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Intelligent commentary on a ‘Green Chemistry’ standard.

Common Ground For Going Green

Effort to develop a chemical industry standard is driven by the need to share comparative data

Stephen K. Ritter

CHEMICAL and ENGINEERING NEWS
May 10, 2010
Volume 88, Number 19, pp. 38-41

Chemical companies large and small are eager to become greener. They want to be able to select greener starting materials and use cleaner chemical processes to make environmentally preferred products. But there are no authoritative marketplace criteria to identify green, greener, or greenest. And for those who think they are green, there’s uncertainty over the best way to communicate the supporting information.

The solution: Develop a comprehensive voluntary industry standard that enables everyone from raw material suppliers and manufacturers to retail consumers and policymakers to exchange common information in a standard format on the environmental performance of chemical products and processes.

Government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, some chemical companies, and large retailers such as Walmart and Carrefour have already set out to develop assessment tools and enhanced metrics to achieve that ideal. But so far, these efforts are specific for individual classes of chemicals or market segments such as home cleaning products (C&EN, Jan. 25, page 12). In addition, the efforts tend to focus more on the consumer and less on the business-to-business world, where most chemical companies operate.

“There is a hunger in the marketplace for reliable, consistent, compelling information on which to base greener, more sustainable choices,” says Neil C. Hawkins, Dow Chemical’s vice president of sustainability and environmental health and safety. “Chemical companies need a life-cycle view—greenhouse gases, water, energy, renewables, waste reduction, recyclability—that encompasses all parts of the supply chain,” he says. “A standard is needed that provides guidance on the different types of data required, who should be publishing the data, in what form, and in what quality, so that you end up with a robust decision-making apparatus that will allow businesses and consumers to make fair comparisons and better choices.”

To that end, the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute (GCI) is spearheading an effort to create the Greener Chemical Products & Processes Standard. This standard will provide data to allow anyone to evaluate the relative environmental performance of chemical products and their manufacturing technologies.

Many green standards already exist and typically are highlighted by product ecolabels, notes GCI Director Robert Peoples. Those standards are usually issued by companies themselves, industry trade groups, or environment-focused nongovernmental organizations, he says. They tend to center on one or two attributes, such as volatile organic compound emissions or percent recycled content. In addition, the tools used to establish such standards focus on the final products but don’t include the manufacturing process.

“We are building a multiattribute, consensus-based standard with third-party verification that a company can certify against to say that it has a greener product or manufacturing process than a competing product or a technology that it aims to replace,” Peoples explains.

Nearly 60 participants, including stakeholders from chemical companies, academia, trade groups, federal and state agencies, and nongovernmental organizations, are providing a balance of opinions to help establish the standard, he adds.

The process is being administered by NSF International, a global expert in standards development. The end goal is to have the standard issued by the American National Standards Institute. A draft of the standard is nearly complete and is expected to be released for public comment over the summer. The plan is to have final approval by the end of the year.

Peoples notes that the effort to develop the standard is drawing inspiration from green chemistry initiatives already in place. A primary example is the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment (DfE) program, which encourages collaborative efforts between companies and environmental groups to screen chemicals and promote use of safer materials.

EPA staff develop DfE protocols for conducting screens of alternative chemicals based on threshold values for human and aquatic toxicity, bioaccumulation, persistence, and other parameters. Products that contain ingredients posing the least concern among chemicals in their class earn DfE certification and the right to use the DfE logo on the product label.

This strategy, known as “informed substitution,” is based on selecting chemical products that are fully assessed, have low hazard, and provide life-cycle benefits, notes Lauren G. Heine, science director at the virtual environmental nonprofit organization Clean Production Action. The goal of informed substitution is to move away from using the most hazardous chemicals, she says. Inherent in this model is an allowance for continual improvement by obtaining more data and a better understanding of what is greener and more sustainable over time.

