 601-0504 Kevin Donegan, Breast Cancer Fund (415) 346-8223 x14

SAN FRANCISCO—San Francisco’s first formal effort to implement the city’s precautionary principle policy, passed by the Board of Supervisors in June 2003, will be considered by the Board’s City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee tonight.

If passed by the full Board, the new “Precautionary Purchasing Ordinance,” authored by Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, will eventually change how the city buys everything from building materials to cleaning products. The proposed change is being watched by cities and states across the nation.

“San Francisco has a real opportunity to reassert its leadership in supporting the health and environment of its residents and workers by passing this policy,” said Maxwell. “The city spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year buying goods and services. Through exercising our economic power, San Francisco has an enormous influence and can encourage market development of new, healthy, environmentally preferable technologies and products.”

The precautionary principle is an approach to decision-making intended to reduce harm to public and environmental health by utilizing safer alternatives, as well as ensuring that community members have meaningful opportunity for participation in those decisions. Examples in San Francisco include decisions to use safer janitorial products in city buildings and streets, phasing out the use of toxic pesticides in parks and buildings, and replacing CCA-wood structures—which can release arsenic—in children’s playgrounds.

The adoption of the new purchasing ordinance would provide San Francisco a chance to protect city workers and improve community health by reducing the use of toxic products, mandating new levels of transparency from manufacturers and suppliers of products and allowing for real public involvement in city purchasing decisions, according to Maxwell.

The increased use of man-made toxic chemicals coincides with a significant rise in asthma and cancer rates, an increase in learning disabilities and autism, as well as other serious and chronic diseases.

In the past fifty years, for example, a woman's lifetime risk of breast cancer more than tripled in the United States, to one in seven today. A 2004 report from the Breast Cancer Fund says that “compelling scientific evidence” points to some of the 85,000 synthetic chemicals in use today as contributing to breast cancer by altering hormone function or gene expression.

“Communities are working hard to reverse these trends, but government must also play a critical role. We applaud San Francisco for embracing the precautionary principle and for putting it into action with this new purchasing policy,” said Lena Brook, associate director of Clean Water Action’s California office.

Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, said that cities across the country are joining with San Francisco to use their purchasing power to drive the market place. “When we ask for less mercury in our light bulbs or pressure treated wood without arsenic, manufacturers listen,” Blumenfeld said. “The city meets its needs and protects human health and the environment at the same time.” 

Communities in Oregon, New Mexico, Georgia, Texas and Minnesota, among others, are also considering precautionary principle policies. And New York State is using San Francisco’s policies as a model for a statewide initiative on environmentally preferable purchasing. The precautionary principle also guides the environmental policies of the European Union’s 25 member countries.

“As an organization focused on preventing breast cancer, we support San Francisco’s approach, which uses evidence of harm, not paralysis through analysis, to advance safer alternatives to toxic products,” said Jeanne Rizzo, R.N., executive director of the Breast Cancer Fund.


Clean Water Action and the Breast Cancer Fund are members of the Bay Area Working Group on the Precautionary Principle. This active alliance of ten environmental health organizations played a major role in the creation of this purchasing ordinance as well as the first San Francisco precautionary principle ordinance in 2003.