Tag Archives: safety testing

Hitting the Bottle.

New York Times
Published: May 8, 2011

SUDDENLY, there’s a baby boom going on around me. I’m making weekly shopping trips to stock friends’ nurseries, and I’m struck by how many signs on the shelves advertise BPA-free bottles, BPA-free sippy cups. It breaks my heart. Manufacturers might be removing BPA, a chemical used to harden certain plastics, from their products, but they are substituting chemicals that may be just as dangerous, if not more so.

Read original post here.

Article on chemical safety heavy on policy, light on science.

Posted by Evan Beach at Apr 25, 2011 07:00 AM | Permalink

A recent article in the New York Times calls attention to a frustrating situation that is unfortunately all too common in the world of chemistry: supposedly “green” alternatives to problem chemicals end up being just as problematic. The article explores potential policy fixes, but doesn’t mention any role that actual chemists – the molecular designers – could play in a solution.

The article describes replacement of bisphenol A (BPA) with bisphenol S (BPS). BPA, which is used in thermal receipt paper and some plastic products, has come under consumer pressure because research suggests it leads to a range of harmful effects in humans. Unfortunately, it is emerging that BPS isn’t much better, so “BPA-free” labels may give consumers a false sense of security.

Reform of U.S. chemical policy – for example the Toxic Substances Control Act – is discussed in the article as a way to improve the safety of chemicals found in commerce. However, policy changes don’t get to the heart of the problem: that most chemists are not trained to understand toxic phenomena, so it remains extremely difficult for a chemist to predict whether a new chemical will be hazardous or not.

The “green chemistry” movement aims to give chemists control over environmental and health impacts of chemicals and has been working to provide better tools and training. Ongoing research is showing that it is possible to use the results of toxicity tests – ranging from computer models to animal studies – to create molecular design guidelines. By understanding the chemical properties that lead to harmful effects, chemists can design safer products for everyday use.

Molecular design for reduced hazard therefore represents a scientific approach that would complement any political solutions to the problem of toxic chemicals. Times readers would have benefited from a discussion of the state of the science, which is rapidly developing in laboratories worldwide.

NIEHS scientists join forces with green chemists

By Thaddeus Schug
April 2011

NIEHS/NTP scientists joined forces with leaders in the field of green chemistry in what may turn out to be a groundbreaking meeting, “Green Chemistry and Environmental Health Sciences — Designing Endocrine Disruption Out of the Next Generation of Materials,” held March 21-23 in Sausalito, Calif.

The challenges facing scientists trying to design such new materials are daunting. Say a chemist has developed a compound that he or she believes could be a replacement for bisphenol A (BPA). How will the scientist determine if the molecule is safer to human health and the environment? What testing will need to be done and what will guide scientists through this process?

The goals of the meeting in Sausalito were ambitious — to develop a consensus statement on the principles that guide the science needed to assess risks of potential endocrine disruptors, and to develop a reliable and rational testing protocol to aid chemists as they develop and bring the next generation of chemicals into the marketplace.

The intersection of green chemistry and environmental health science

Karen O’Brien, Ph.D., from Advancing Green Chemistry (AGC) and Pete Myers, Ph.D., of Environmental Health Sciences (EHS), welcomed participants to the event, which brought together an equal mix of biologists and chemists. Representatives from NIEHS and NTP included Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) program administrator Jerry Heindel, Ph.D., and Kristina Thayer, Ph.D., director of the NTP Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR).

Following a social ice-breaking exercise on the evening of March 21, the first full day of the meeting opened with presentations from Terry Collins, Ph.D., the Teresa Heinz Professor of Green Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, and John Warner, Ph.D., president and founder of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry.

Both Collins and Warner stressed the need for fundamental changes in the way that scientists design new chemicals and the process of bringing them into the marketplace. “We must also pay close attention to the environmental impact and the effects on human health posed by these chemicals, and for those reasons chemists need to work hand-in-hand with biologists,” said Warner. He also stressed that chemists generally have no background in toxicology, but that they need to be able to test the chemicals being developed for endocrine activity and to do it early on in the product development process.

Designing a chemical screening protocol

The remainder of the day was divided into discussion sessions covering each phase of a newly developed screening model, designed by a science advisory board formed by meeting organizers that met monthly, via teleconference, for six months prior to the workshop. The protocol is geared towards identifying a wide-range of endocrine-active chemicals, such as atrazine, BPA, brominated flame retardants, organotins, perchlorates, and phthalates. The Board conducted  interviews with scientists with expertise in specific areas of toxicology, endocrine disruption, and assay development.

