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.
Fortunately, more resources are being developed to help companies obtain and apply information about chemical hazards and identify and evaluate healthier alternatives. The resources described here can build on one another and offer increasing depth and breadth of information about the safety and sustainability of chemicals and materials.
Screening for Chemicals of Concern
A variety of regulatory agencies and organizations have compiled their own lists of chemicals of concern, making it a daunting and time-intensive task for manufacturers to sort through potentially hundreds of data files to evaluate and screen their own ingredients for potential toxicity hazards.
One tool available to help speed up this process is Clean Production Action's GreenScreen List Translator, which helps users identify important authoritative and screening lists and the hazard endpoints that are included in each. It has been integrated into two software tools -- the Pharos Chemical & Material Library developed by the Healthy Building Network and GreenWERCS software created by The WERCS -- that will search more than 850 lists from 36 primary authoritative and screening sources for chemicals of high concern. Using a chemical name or CAS number, these automated tools can issue a report of the hazard classification level (low, medium, high or very high) assigned for each hazard endpoint (such as carcinogenicity or endocrine disruption).
This level of screening allows product manufacturers to quickly identify chemicals of high concern that are included or being considered for inclusion in their products. Manufacturers could use this tool to support a self-declared disclosure of ingredients.
However, these lists may not include chemicals that have moderate toxicity hazards or lack adequate toxicity data, and it is not a comprehensive approach to verify safety claims and be assured that all components are healthy.
Chemical Hazard Assessments
Screening lists of chemicals of concern is a fundamental step to make sure a product complies with regulations and avoids the most toxic substances. This approach may allow a manufacturer to make claims about what is not in a product, but a company and its customers may need more information on the safety of what actually is in the product. Third-party chemical hazard assessments go beyond list screenings and provide customized evaluations of all product ingredients and potential alternatives.
The GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals and Cradle to Cradle Certified programs offer a methodology to review the entire inventory of product ingredients for safety to human and environmental health. Accredited assessors (including NSF International and ToxServices, for the GreenScreen program and MBDC, EPEA or ToxServices for the Cradle to Cradle Certified program) apply their expertise to interpret data from authoritative lists and other available research to provide a thorough hazard analysis of each chemical in a product.
Each chemical is given a rating as high, moderate or low concern based on 24-plus human and environmental factors. These chemical hazard evaluations can help companies mitigate risk from unknown hazards, stay ahead of regulations and allow for third-party verification of ingredient safety claims.
Material and Product Assessments
In the Cradle to Cradle Certified program, the chemical hazard assessments are taken one step further and rolled up into an evaluation at the material level. This includes a contextual evaluation that considers the relevant chemical hazards and exposure scenarios during the manufacturing, use and end-of-use phases.
For example, if a cleaning product is intended to interact with people and then go down the drain, the chemical hazards related to sensitization and aquatic toxicity would be given more weight in evaluating the material as a whole. Assessments at the material level can help those who are designing more complex products to understand the relevance of the chemical hazards within a product. Furthermore, having a material level rating can help simplify the design process so that the manufacturer does not need advanced understanding of chemical level hazards in each material.
The Cradle to Cradle Certified mark provides a quick reference for users to understand how much of the product has been inventoried, assessed and optimized for toxicity hazards, as well as potential exposure concerns and cyclability of materials. Any materials or products certified at the Gold level do not contain any chemicals of concern to human or environmental health, and this can be an easy identifier for preferred, healthy materials.
Beyond evaluating the material health of a product, the Cradle to Cradle Certified program requires an assessment of the product's design for material reutilization, as well as renewable energy use, water stewardship and social responsibility during manufacturing. This can help a manufacturer understand the potential environmental impacts of a material choice that go beyond toxicity.
Applying the Results
Information is power. In the case of tools for material health, it can not only be used to support communication around the inherent health of a product, but also guide decisions on how to make better ingredient decisions that can improve products and make a measurable impact on sustainability and human health. This in-depth assessment process helps manufacturers identify hazards throughout the supply chain and manage priorities for reducing risk, replacing chemicals of concern and improving eco-effectiveness.
The next step, using measurement results to make change, is the most critical stage in the three-part Cradle to Cradle progression. In our third post, we will discuss the challenges manufacturers face in optimizing their products to be more sustainable, and how companies can successfully turn assessment into action.
Test tube photo by Huansheng Xu via Shutterstock