The subscription online database CleanGredients is one business-to-business tool that uses DfE criteria to identify surfactants and solvents—and coming soon fragrances and chelating agents—that have optimal performance and environmental characteristics for making cleaning products. CleanGredients was created through a partnership between EPA and the nonprofit GreenBlue Institute, in Charlottesville, Va., where Heine previously worked.

CleanGredients encourages cleaning-product formulators to use greener chemicals and gives specialty chemical makers an opportunity to showcase their greener, safer products. Formulator companies don’t manufacture chemicals but instead purchase ingredients from chemical companies and then use proprietary recipes to mix them.

Even with tools such as CleanGredients, cleaning-product formulators spend a considerable amount of effort trying to analyze the properties of ingredients they want to use, “and they are feeling pretty challenged when they don’t have the resources of a large company like a Walmart,” notes Anne P. Wallin, Dow Chemical’s director of sustainable chemistry, who is participating in the GCI-led greener chemical standard-setting process. “They aren’t necessarily chemists, and they likely don’t have a toxicologist on their team. If we can give them reliable information in the form of a standard, it will be a huge leap forward for sustainability.”

Taking the CleanGredients model one step further is the Green Screen for Safer Chemicals, one of the tools developed by Heine and her colleagues at Clean Production Action.

Green Screen is the first open-source method to rank chemicals according to a comparative hazard assessment, Heine says. The screening tool goes beyond cleaning-product ingredients to evaluate all types of chemicals, which are categorized into one of four quantitative benchmarks, from “avoid—chemical of high concern” to “prefer—safer chemical.”

The benchmarks include hazard criteria that a chemical, its metabolites, and predicted breakdown products must pass, with a focus on the use and end-of-life phases, she adds. It also fills in data gaps with structure-activity relationship modeling data and expert judgment calls. Green Screen doesn’t include process or energy use information, but it can be applied to chemicals at any stage of the supply chain.

“Comparative hazard assessment tools are becoming an important piece of the sustainability puzzle,” Heine says. “People approach greening their chemical inventories by first moving away from chemicals of concern, perhaps driven by regulation. Once you start moving away from a known problem, you are pushed to the next level, where you have to consider more critically what is safer.”

Stakeholders working to frame the new Greener Chemical Products & Processes Standard are being informed by the best elements of initiatives such as CleanGredients and the Green Screen along with federal regulations as they generate the standard, notes GCI’s manager, Jennifer L. Young, who is representing the institute in the standards process.

The standard’s first phase, which is currently under development, covers individual chemicals and the processes to make them, Young explains. But it’s leaving out certain life-cycle elements such as sourcing raw materials and tracking the downstream use of the chemicals in making manufactured goods, an omission that’s caused some controversy among stakeholders.

Some of the stakeholders believe the standard should start out covering a chemical’s complete life cycle to understand its full environmental impact, from raw material extraction such as mining and oil and natural gas production to the end of a manufactured product’s lifetime and its recycling. The decision to move forward without those elements is not being taken lightly, Young emphasizes. But the effort required of companies to immediately go out and gather the new data, which many of them have never tracked before, would delay getting the standard implemented, she notes.

Looking past the scope of the standard, the framework includes multiple parameters in three primary categories: chemical characteristics, chemical processing, and social responsibility, Young says. The chemical characteristics category covers physical properties, human health effects, and environmental impacts. The chemical processing category includes water usage, treatment, and recycling data; efficiency of materials use with a focus on waste prevention; process safety; and energy use, Young explains. The third category, social responsibility, takes a look at global corporate practices such as adhering to labor laws and complying with regulations, she says.

Within the chemical characteristics category, there are three classification tiers based on hazard level and the amount of information available on a chemical, Young adds. The first tier includes chemical characteristics that are well studied and for which there are data determined by validated methods. A pesticide, for example, might require chronic ecological toxicity data from a 14-day test on earthworms with the results reported in milligrams per liter.

“Comparative hazard assessment tools are becoming an important piece of the sustainability puzzle.”

The second tier includes chemical characteristics that don’t have a lot of information and still may have cause for concern. In some cases, the data might not be available because the testing hasn’t been done, or they may not be provided by the manufacturer.

