Why we desperately need chemical literacy

A recent Pew Research Center survey of Americans revealed that our grasp of basic scientific concepts varies significantly depending on the topic. For instance, according to the survey, around eight of 10 Americans know that sunscreen provides protection against ultraviolet radiation. Yet the survey also revealed that only two of 10 people could accurately identify nitrogen as the main ingredient in the Earth's atmosphere.

The Pew survey did not include a question about general knowledge of chemicals in products. If it had, we might have gained some useful perspective on what drives some companies to market their products as "chemical-free." A quick Web search using this keyword presents dozens of products. Sunscreen, makeup, household cleaners and foods are all products about which consumers' concern about harmful chemicals is increasingly acute. Yet these products marketed as "chemical-free" contain ingredients that are, like all things, chemicals.

Determining which chemicals are safe

Scanning the headlines, it is not difficult to develop a concern about harmful chemicals in the environment. Earlier this year, the spill of 7,500 gallons of a poorly understood industrial chemical in a West Virginia river ended up contaminating the local water supply for several weeks. Chemicals of concern such as phthalates and BPA have been banned from consumer products in many countries over the past several years, leading to broader questions about the chemical safety of products.

These questions about product chemical safety are coming not just in the form of new government regulations, or new campaigns by environmental advocates and consumer groups. Many retailers are working to better understand the chemical ingredients that make up the materials and formulations in the products on their shelves. Many manufacturers of consumer products are putting processes in place to validate the safety of the chemicals in their products during development.

Differentiating preferred chemicals from those that might cause concern is a challenging task. Traditionally, companies have relied on Restricted Substance Lists of chemicals to guide the distinction between preferred chemicals and chemicals of concern. Well-known RSLs include the European REACH Regulation Substances of Very High Concern and California's Proposition 65 List. A growing number of technology platforms offer efficient and reliable solutions to screen chemical data against various RSLs.

Delving deeper than an ingredient list

Regulations and market expectations are driving many companies to go beyond RSLs to understand the underlying characteristics of all ingredients in the materials under consideration for products and processes. This shift in strategy is due in part to the constantly changing RSL landscape-chemicals are added to RSLs on a regular basis-as well as many manufacturers' desire to validate for themselves, or via a trusted third party, the chemical safety of the materials in their products.

Manufacturers are implementing new ways to process this chemical safety validation step and manage the product development process based on this new information. Basic RSL screening is no longer sufficient to identify preferred chemicals for the future. New rules such as California's Safer Consumer Products Regulation require companies to find alternatives to a specific list of ingredients known to have human or environmental health concerns. These drivers are resulting in rapid innovation of chemicals management techniques.

Credit: jenny downing via FlickrThis innovation means gathering better information on the characteristics of chemicals in materials and processes. Swimming upstream in the supply chain can be a difficult task for many manufacturers. Suppliers are scattered around the world. Many consumer products have very complex supply chains. Product components have several levels of suppliers to implement the required processing steps from raw materials to final assembly.

These relationships between suppliers and the underlying chemical recipes of the materials moving through the supply chain are often claimed as trade secrets between supplier and customer. This secrecy makes it difficult for a brand or retailer to track the full supplier network for a product.

To swim upstream faster and easier, many companies and their suppliers are engaging with third party service providers and technology platforms. These services can respond to the need to protect supplier confidential information while making the data gathering process more efficient and reliable.

The challenge of swimming upstream does not end with the data-gathering step. The process of validating the safety of chemical ingredients requires significant expertise in chemistry and toxicology. Chemical managers must efficiently and accurately evaluate chemical ingredients for human and environmental health. Most companies do not have these resources on staff and therefore call upon outside expertise for this step. The use of a third party for evaluation is also helpful for the protection of suppliers' confidential ingredient information.

Credit: maxuser via ShutterstockAs a trusted third party collects product ingredient information, experts begin to process the assessment of human and environmental health characteristics for each chemical, parent material, components and the finished product. Given the large number of ingredients, materials and products in the product range for a given manufacturer, automation is a critical requirement of chemical safety assessment.

Smoother process, cleaner supply chain

Many companies and industries are working toward standardization of data collection formats, chemical assessment frameworks, and alternatives assessment techniques. By moving past the confines and pitfalls of a Restricted Substance List review strategy, companies can work with suppliers to identify and select preferred chemicals for products while protecting proprietary ingredient information within the supply chain.

Perhaps future Pew Center survey will include questions to demonstrate American's improving knowledge of chemicals in products.

Top image by Garsya via Shutterstock