Safer chemicals

The Issue

Why are chemicals a health problem?

The ubiquitous exposure to toxic chemicals in everyday life has increasingly become a health concern. Unfortunately, many products used in health care can contribute to hazardous exposures, including cleaners and disinfectants, phthalates in medical devices, flame retardants in furniture and electronic equipment, formaldehyde in furniture, and solvents in labs, among many others.

A growing body of scientific research is raising the level of concern about the health impacts of chronic chemical exposures. We now know that:

  • Even very small doses of chemicals can cause disease.[1]
  • Children and developing babies are most vulnerable. See Our Stolen Future.
  • Hundreds of synthetic chemicals are found in human breast milk and in the cord blood of babies in the womb. See Body Burden: The Pollution in Newborns (pdf)
  • Chemicals can act like drugs in our body, disrupting systems at low levels of exposure, and potentially causing harm in combination. 

Chemical related diseases

As chemical use has grown in industrialized societies, so have chemical-related diseases, including cancer, asthma, birth defects, developmental disabilities, autism, endometriosis, and infertility. Mounting scientific evidence links the incidence of these diseases, in part, to environmental toxicants.[1]

In the United States today:

  • Roughly 1 in 2 American men and 1 in 3 American women are expected to get cancer in their lifetimes.[2]
  • Asthma and learning disabilities, which are associated with chemical exposures, continue to rise.[3][4]
  • Dozens of now common conditions such as birth defects and low sperm count are strongly linked to some chemicals in the environment.[1]

Gaps in chemical regulations

Despite the clear links between pollution and health, the laws created to protect the public and workers are inadequate. Independent reviews have found that the law governing indus-trial chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), does not:

  • require adequate testing of existing and new chemicals and materials, such as nanomaterials, which means we are unaware of the full hazardous profile of most chemicals; [5][6][7]
  • regulate known hazards because regulators do not have adequate authority to do so;[5][6]
  • provide incentives for the development of safer alternatives or require their use when such alternatives are available;[8] or
  • allow for sufficient public access even to the limited chemical information provided by chemical manufacturers to the government.[9]

Why we need new chemical policies

Addressing chemicals on a chemical-by-chemical basis has proven insufficient. Many environmental purchasing programs and environmental campaigns target specific chemicals of concern for reduction. However, hazardous chemicals remain in commerce because:

  • Manufacturers switch from a targeted chemical to an untested or unlisted chemical that is not necessarily preferable
  • The chemical-by-chemical approach is very costly and slow
  • When the government fails to require manufacturers to perform toxicity testing, the burden is on the public to finance testing and environmental monitoring of chemicals in commerce, further slowing change.

Transforming the chemical economy

Health care institutions have a particular ethical responsibility to use products containing chemicals that pose less risk to human health. A growing number of hospitals are taking a "better safe than sorry" approach to chemicals, eliminating suspected hazards and switching to safer alternatives. Benefits of this approach to the bottom line can include reduced disposal costs, reduced liability, and improved health for employees, patients, and nearby communities.

As health care and other large institutions are addressing these problems, leading industries are getting the message.

Dignity Health, Kaiser Permanente, Premier, Novation, HP, Google, Nike, Construction Specialties, Perkins+Will, and Shaw Carpets are examples of companies committed to using safer chemicals. Innovation is both feasible and profitable and other companies need to set similar goals and get active.

Read the case studies of leading companies that are working to clean up their chemical supply chains in Clean Production Action's Healthy Business Strategies for Transforming the Toxic Chemical Economy (pdf).  Also, Clean Production Action’s GreenScreen™ for Safer Chemicals helps companies and governments move to safer substitutes for hazardous chemicals.

United States Senator Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey introduced federal legislation—the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011—which would strengthen the nation’s system for managing chemical safety to better protect human and environmental health. Relatively new laws in Europe and various U.S. states also have begun to address the inadequate regulation of chemicals. Learn more about government reform efforts in the U.S. and European Union.

1.    CHE Toxicant and Disease database
2.    American Cancer Society, Cancer Facts & Figures 2012 (pdf)
3.    Woodruff T, et al. Trends in environmentally related childhood illnesses. Pediatrics, 2004;113(4):1133-1140.
4.    Boyle C, et al. Trends in the prevalence of developmental disabilities in U.S. children, 1997-2008. Pediatrics 2011;127(6):1034-1042.
5.    Chemical Regulation: Options Exist to Improve EPA's Ability to Assess Health Risks and Manage Its Chemical Review Program, GAO-05-458, US Government Accounting Office, 6/05 (pdf)
6.    Jennifer Sass, Nanotechnology's Invisible Threat: Small Science, Big Consequences, Natural Resources Defense Council (pdf)
7.    Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Chemical Hazard Data Availability Study: What Do We Really Know About the Safety of High Production Volume Chemicals? April 1998.
8.    Michael P. Wilson, Green Chemistry in California: A Framework for Leadership in Chemicals Policy and Innovation, California Policy Research Center (pdf)
9.    U.S. Government Accounting Office. Chemical Regula¬tion: Options for Enhancing the Effectiveness of the Toxic Substances Control Act. GAO-09-428T. February 2009.