The testing paradigm proposed involves a five-tiered approach, starting with the fastest and cheapest assays and working through more specialized tests to determine whether a new chemical has endocrine disrupting characteristics. The initial two phases rely on predictive computer modeling and high-throughput screening to quickly weed out problem chemicals. These tests are followed by more specific in vitro cell-based screening assays with a mind to refining, reducing, and replacing animal testing as much as possible.

The final two phases involve use of fish, amphibian, and mammalian in vivo modeling systems. Overall, the protocol is intended to help green chemists establish a high degree of confidence that the replacements they are developing are unlikely to be harmful to humans or the environment.

The next steps

The meeting wrapped up with discussion on how to proceed with development of the testing protocol as well as plans for implementation. The advisory board plans to use input from the meeting to develop and publish a white paper outlining guidelines that chemists can use to assess the quality of protocols and tests used to assess endocrine disruption.

(Thaddeus Schug, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research fellow currently on detail as a program analyst in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training. He was part of the NIEHS/NTP delegation and a presenter at the meeting.)

A representative diagram of the draft screening protocol  unveiled at the meeting
A representative diagram of the draft screening protocol unveiled at the meeting. The protocol is designed in a tiered approach, with rapid and cost effective screens conducted in the early phases and more extensive testing toward the end. (Slide courtesy of Pete Myers)

Left to right, Collins, Heindel, and Warner mix ingredients  for a batch of salmon tartare.
Left to right, Collins, Heindel, and Warner mix ingredients for a batch of salmon tartare.  The cooking exercise was used as an ice-breaking event to demonstrate how environmental health scientists and chemists can work together to solve complex issues. (Photo courtesy of Pete Myers)

Laura Vandenberg, Ph.D., left, contributes to the discussion  on assay development, as Tom Zoeller, Ph.D., center, and Wim Thielemans, Ph.D.,  look on.
Laura Vandenberg, Ph.D., left, contributes to the discussion on assay development, as Tom Zoeller, Ph.D., center, and Wim Thielemans, Ph.D., look on. Vandenberg, a postdoctoral fellow at Tufts University, studies the developmental effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals. (Photo courtesy of Pete Myers)

Left to right, Bruce Blumberg, Ph.D., Thayer, and Andreas  Kortenkamp, Ph.D., served as panel members for a discussion on in vitro screening assays.
Left to right, Bruce Blumberg, Ph.D., Thayer, and Andreas Kortenkamp, Ph.D., served as panel members for a discussion on in vitro screening assays. (Photo courtesy of Pete Myers)

A group photo of the meeting attendees.
A group photo of the meeting attendees. The meeting was held at the Cavallo Point Lodge, which sits adjacent to the Golden Gate Bridge. (Photo courtesy of Pete Myers)

NIEHS  grantees Andrea Gore, Ph.D., left, and Frederick vom Saal, Ph.D., were among  panel members for the discussion on in  vivo assays.
NIEHS grantees Andrea Gore, Ph.D., left, and Frederick vom Saal, Ph.D., were among panel members for the discussion on in vivo assays. Both Gore and vom Saal are members of  the project’s scientific advisory board. (Photo courtesy of Pete Myers)

Chemists, biologists collaborate to design endocrine disrupter screening tool.


As part of an unprecedented collaboration in the US between environmental health scientists and synthetic chemists, a working meeting was held last week as part of an ongoing project to create a design protocol to screen new materials for endocrine disrupting activity. Hosted by the non-profit organisations, Advancing Green Chemistry and Environmental Health Sciences, the meeting brought together about two dozen leading researchers in fields that include molecular biology, endocrinology, genetics, and green chemistry to create a screening tool to be used as new chemicals are being synthesized with the goal of detecting potential biological activity before a new compound goes into commercial production.

While endocrine disruption has been recognised as a health hazard for more than two decades, no screening tool comparable to the one this group of scientists is developing currently exists. To be effective at detecting endocrine disrupting activity, an assay would have to take into account potential low dose and non-linear effects of chemicals and the many possible interactions such chemicals can have with genetic receptors. The goal of the project is to produce a suite of peer-reviewed assays for synthetic chemists, the great majority of whom are not trained in biology, endocrinology or toxicology. The protocol is being designed for use in both commercial and academic laboratories.

