The best tools for using healthier materials in your products

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, everyone alive today carries a chemical body burden of at least 700 contaminants. Scientists are beginning to learn more about how low-level exposure to certain chemicals in the products we use every day can contribute to a higher risk of various health problems, including cancer, autism, infertility, obesity and more. McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry works with product manufacturers to help them identify potentially hazardous chemicals in their products and find healthier alternatives.

This article is the second in a three-part series exploring the challenges manufacturers face to design healthier products and the resources available to help them avoid chemicals of concern. Each post will focus one of the three phases in the Cradle to Cradle framework: inventory, assessment and optimization.

The Scale of the Challenge

In our last blog post, "A Closer Look Behind the Walls of Product Transparency," we discussed the trend toward product transparency, the efforts being made by product manufacturers to map out all chemical ingredients sourced throughout the supply chain, and the tools available to help inventory and disclose this data.

This push for greater transparency and understanding of all ingredients used in a product throughout the supply chain is the first critical step in designing safe and healthy products. But as more manufacturers begin tracing and disclosing ingredient details, the tide of new product information has become confusing to navigate. Both consumers and manufacturers are now left wondering how to interpret the ingredient information in order to confidently choose healthy products.

Gaining an accurate understanding of the health hazards that come with certain ingredients is a challenge for product designers. There are more than 80,000 chemicals used in commerce and many of those have never been studied for impacts to human and environmental health. Environmental Defense Fund research indicates that, today, even the most basic toxicity testing results cannot be found in the public record for nearly 75 percent of the top volume chemicals in commercial use.

While the EPA requires chemical companies to notify the agency if a new chemical is being used, the chemical is essentially assumed innocent until proven guilty and allowed for use in products without comprehensive safety testing. One result of this policy is that manufacturers who are looking for safe ingredients are constrained by the lack of publicly available data on chemical safety and can be left with choosing materials with unknown hazards.

Without a robust, federally supported repository for chemical toxicity data in the U.S., manufacturers must seek out resources from foreign government agencies, municipal and state agencies, academic institutions and nongovernmental organizations. Verifying the safety of ingredients involves navigating through a sea of academic databases and regulatory lists with varying purposes, scopes and quality of data and then interpreting how that data can inform the material selection process.

Next page: The best tools for the job