Young says the standard has to provide a balance between providing transparent but useful comparative information without giving away proprietary information. But data that are withheld because they’re considered confidential will be treated as missing data, she notes, which could lower the value of the chemical in the standard’s hierarchy and possibly prevent the chemical from gaining certification.

The third tier includes chemical characteristics that are new, considered to be problematic, or have little or no data, Young notes. For example, no one knows yet if some types of nanomaterials could pose a problem or not, she says. The standard makes no provision for requiring disclosure of these characteristics.

Some stakeholders are eager for the standard to provide a rating index or points system for ranking chemicals, Young says. Such a system would identify the “greenest” chemical in a class of compounds and provide a reference point for a company to gauge its progress in improving the chemical’s profile over time. But the initial version of the standard will leave it up to users to make their own comparisons, she says.

In addition, some members of the stakeholder group are dismayed that the standard is reactionary, rather than proactive, when it comes to addressing endocrine disruption, which is currently a polarized issue in science. Endocrine disrupters typically are man-made chemicals in the environment. They mimic hormones and can disrupt the endocrine system, potentially leading to negative health effects. Although scientists understand that people are susceptible to the effects of endocrine disrupters, it’s still unclear to what degree and under which conditions, and EPA is just beginning a long-delayed screening program (C&EN, Oct. 26, 2009, page 7).

Validated tests and models to understand dose-response relationships in endocrine disruption are still being optimized. As a result, data on endocrine disrupters are not initially required for the standard, Young notes. However, if endocrine-disrupter characteristics are associated with a chemical, the expectation is that the manufacturer will report that information to the customer. In a qualitative way, knowing that a chemical has been fingered as a potential endocrine disrupter could help a user make a judgment, she adds.

Because the majority of truly green chemicals and chemical products haven’t yet been invented, these criticisms point to a concern that setting a standard now could dilute the science of green chemistry by creating a “good enough” threshold. The concerned scientists say that such a threshold might allow chemicals that meet minimum qualifications to be certified, making it seem acceptable for some intrinsically dangerous chemicals to continue to be used, particularly if the standard is used to guide regulatory decisions. Given that possibility, some members of the green chemistry community have suggested that the word “greener” be struck from the standard’s title.

“Standards-making is messy,” Dow’s Wallin says. “You are trying to get a broad group of stakeholders together with a diverse set of viewpoints to find some middle ground and build on it. The need and the potential for a standard are both tremendous, and it is definitely worth the effort. It will be very powerful if we can work through all these issues and create a standard that the whole group can get behind.”

The science of sustainability and green chemistry is rapidly evolving, GCI’s Peoples adds. He emphasizes that just because someone initially certifies a product or process against the standard, it doesn’t mean it’s 100% green. “We need to revise and improve the standard over time,” Peoples says. “That means tightening the requirements and recognizing innovation as new science and technology are developed.”

A natural question asked about green chemistry and developing screening tools and standards is whether or not they can make a difference in the chemical marketplace. It’s still early in the sustainability game, but Peoples points to SC Johnson‘s Greenlist as a harbinger of success for the new green standard.

SC Johnson is the maker of many familiar brands of home cleaning, storage, and pest-control products, including Pledge and Windex surface cleaners, Ziploc storage bags and containers, and Raid insecticides. In 2001, the company created Greenlist with EPA’s backing as a methodology to rate the ingredients that make up its products. For Greenlist, environment and human health data are included alongside performance criteria and cost in the company’s chemical formulary, an index of ingredients that scientists use when designing products. The materials are rated 0 for restricted use, 1 for acceptable, 2 for better, and 3 for best.

When the program started in 2001, 18% of listed materials were rated better or best. The most recent data reveal that this number has climbed to 47%. But more critically, the zero-rated restricted-use materials have dropped from 10% to 2% of the total.

At first, SC Johnson had to challenge its suppliers to create better rated chemicals, according to the study. Now, the shoe is on the other foot; companies are designing new chemicals based on Greenlist criteria and are pitching them to SC Johnson to add to the formulary.