“In the US, there has been a 15-plus year effort underway at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), which has still not come out with a comprehensive testing protocol for endocrine disruption,” said Karen Peabody O’Brien, executive director of Advancing Green Chemistry. “Rather than wait for regulation of what is already in use, this group is putting together a design tool for chemists who are trying to create the next generation of safer materials or ‘greener’ chemicals. We are not trying to regulate industry but give chemists the means to find out well in advance whether they are making something that, to the best of our knowledge, is not biologically active,” explained Dr O’Brien.

She stressed that this is the first toxicological screening tool to be developed by such a cross-disciplinary team of scientists and that the intent is to provide chemists with a way to establish confidence that new materials – particularly alternatives to existing problematic chemicals – are safe.

Article underestimates challenges of marrying chemical design and toxicology.

Posted by Audrey Moores at Mar 31, 2011 06:00 AM | Permalink

An article entitled “Better by Design“ and published in Science News on March 26th describes the recent progress made by chemists towards the design of safer chemicals. The article features a computer-based study by a group of Yale chemists who demonstrated that toxicity of a molecule is strongly correlated with a small number of chemical and physical properties. This research study suggests that we soon will be able to quickly assess the potential toxic risk associated with a molecule – all from its chemical formula. The hope is to build a predictive tool to design inherently safer chemicals from the moment chemists first start to think about them.

The Science News article does a good job of describing the importance of designing chemicals for everyday use that will not present environmental health problems. It also explains in an approachable fashion, some of the ways molecules can interfere with the body. However, two important aspects of the challenge chemical design represents for chemists may be lost.

First, understanding the potency of a molecule at the design level is achievable, as some of the works highlighted in the article suggest. However it is still difficult and not yet entirely possible for all molecules, especially brand new ones. The chemistry community still regards it as an immense challenge to design molecules possessing biological activity – for drug discovery for instance. It is equally complex to predict a desired absence of biological potency. It goes far beyond simply looking at a molecule’s drawing. It requires specialized computer software and databases, as well as lab and animal tests.

Why? Because a compound may be harmful for many combined reasons. The article accurately lists some of them. A compound may interact with the body, for instance, through binding with a specific protein. When it does so, it may trigger undesired body responses, such as an earlier puberty in the case of BPA. This interaction is like a key-lock interaction, where the global shape of the key and the position of each indentation count. So that when chemists design a new molecule for making a plastic wrap, for instance, they should verify that it is not also a key that unlocks an unwanted protein reaction. This task is gigantic, despite what the article suggests. Only a computer program could achieve it reliably.

Second, chemists have by training a limited knowledge of molecular toxicity. There is a tendency for scientists to specialize, and chemists have followed that path. For example, biology is hardly taught in any chemistry curriculum – which mainly concentrates on chemical reactions with a target product in mind. Students are not taught where starting materials are coming from and where molecules go after use. A true paradigm shift is needed to ensure the next generation of chemists can embrace the complexity of the problem of molecule design. The article completely skipped this issue.

In general, the article would be more powerful, and maybe more approachable, if it had provided a vision of how in the future chemists could use tools to design molecules. When chemists first think about a molecule and draw its structure they could consult the program to get an estimation of how potent it can be. With this information, chemists could refrain from even making a molecule that could prove harmful in the long run.

While the article covers an important development in chemistry, it would be better if the reporter had put this work into perspective. Using computers to predict biological activity is a good step, but is just one of many methods developed.

ORD Chief Sees Need For EPA To Craft Green Chemistry ‘Design’ Guidance.

Bridget DiCosmo InsideEPA.com. Originally Posted: Mar. 14

2011 EPA’s research chief Paul Anastas is calling for the agency to begin crafting a guidance for how to design benign industrial chemicals and chemical processes, and establish metrics and criteria for both design and assessment of what specific chemical properties should be considered in reducing a substance’s ability to manifest hazard.

Anastas told the Society of Toxicology’s (SOT) 2011 annual meeting in Washington, DC, March 8 that the agency should set as a goal development of a set of design parameters that establish criteria about the properties of new chemicals that render it intrinsically less hazardous than comparable substances currently in the marketplace. “The goal is to develop a set of design rules that can inform and be useful — just inform and be useful — for molecular design and reduced hazard,” Anastas said, during the meeting. Anastas’ presentation to SOT, “Molecular Design for Reduced Hazard,” floated a set of “design protocol” criteria for modifying chemical properties in new chemicals that could potentially pose hazard that should be considered within such a framework, such as reduced bioavailability of a chemical, or its ability to reach the system of an organism.

