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How the US can radically improve chemical safety

Industrial chemicals are all around you — they’re in everything from the chair you’re sitting on, to the electronic device you’re looking at and the toothpaste you used this morning. Many have even made their way inside your body. So, who makes sure they’re safe?

In the U.S., most chemicals have been considered innocent until proven guilty. They’re entered into use with little to no information about their safety, and if suspicion of harm arises, federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must do complex risk assessments to prove people are exposed at high enough concentrations to warrant action. This can take years or decades per chemical, and there are tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce today. 

Sound inefficient? Well, leading scientists agree. That’s why a more common-sense idea is gaining traction. The “essential-use approach” is quite simple in theory: If a chemical is harmful, or suspected of being harmful, it should be restricted to only those uses that are essential — and only until safer alternatives are developed. One can hardly find fault with that logic. Are antimicrobial socks or waterproof bathing suits essential enough to risk the use of harmful chemicals? Not likely. But we may need these chemicals in some surgical gowns or firefighting gear, at least until a safer alternative is developed. 

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This approach is being adopted by the E.U. and several U.S. states. However, in practice, how to apply it is still being hammered out. In a new paper, we join other scientists from government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and academia in providing specific recommendations for how the essential-use approach can be applied by governments and businesses wanting to remove harmful chemicals from commerce. 

The idea is that once a chemical or group of chemicals is identified as harmful or potentially harmful, one or more of the following questions can be asked: 

  • Is the function of the chemical necessary for the product?
  • Is use of the chemical the safest feasible option?
  • Is use of the chemical justified because such use in the product is necessary for health, safety or the functioning of society?

We recommend starting with the easiest question to answer. Only if all three questions can be answered “yes” is the product allowed to continue being used, with the requirement that a time-limited plan be put in place to develop safer alternatives. Spoiler alert: This will also be good for the economy by incentivizing development of inherently safer chemicals. 

Why do we think this approach will work? Because some chemicals are used even when their function is not necessary in a given product (thanks, in part, to expert marketing). Some harmful chemicals are used when safer alternatives are already available. And some harmful chemicals are used even when they are not necessary for health, safety or the function of society.

Our recommendations include how to identify the chemicals of concern, and where in the process of chemical assessment or the business supply chain to apply the essential-use approach. The short answer is “as early as possible,” to minimize the potential for harm and the loss of investment. We also recommend engaging diverse experts (including industry and technical experts) and sharing information in order to support decision-making about what uses are truly essential. 

The bottom line is that the current system for controlling hazardous chemicals in the U.S. has resulted in avoidable health risks, externalized costs and ongoing degradation of the environment. With the essential-use approach we no longer have to wait for people to be harmed before we rein in our use of chemicals of concern. This approach also has the potential to more quickly and efficiently assess a greater number of chemicals, and to promote innovation by shifting the market toward less hazardous solutions. Importantly, this approach does not fall only on government agencies. Businesses can also benefit from incorporating it into their practices. In a nutshell, if harmful or even potentially harmful chemicals are not necessary, they may not be worth the risk.  

Carol Kwiatkowski is a scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute.

Simona Bălan is a scientist at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

The views and opinions are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control or the state of California.