Industrial chemicals are all around you – they’re everywhere, from the chair you’re sitting in 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 are safe?
In the United States, most chemicals have been deemed innocent until proven guilty. They are put into service with little or no information about their safety, and if harm is suspected, federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must perform complex risk assessments to prove that people are exposed to levels high enough to warrant action. This can take years or decades per chemical, and there are tens of thousands of chemicals commercially available today.
Sounds inefficient? Well, leading scientists agree. That’s why a more sensible idea is gaining ground. The “essential uses approach” is quite simple in theory: if a chemical is harmful, or suspected of being harmful, it should be restricted to only uses that are essential — and only until safer alternatives are available. be developed. One can hardly find fault with this logic. Are antimicrobial socks or waterproof swimwear essential enough to risk the use of harmful chemicals? Not likely. But we might need these chemicals in some surgical gowns or firefighting gear, at least until a safer alternative is developed.
This approach is adopted by the EU and several US states. However, in practice, how to apply it is still being worked out. In a new article, we join other scientists from government agencies, non-profit organizations and universities to provide specific recommendations on how the essential use approach can be applied by governments and companies wishing to eliminate 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 using the chemical the safest option possible?
- Is the 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” can the product continue to be used, with the requirement that a time-limited plan be put in place to develop safer alternatives. Spoiler alert: it will also be good for the economy by encouraging the development of inherently safer chemicals.
Why do we think this approach will work? Because some chemicals are used even when their function is not needed 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 functioning of society.
Our recommendations include how to identify chemicals of concern and where in the chemical assessment process or company supply chain to apply the essential uses approach. The short answer is “as soon as possible”, to minimize the potential for harm and loss of investment. We also recommend engaging various experts (including industry and technical experts) and sharing information to support decision-making on truly essential uses.
Ultimately, the current hazardous chemical control system in the United States has resulted in avoidable health risks, externalized costs, and continued environmental degradation. With the essential-use approach, we no longer have to wait for people to be harmed before limiting our use of chemicals of concern. This approach also has the potential to assess more chemicals more quickly and efficiently and to promote innovation by directing the market towards less hazardous solutions. It is important to note that this approach is not the sole domain of government agencies. Companies can also benefit from integrating it into their practices. In a nutshell, if harmful or even potentially harmful chemicals aren’t 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.