“One of the grand challenges of molecular design is thinking about this in a systemic way,” Anastas said. The need to transition ORD’s current risk assessment paradigm into a more systemic and sustainable approach has been a long-standing priority of Anastas’ at the agency, culminating recently in the development of a newly integrated research program, Chemical Safety for Sustainability, which includes green chemistry in its planned research agenda

The approach Anastas is suggesting appears to be different from that currently used by the agency’s toxics office, which uses a set of alternatives assessment criteria, including bioaccumulation potential of substances, to qualify products for its Design for Environment (DfE) labeling program. But for the most part that methodology is based on specific toxicity endpoints, like carcinogenicity, rather than using chemical properties to evaluate the mechanistic potential of a chemical to cause adverse effects.

Anastas said that the pharmaceuticals industry considers a general, uniform set of criteria meant to circumvent hazard in its drug manufacturing processes, saying the industry approach “couldn’t be more different from the vast majority of industrial chemicals in design purposes.”

Anastas’ remarks also take the agency some way toward adopting a definition of green chemistry — an approach some environmentalists and public health advocates have previously called for EPA to adopt in order to limit chemicals’ toxicity.

Read the entire story at Inside EPA.com

Newly identified chemicals leach into food packages, pose regulatory challenge.

Synopsis by Emily Barrett
— last modified Feb 07, 2011 09:25 AM

Muncke, J. Endocrine disrupting chemicals and other substances of concern in food contact materials: An updated review of exposure, effect and risk assessment. Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jsbmb.2010.10.004.

It is well-known that eating fresh fruits and vegetables can reduce extra fat, salt and calories; but now there are additional reasons to choose fresh foods over processed ones.

Increasingly, evidence shows that the plastics and wrappers used for packaging can inadvertently leach unwanted chemicals into food. Several recent studies found high levels of bisphenol A – an environmental chemical that can disrupt hormonal processes – in canned foods and in packaged foods for people and pets.

Now, another study suggests that the problems go far beyond just one culprit or one health effect. Among the many toxic chemicals that can migrate from packaging into food are the endocrine disrupting phthalates and organotins and the carcinogen benzophenone. These compounds are heavily used in food packaging and have known health effects, yet are not routinely tested or regulated in food.

Although some regulations exist to guarantee safe food packaging, the current system does not address concerns posed by endocrine disrupting chemicals. The associated health effects of exposure to hormone altering compounds are many and varied, including immune disfunction, metabolic disorders (diabetes, thyroid) and reproductive problems.

A number of other notable regulatory flaws include not testing mixtures and a lack of understanding of different effects on different populations – from children to developing fetus to adults to the elderly.

Currently, chemical toxicity tests are only required when compounds reach certain levels in food. In the U.S., it is 0.5 parts per billion (ppb) for general toxicity and 1 ppm for reproductive toxicity.

The guidelines, though, do not consider the collective numbers and toxicity – alone or in combination – of all of the chemicals that can leach from the packaging. In a chemical mix, individual health effects may be magnified. Printing, ink, adhesives, recycled cardboard and the plastic containers can all introduce unwanted chemicals into a single food product, creating a mix with additive or synergystic effects. What’s more, the chemicals may degrade over time or form new compounds that migrate into food. These can go entirely unmeasured since it is nearly impossible to identify and test for them all.

Kids may be at particular risk. Not only are their bodies still developing and hence susceptible to environmental insults, but they tend to eat more packaged foods, a more limited diet and more food for their body weight than adults do. There are similar concerns for pregnant women and their fetuses, as well as obese adults, whose bodies may process these chemicals differently from their trimmer counterparts.

More stringent and broader regulations as well as testing programs may be necessary to further identify and reduce exposures – especially in children and women of reproductive age – to a broad swath of chemicals found in canned, packaged and other processed food.

See original post in Environmental Health Sciences

Beekeepers Ask EPA to Remove Pesticide Linked to Colony Collapse Disorder, Citing Leaked Agency Memo

Beekeepers Ask EPA to Remove Pesticide Linked to Colony Collapse Disorder,
Citing Leaked Agency Memo

Pesticide Already Illegal in Germany, Italy & France Based on Scientific Findings

SAN FRANCISCO and WASHINGTON, D.C – Beekeepers and environmentalists today called on EPA to remove a pesticide linked to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), citing a leaked EPA memo that discloses a critically flawed scientific support study. The November 2nd memo identifies a core study underpinning the registration of the insecticide clothianidin as unsound after EPA quietly re-evaluated the pesticide just as it was getting ready to allow a further expansion of its use. Clothianidin (product name “Poncho”) has been widely used as a seed treatment on many of the country’s major crops for eight growing seasons under a “conditional registration” granted while EPA waited for Bayer Crop Science, the pesticide’s maker, to conduct a field study assessing the insecticide’s threat to bee colony health.