After the greener chemical standard is approved, communicating the information behind the certification will move to the forefront, Peoples says. One outcome could be an ecolabel that can be used on packaging for products made with certified ingredients. Individual chemicals don’t lend themselves to having an ecolabel because they are bought and sold mostly in bulk, he adds. Thus product documentation akin to a food nutrition label or a graphical label that shows sustainability attributes could be appropriate. For the business-to-business marketplace, information sheets and online reports for certified chemicals might be a format for communicating the standard’s supporting information, Peoples says.

“The importance of the standard-setting process is that we and our families are all inhabitants of this planet,” Peoples observes. “We don’t want to have problems with the quality of the water we drink or the air we breathe. But at the same time, we need to compromise and be creative,” he says. “There are billions or trillions of dollars of capital sunk into the ground in the chemical enterprise. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t wave a magic wand and suddenly replace it tomorrow with pure green chemistry. It will take time to increase the level of awareness about the standard and decades to transition. But we need to agree now on a path forward and start taking our first steps.”

More On This Story

Green Chemistry Metric: iSUSTAIN™ Green Chemistry Index v2.0

The iSUSTAIN™ Green Chemistry Index is a tool which provides a methodology to generate a sustainability-based score for chemical products and processes. It contains a set of sustainability metrics based on the Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry* and takes into account such factors as waste generation, energy usage, health and environmental impact of raw materials and products, safety of processing steps, and others.

To use the iSUSTAIN™ Index, the user generates a scenario. The scenario contains information on the materials going into a process (the Bill of Materials In or BOM In), the materials out of a process (the product and any waste streams – the Bill of Materials Out or BOM Out) and the conditions used for the various steps in a process (the Process Steps). Several alternative scenarios can be generated for the same product/process, making changes within them to evaluate their effect on the overall sustainability score, thus allowing the user to do a “what-if” analysis.

The internet-based version of the iSUSTAIN™ Green Chemistry Index was developed with two goals in mind:

  • Afford a measure of the sustainability for products/processes to both develop an initial sustainability baseline and provide guidance for process improvement
  • Act as a learning tool for the scientific community to provide increased familiarity with the Twelve Principles of Green chemistry and help scientists gain an appreciation of the factors within their control that can affect the overall sustainability of their processes

The iSUSTAIN™ Green Chemistry Index has been developed through an alliance between Cytec Industries Inc., a sustainability-minded specialty chemicals and materials company; Sopheon, a leading provider of software and services for product lifecycle management; and Beyond Benign, a non-profit organization dedicated to green chemistry education and training.

President’s Cancer Panel Report (National Cancer Institute) links environmental toxics to cancer; strongly endorses Green Chemistry

President’s Cancer Panel: Environmentally caused cancers are ‘grossly underestimated’ and ‘needlessly devastate American lives.’

“The true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated,” says the President’s Cancer Panel in a strongly reported report that urges action to reduce people’s widespread exposure to carcinogens. The panel today advised President Obama “to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”

2010-0506warning
Nick.Fisher/flickr
Chemicals and contaminants might trigger cancer by various means.
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By Marla Cone
Editor in Chief
Environmental Health News
May 6, 2010

The President’s Cancer Panel on Thursday reported that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated” and strongly urged action to reduce people’s widespread exposure to carcinogens.

The panel advised President Obama ”to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”

The 240-page report by the President’s Cancer Panel is the first to focus on environmental causes of cancer. The panel, created by an act of Congress in 1971, is charged with monitoring the multi-billion-dollar National Cancer Program and reports directly to the President every year.

Environmental exposures “do not represent a new front in the ongoing war on cancer. However, the grievous harm from this group of carcinogens has not been addressed adequately by the National Cancer Program,” the panel said in its letter to Obama that precedes the report. “The American people even before they are born are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures.”

