Death of a Toxin: How To Get Chemicals Out of Our Products

Death of a Toxin: How To Get Chemicals Out of Our Products

Earlier this year, six of the largest manufacturers of baby bottles agreed to stop using the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in products sold in the United States. This announcement came amidst a flurry of studies exploring the toxic effect of the material in low doses, which has been shown to cause developmental delays, reproductive malfunctions and other health problems in laboratory tests. The material has already been banned from baby bottles in Europe and Canada, and several U.S. senators, including Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, have proposed similar bans in the U.S.

BPA has dangerous health implications, but it’s not the only chemical in consumer products to fall under scrutiny. So what draws public outcry and bans for one toxic chemical, while others slip safely under the radar?

“In the case of BPA, the tipping point was a perfect storm of activity,” says Mike Shade, PVC campaign coordinator for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Falls Church, Va.

He notes that the independent studies and testing of products with BPA, combined with the European and Canadian bans, and a September 2008 report from the National Toxicology Program (NTP) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, indicating that there is still “some concern” that the plastic chemical may cause problems with development and health, all spun together to draw widespread national attention to this particular toxic chemical.

“One fact propelled more studies and that lead to legislation,” he says. “It created a ripple effect to push BPA out of the baby products industry.”

BPA is a success story for advocacy groups looking to educate consumers, manufacturers and retailers about the hidden harms in seemingly innocuous products. But it’s also an example of how the chemical safety system is broken, says Shade.

BPA may now be on the hit list of toxins that everyone knows to avoid – along with lead, DEET, and mercury. But what about the materials most consumers are completely unaware of, like polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or antimony, which are present in hundreds of consumer products and also have serious health implications.

“BPA is just one of thousands of chemicals that should be phased out,” Shade says. “But the law that was designed to protect us is broken and needs to be severely reformed.”

That law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), is meant to regulate the introduction of new or existing chemicals into products, but it puts the burden of proof on the marketplace, not the developers, to prove risks, and it grandfathered in most existing chemicals when it was passed in 1976.

Rather than identifying one chemical at a time and trying to push consumer awareness and government regulation, most industry advocates would like to see a comprehensive approach to evaluating all of the materials used in products, with the onus put on manufacturers to prove materials and chemicals are safe before they can be used, and to set goals to replace those that aren’t.

But that would take far-reaching legislative oversight that doesn’t currently exist.

“There is no governing board that says, ‘This is what toxic material is’,” says Jay Bolus, vice president of technical operations at McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), an independent consultancy in Charlottesville, Va.  “That’s a huge problem, because it allows industries to drift to the lowest common denominator.”

“We need a wholesale change in the way we design and regulate products,” agrees Jeff Gearhardt, research director at the non-profit Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., and leader of, which tests children’s products for toxic materials. “Currently, the U.S. government doesn't require full testing of chemicals before they are added to most products.”

According to, the EPA estimates that among new chemicals to come out since TSCA, only about 15 percent include health or safety test data; and for existing chemicals, only five chemical groups out of 62,000 have been restricted in 29 years.

“The easiest way to reduce risk is to get rid of it,” says Bolus. “And if you can’t get rid of it, then you need to take responsibility for how it’s used it so it doesn’t harm people.”

In the meantime, groups like the Center for Health, Environment and Justice and will continue to drive awareness, outrage and, ultimately, elimination of individual chemicals that silently harm consumers.

How to Bring Down a Toxin

The process of eliminating a toxin from products begins with science. Researchers conduct product testing to identify the presence of certain chemicals in common consumer products. is one of the research programs at the beginning of this process. conducts initial screenings of chemicals in toys using an x-ray fluorescence (XRF) device to identify specific elements in the surface layer of toys. It looks for elements, such as lead, cadmium, chlorine, and antimony, which can help researchers infer the possible presence of other toxins, such as brominated flame retardants (BFRs), or polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

“We screen thousands of products every year,” says Gearhardt.

His group has found widespread proof of lead in children’s products, even after bans were put in place, along with the presence of bromine-containing compounds, cadmium, arsenic and mercury – all of which have been proven to have harmful effects on humans.

“It’s not just lead, there is a whole long list of components of concern,” he says.

Once these tests are completed they are linked to scientific studies that investigate both the toxic effect of certain chemicals, and their growing presence in the human body.

