California took steps to reduce the toxins found in children's sleeping products and home and building supplies on Thursday, when regulators announced they would begin asking manufacturers to eliminate chemicals known to cause cancer and other illnesses.

In making the announcement, regulators with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control rolled out a program six years in the making -- the first of its kind in the nation -- that aims to minimize consumers' exposure to toxic chemicals.

"I can't even tell you what a big deal this is," said Kathleen Curtis, the national coordinator for the Alliance for Toxic-Free Fire Safety, a nationwide coalition. "It's huge, and it's a super smart strategic move by the state of California.

On Thursday, state leaders announced the first round of top priority chemicals that they want reduced or eliminated from products many Californians use: children's bedding items, spray foam used to insulate and weatherize buildings, and paint strippers, removers and surface cleaners. All of these products, state officials say, contain toxins that can cause cancer, hormone imbalances and environmental degradation.

Meredith Williams, deputy director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said the state's message to manufacturers is this: If you want to sell products in California, you must make products that are safe -- or risk being banned from the country's largest economy.

The announcement signals a larger victory for environmental advocates who have been working for years to rid furniture of toxins that were added as flame retardants. Studies have shown that some of these flame retardants do very little to reduce fires and have been linked to startling health risks. One of the most widely used flame retardants is TDCPP, which, under the Safer Consumer Products regulations, the state will pressure manufacturers to remove from toddlers' nap mats, cots, cribs, playpens and bassinets.

Advocates say the new regulations will pressure furniture and mattress makers to clean up their products.

"It will have a ripple effect though the larger industry," said Janet Nudelman, director of program and policy for the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund. "It's a brilliant one-two punch."

The National Research Council has shown that TDCPP, also commonly called Tris, is linked to cancer in rats, and the chemical is on the state's Proposition 65 list of substances known to cause cancer. An almost identical chemical was banned from children's pajamas in the 1970s, when regulators first became concerned about its link to cancer.

"You don't keel over dead, no, but years later, you can't have children or your kid has cancer," Curtis said.

TDCPP is one of three chemicals the state announced it is targeting: the others are diisocyanates, a chemical found in spray polyurethane foam that is used to weatherize buildings, and has been linked to lung damage, asthma, cancer and respiratory ailments; and methylene chloride, a carcinogen found in paint or varnish removers, paint strippers and surface cleaners. Thursday's announcement marked the start of what is expected to be a yearlong process that will include a public comment period, discussions with manufacturers and studies to identify safe substitutions. In October, the state will release a second, and much lengthier, list of priority chemicals and products, Williams said. Manufacturers who don't meet the new standards could be compelled to label their ingredients or have their products banned from California as early as 2016,

The American Chemistry Council, the trade organization representing U.S. chemicals companies, said in a statement that "we share the goal of chemical safety but are disappointed that today's announcement included products that are already being actively evaluated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency."

Advocates and state officials, however, said the federal government has lagged on chemical regulations.

"Unfortunately, federal reform of the way these chemicals are regulated is stalled, and these laws have not been updated in 30 years," Williams said.

The Safer Consumer Products program is the latest in a series of sweeping policy changes by state officials and the retail industry to begin reducing the use of harmful chemicals in everyday consumer products, from household goods to cleaners and cosmetics. In January, the state Department of Public Health launched a database to document harmful chemicals used in cosmetics sold in California. Last year. Target and Walmart both unveiled new chemicals policies aimed at pressuring manufacturers to eliminate harmful toxins.

Contact Heather Somerville at 510-208-6413. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.

safer consumer products
What it is: A program to identify toxic chemicals in consumer products and work with manufacturers to reduce them and find safe substitutes. Gives state regulators authority to ban products that don't comply.
Priority chemicals:
TDCPP (chlorinated Tris): A flame retardant used in foam found in children's nap mats, bassinets, playpens, cots, pads and cribs made with foam
Health risks: causes cancer; endocrine disruption; hormone imbalances;
Methylene chloride: Found in various paint or varnish removers, paint strippers and surface cleaners
Health risks: causes cancer; unconsciousness and dizziness; eye, nose, and throat irritation; chest pain and breathing problems; increased risk of liver, kidney and cardiovascular damage; known to cause death
Diisocyanates: Found in spray polyurethane foam used for home and building insulation, weatherization, sealing and roofing.
Health risks: causes asthma; allergic and immune reactions; skin, eye and respiratory irritants; suspected to cause cancer
More information at https://dtsc.ca.gov/SCP