The panel, appointed by President Bush, told President Obama that the federal government is missing the chance to protect people from cancer by reducing their exposure to carcinogens. In its letter, the panel singled out bisphenol A, a chemical used in polycarbonate plastic and can linings that is unregulated in the United States, as well as radon, formaldehyde and benzene.

“The increasing number of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compels us to action, even though we may currently lack irrefutable proof of harm.” - Dr. LaSalle D. Lefall, Jr., chair of the President’s Cancer PanelEnvironmental health scientists were pleased by the findings, saying it embraces everything that they have been saying for years.

Richard Clapp, a professor of environmental health at Boston University’s School of Public Health and one of the nation’s leading cancer epidemiologists, called the report “a call to action.”

Environmental and occupational exposures contribute to ”tens of thousands of cancer cases a year,” Clapp said. ”If we had any calamity that produced tens of thousands of deaths or serious diseases, that’s a national emergency in my view.”

The two-member panel Dr. LaSalle D. Lefall, Jr., a professor of surgery at Howard University and Margaret Kripke, a professor at University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center – was appointed by President Bush to three-year terms.

Lefall and Kripke concluded that action is necessary, even though in many cases there is scientific uncertainty about whether certain chemicals cause cancer. That philosophy, called the precautionary principle, is highly controversial among scientists, regulators and industry.

“The increasing number of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compels us to action, even though we may currently lack irrefutable proof of harm,” Lefall, who is chair of the panel, said in a statement.

The two panelists met with nearly 50 medical experts in late 2008 and early 2009 before writing their report to the president. Cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong previously served on the panel, but did not work on this year’s report.

2010-0506catscan
grewlike/flickr
In 2007, 69 million CT scans were performed.

The report recommends raising consumer awareness of the risks posed by chemicals in food, air, water and consumer products, bolstering research of the health effects and tightening regulation of chemicals that might cause cancer or other diseases.

They also urged doctors to use caution in prescribing CT scans and other medical imaging tests that expose patients to large amounts of radiation.  In 2007, 69 million CT scans were performed, compared with 18 million in 1993. Patients who have a chest CT scan receive a dose of radiation in the same range as survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb attacks who were less than half a mile from ground zero, the report says.

The panel also criticized the U.S. military, saying that “it is a major source of toxic occupational and environmental exposures that can increase cancer risk.” Examples cited include Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where carcinogenic solvents contaminate drinking water, and Vietnam veterans with increased lymphomas, prostate cancer and other cancers from thier exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange.

Overall cancer rates and deaths have declined in the United States. Nevertheless, about 41 percent of all Americans still will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime, and about 21 percent will die from it, according to the National Cancer Institute’s SEER Cancer Statistics Review. In 2009 alone, about 1.5 million new cases were diagnosed.

For the past 30 years, federal agencies and institutes have estimated that environmental pollutants cause about 2 percent of all cancers and that occupational exposures may cause 4 percent.
Patients who have a chest CT scan receive a dose of radiation in the same range as survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb attacks who were less than half a mile from ground zero. But the panel called those estimates ”woefully out of date.” The panel criticized regulators for using them to set environmental regulations and lambasted the chemical industry for using them “to justify its claims that specific products pose little or no cancer risk.”
The report said the outdated estimates fail to take into account many newer discoveries about people’s vulnerability to chemicals. Many chemicals interact with each other, intensifying the effect, and some people have a genetic makeup or early life exposure that makes them susceptible to environmental contaminants.
“It is not known exactly what percentage of all cancers either are initiated or promoted by an environmental trigger,” the panel said in its report. “Some exposures to an environmental hazard occur as a single acute episode, but most often, individual or multiple harmful exposures take place over a period of weeks, months, year, or a lifetime.”
Boston University’s Clapp was one of the experts who spoke to the panel in 2008. ”We know enough now to act in ways that we have not done…Act on what we know,” he told them.
“There are lots of places where we can move forward here. Lots of things we can act on now,” such as military base cleanups and reducing use of CT scans, Clapp said in an interview.
Dr. Ted Schettler, director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, called the report an “integrated and comprehensive critique.” He was glad that the panel underscored that regulatory agencies should reduce exposures even when absolute proof of harm was unavailable.
2010-0506cellphone
azurion2/flickr
Scientists are divided on whether there is a link between cell phones and cancer.
Also, “they recognized that exposures happen in mixtures, not in isolation” and that children are most vulnerable.
“Some people are disproportionately exposed and disproportionately vulnerable,” said Schettler, whose group was founded by environmental groups to urge the use of science to address public health issues related to the environment.
Schettler said it “took courage” for the panel to warn physicians about the cancer risk posed by CT scans, particularly for young children.