“One issue folks should be more aware of is biomonitoring to determine whether the chemical is accumulating in the body, in tissues, fluid and blood,” says Gearhardt. Because certain chemicals build up in the body over time, it can mean that even at very low levels those chemicals will be harmful in the long term.

“This is the first way that a chemical comes into the public eye,” says Shade. “Researchers do the studies and inform advocacy groups.”

Creating public awareness is one of the most powerful steps in the process of eliminating harmful substances from products, suggests Bolus. “Facts are facts but perception is reality,” he says. “Once perception takes hold there is not much you can do to control it.”

But building public perception takes time. Shade notes that hundreds of peer reviewed studies were conducted on BPA showing its harmful effects in extremely low levels before consumer awareness peaked. Part of the delay, he says, is the conflict of interest in the scientific community, with chemical companies conducting their own studies to contradict results.

As recently as last year, for example, the FDA released a draft safety assessment that claimed “an adequate margin of safety exists for BPA at current levels of exposure from food contact uses, for infants and adults,” despite outcries from independent researchers whose studies proved otherwise.

It was revealed later that the FDA’s assessment relied on two studies, both of which were conducted by the chemical industry, says Shade.

Despite this setback, the truth eventually came out and the backlash was considerable. In the span of six months beginning in October 2008, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, along with attorneys general from Connecticut, Delaware and New Jersey, wrote letters to 11 baby bottle manufacturers in October asking them to stop using BPA – six complied; major retailers, including Wal-Mart and Toys R Us, pulled baby bottles with BPA off of shelves; and several states attempted to push forward legislation banning the chemical from all food contact products.

“Legislation and political threats are powerful tools,” notes Shade.

And in the most showing triumph against the use of BPA, Sunoco, a major manufacturer of the chemical and previously one of its biggest safety advocates, announced that it is now requiring customers to guarantee the BPA it sells to them will not be used to make food and beverage containers for children under age three.

But not all campaigns are this successful. Shade notes that 10 years ago there was a similar push in the U.S. to ban phthalates in toys. Phthalates are linked to birth defects, disrupted development, decreased sperm count and infertility. They are currently banned in the EU, and the U.S. just recently set limits on phthalates, along with lowering limits on lead, for products intended for kids age 12 and under.

Which is why the current ‘innocent until proven guilty’ approach to removing harmful chemicals from products is a stop-gap, not a solution.

A Better Way

In an ideal world, manufacturers would take it upon themselves to evaluate their product materials for environmental and human safety, and pursue alternative materials that are safer for consumers and the environment.

That doesn’t mean everything has to be made of wood and natural fibers. Rather, it requires a proactive approach to product design, in which safety is as important a priority as quality and cost.

This is the approach taken by Steelcase, an office furniture manufacturer in Grand Rapids, Mich. Steelcase relies on material chemistry to evaluate product safety, and every new product design begins with a list of ‘approved materials’ that have been evaluated for human and environmental safety, toxicity and performance criteria. Steelcase works with MBDC to assess materials as part of MBDC’s Cradle to Cradle certification program.

“It’s much easier to start with an approved list so we don’t have to guess about whether a material is safe,” says Tammy Ayers, senior environmental sustainability consultant in the materials chemistry practice for Steelcase.

And when materials are needed that don’t fall on the list, the company reviews the marketplace to find the safest possible choice, then rates those materials according to toxicity. If the alternative material falls into a yellow or red category – which means they are acceptable but not ideal -- an exit strategy is devised to move them out of the product. Anything that receives a black or prohibited rating is not allowed.

“It’s not an easy process,” she warns. It requires in-depth research across the entire supply chain, and sometimes months of trial and error to replace toxic materials with safer alternatives that meet quality and price criteria.

“It’s a challenge for our supply chain and engineers, but we are paving a path,” says Ayers. A big component of the process is convincing suppliers to help find safer solutions.

Ayers proudly notes that 3M recently agreed to partner with Steelcase to develop green alternatives for certain chemicals. “They are on board, and when something assess red they start looking for alternatives to change their formulation.”

Building these kinds of partnerships and getting suppliers to understand the larger goal is the only way designers can achieve the fundamental shift in attitude about material safety.

“For years the sustainability environment has been a discipline of compliance,” says Angela Nahikian, director of global environmental sustainability for Steelcase. But compliance is a reactive process that does not strive to prevent harmful toxins from getting into products in the first place.

“We are challenging our partners and our teams to look beyond compliance, to do what’s right.”

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