In the world of consumer products made from mixtures of chemicals -- baby lotion, shampoo, cleaners, laundry soap -- chemists seek ingredients that are effective and feasible. Too often, what they don't also consider are the hazardous properties of these chemicals and the risks they pose to consumers.
This is in part because most chemists are not trained in toxicology. It's also because many biological interactions that occur when we use everyday products on our bodies and in our homes are only now being understood. As our understanding has grown, groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) have called for the removal of some of the more concerning chemical ingredients from store shelves.
But it's not as simple as just taking a hazardous chemical out of a product. While in some instances a chemical of concern simply can be eliminated, in many cases these chemicals perform a key function in a product and a replacement chemical is necessary. If the replacement isn't carefully considered for its own potentially deleterious effects, you can end up exchanging a problem for a problem -- resulting in a regrettable substitution.
The good news is that the path forward for identifying and making informed choices about substitutes has become a lot clearer.
Innovations in chemical removal
Recently, EDF together with BizNGO, the Toxic Use Reduction Institute and the Lowell Center for Sustainability released The Commons Principles for Alternatives Assessment with the support of more than 100 representatives from businesses, universities and NGOs. This broad consensus around simple, solutions-based principles signals a growing commitment to moving hazardous chemicals out of the supply chain and driving informed, safer innovations.
Alternatives assessment is a process for identifying, comparing and selecting safer alternatives to chemicals of concern based on certain chemical features including hazard, performance and economics. The six "Common Principles" establish key elements of informed decision-making about the chemicals in a product:
1. Reduce hazard
2. Minimize exposure
3. Use best available information
4. Require disclosure and transparency
5. Resolve trade-offs
6. Take action
These are "common principles" because they are shared by a broad, diverse group of individuals from academia, industry and the NGO community.
In September, Wal-Mart became the first retailer to call for informed substitution as suppliers phase out chemical ingredients of concern in products it sells. It is EDF's hope that the common principles will be used to meet this commitment and inform the efforts of other retailers and product manufacturers. Smart and informed decisions guided by these principles can make products safer and regrettable, hazardous substitutions a thing of the past.
This post first appeared on the Environmental Defense Fund's Health blog.
Chemicals photo by Africa Studio via Shutterstock