“It’s almost become routine for kids with abdominal pain to get a CT scan” to check for appendicitis, he said. Although the scans may lead to fewer unnecessary surgeries, doctors should consider the high doses of radiation. “I’m very glad this panel took that on,” Schettler said.

Another sensitive issue raised in the report was the risk of brain cancer from cell phones. Scientists are divided on whether there is a link.

Until more research is conducted, the panel recommended that people reduce their usage by making fewer and shorter calls, using hands-free devices so that the phone is not against the head and refraining from keeping a phone on a belt or in a pocket.

Even if cell phones raise the risk of cancer slightly, so many people are exposed that “it could be a large public health burden,” Schettler said.

The panel listed a variety of carcinogenic compounds that many people routinely encounter. Included are benzene and other petroleum-based pollutants in vehicle exhaust, arsenic in water supplies, chromium from plating companies, formaldehyde in kitchen cabinets and other plywood, bisphenol A in plastics and canned foods, tetrachloroethylene at dry cleaners, PCBs in fish and other foods and various pesticides.

Chemicals and contaminants might trigger cancer by a variety of means. They can damage DNA, disrupt hormones, inflame tissues, or turn genes on or off.

“Some types of cancer are increasing rapidly,” Clapp said, including thyroid, kidney and liver cancers. Others, including lung and breast cancer, have declined.

Previous reports by the President’s Cancer Panel have focused largely on treatment and more well-known causes of cancer such as diet or smoking.
The panel criticized regulators and industry for using ”woefully outdated” estimates of environmentally caused cancers to set regulations and “to justify its claims that specific products pose little or no cancer risk.”Some experts are concerned that the report might just sit on a shelf at the White House. But Clapp said the findings are so strongly stated that he is confident the report will be useful to some policymakers, legislators and groups that want tougher occupational health standards or other regulations.
“We’re not going to get any better than this,” Clapp said. “This goes farther than what I thought the President’s Cancer Panel would go. I’m pleased that they went as far as they did.”
Environmental health scientists said they hope the report raises not just the President’s awareness of environmental threats, but the public’s, since most people are unaware of the dangers.
“This report has stature,” Schettler said. “It is a report that goes directly to the president.”
PDF of the original report.

Thought-provoking story describes alternatives to bisphenol A.

Thought-provoking story describes alternatives to bisphenol A.

Posted by Evan Beach at Feb 27, 2010 09:30 AM | Environmental Health Sciences

A February 23rd article in the Washington Post provides a well researched overview of potential substitutes for bisphenol A (BPA) in food containers. It raises important issues about scientists’ state of knowledge about exposures to chemicals in packaging materials and the food supply.

BPA is widely used in food can linings, and exposures through canned food are thought to be related to the frequency with which BPA is detected in the urine of the US population.  This application of BPA has also proven to be one of the most difficult in terms of finding a substitute technology.  The Washington Post article provides an excellent summary of the properties needed for high performance steel can linings and industry efforts to replace BPA-containing materials.

One of the most striking parts of the story is the revelation that one food company that switched to BPA-free steel cans is still finding trace amounts of BPA in its products. The source of contamination remains unknown.  This adds to growing evidence that estrogenic chemicals are so widely used in manufacturing supply chains that it has become difficult to pinpoint how and where in the process they are able to migrate into food and drink. For example, a 2009 study found that bottled water showed estrogenic effects after it was stored in Tetra Pak liners.  It is still unclear whether this was a result of the packaging materials themselves or some other aspect of the manufacturing process.

These findings suggest that our problems will not be solved just by replacing BPA in food can linings.  As discussed in the Post article, BPA is used in thousands of consumer products, increasing the chances of cross-contamination.  What’s not mentioned, though, is that BPA is not the only estrogen mimic showing up in food.  The problem is more systematic, begging the question, will the potential alternatives discussed in the story be any safer?

It is very difficult for a chemist sketching new molecules in a notebook to predict whether those structures will lead to a toxic product or a safe product.  This has led to situations described by NIEHS director Linda Birnbaum as like “jumping from the fry pan into the fire” when it comes to substitutes, as she said in reference to alternative flame retardants.

A possible solution to this issue is greater cooperation between environmental health scientists and green chemists, who are seeking to better understand the connections between chemical properties and toxic endpoints.  Progress in this area would make it easier to recognize chemical hazards as a design flaw.

The Post article did a good job bringing up difficult issues regarding chemicals in the food supply, and provided a rare focus on the quest for replacements.  Other journalists could follow suit and begin asking more pointed questions that dig deeper into how chemicals can be made safer.

Towards shorter – and safer – fluorochemicals?

Towards shorter – and safer – fluorochemicals?

Posted by Adelina Voutchkova and Heather Stapleton at Mar 16, 2010 10:20 AM | Environmental Health News

A recent article in Chemical and Engineering News deems the new replacements for the widely used fluorocarbons as “safer” than their predecessors, but does not delve into the seemingly lack of evidence.

The newest replacements for the ubiquitous chemicals that repel grease, water and stains on fabric, cookware and food packaging are regarded as “safer” than their predecessors, reports Stephen K. Ritter in a recent Chemical and Engineering News article. The detailed article explores the chemical and regulatory history of an ongoing effort to find safer alternatives for the perfluoroalkyl compounds (PFCs), specifically the perfluorinated sulfonates (PFSAs) and perfluorinated carboxylate acids (PFCAs). Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA or C8) are the best known of these.

Due to concerns about bioaccumulation, persistence and toxicity, PFCs are being phased out through a now voluntary program headed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

While Ritter does a good job of covering a complicated story, the article could have emphasized that the reported safety claims for the new replacements are seemingly premature and made without enough solid research evidence.

Ritter explains that the new chemicals – reformulated with fewer carbon atoms and thus called “short chain” fluorocarbons – are an intermediate step on the path to finding less toxic solutions. He goes on to say that these replacements are just as persistent as the prior chemicals but “aren’t as bioaccumulative and appear to have a better toxicity profile—which is still being confirmed by testing—and are thus considered sound replacements.”

These and other statements throughout the article hint that not enough is known about the toxicity of the replacements.

PFCs are ubiquitous in animals, people and the environment – including places as remote as the Arctic – due to their high production volumes and worldwide transport in water and air. This emphasizes that global, rather than local, approaches to reducing environmental concentrations of these fluorinated chemicals are necessary. Animal and very limited human studies link high exposures to a number of health effects, including developmental problems, liver toxicity, immune system problems and thyroid disease.

Industry and the EPA are both supporting the shift to new, shorter chain replacements. This could be because research suggests the molecules with six or fewer carbons may bioaccumulate less. While that sounds positive, it is not at all clear how fewer carbons will affect bioavailability and toxicity.

In addition, EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics has not yet decided if importing long-chain PFC chemicals, in raw form or in consumer products, will continue. This may represent a significant concern given the large amounts of imports from countries like China, which still produces, uses and sells PFOS.

Although initiatives that aim to introduce safer alternatives to existing commercial chemicals should certainly be encouraged, the safety profiles of the alternative chemicals should be evaluated conclusively before widespread production and use of the new chemical begins. We have witnessed prior cases where lack of such thorough analysis of an alternative chemical has had dire consequences on human and environmental health. In the case of this article, further critical analysis about the safety of replacements is needed when so little is known about the health and environmental risks of the new versions.