Bayer’s field study was the contingency on which clothianidin’s conditional registration was granted in 2003. As such, the groups are calling for an immediate stop-use order on the pesticide while the science is redone, and redesigned in partnership with practicing beekeepers. They claim that the initial field study guidelines, which the Bayer study failed to satisfy, were insufficiently rigorous to test whether or not clothianidin contributes to CCD in a real-world scenario: the field test evaluated the wrong crop, over an insufficient time period and with inadequate controls.

Original post at Pesticide Action Network.

Contacts:Heather Pilatic, Pesticide Action Network
cell: 415.694.8596

Jay Feldman, Beyond Pesticides
202.543.5450, ext 15

Activists, Industry At Odds Over Future Of Key ‘Green’ Chemistry Standard

By Bridget DiCosmo

See Original article at: InsideEPA.com

November 29, 2010

Environmentalists and industry groups are at odds over the adequacy of a landmark proposal for a national green chemistry standard, with some environmentalists calling for the “green” moniker to be dropped because the draft standard does not allow consumers to assess the relative toxicity and energy efficiency of various chemicals.

But industry groups are pushing for the standard to be implemented and resisting environmentalists’ calls to create a weighting system to assess the relative benefits of various chemicals, saying it was never intended to regulate chemicals’ toxicity and will limit manufacturers’ flexibility to adjust the standard to their own needs.

The draft standard was never intended as a “substitute for Toxic Substances Control Act reform,” one industry source says.

NSF International, together with EPA, the Green Chemistry Institute, the American Chemistry Council, and others last month unveiled a draft reporting standard, “Greener Chemicals and Processes Information Standard,” which details data reporting requirements for chemical manufacturers to help customers identify products with “green” attributes, including less-toxic chemicals and more energy-efficient production processes.

Supporters say one of the goals of the draft standard is to reduce “greenwashing,” or unsubstantiated environmental claims, in the marketplace and remove ambiguity.

But developers of the document have already appeared to soften their original goals, dropping their earlier effort to name the standard as the “Green Chemistry Standard.”

One key source suggests the new document could be renamed the “Hazard Information Standard.” Other critics say it should simply be renamed as the “Chemicals Information Standard.”

The first source says that while the draft serves as a “good starting point” to begin getting information about chemical hazards, many downstream industry users want access to information about a chemical’s various transformations during its lifecycle, highlighting a significant weakness of the draft document.

“It won’t tell you where the raw materials came from, and it won’t be able to tell you ‘A is better than B,'” the source says. Another source said the standard was a “fantastic tool” for getting information in one place, but added that the document had limitations. “It’s important to realize I can take the most toxic, hazardous, energy-using product in the world and [attain] the standard.”

A third source that participated in crafting the draft standard said that the lack of a weighting system for comparing chemical characteristics to one another was likely due to heavy pressure from the chemicals industry during the creation of the document. Public health and environmentalist groups were “not given enough of an input,” nor were downstream users who would have to rely on the standard to make business choices, the source says. “I’ve heard some fairly negative feedback.”

The standard, which is voluntary, uses a three-tier system to classify health-related characteristics of chemicals for setting data-reporting requirements, which determine how much information a chemical manufacturer must submit about a chemical to achieve compliance with the standard. Among other things, the draft establishes a list of human health endpoints that the company must submit available studies on, such as a chemical’s carcinogenicity or neurotoxicity.

Environmentalists Raise Concerns

But in comments filed ahead of the Nov. 16 comment deadline, two environmental groups — Citizens Environmental Coalition and Glynn Environmental Coalition — are calling for the adoption of a “weighting system” to help end users determine what characteristics would make a chemical less hazardous or more energy-saving than another.

Without such a comparative system, the draft’s shortcomings “severely limits” the goal of the standard and shift the burden of assessing product’s safety onto end users, according to the environmentalists’ comments.

“The standard is not constructed to give any guidance as to what actually constitutes ‘greener’ chemicals and/or chemical processes. In spite of the title of the standard, it provides information without any usable metric to assess how ‘green’ a chemical or process is, and, indeed, is not able to clearly define what makes a chemical ‘greener.’ The burden for assessing ‘greener’ is shifted entirely onto the user, even if the manufacturer does third party certification,” the comments say.

The draft also fails to provide “adequate opportunity” for a manufacturer attaining the standard to “describe how it stands out from the pack in advancing green chemistry principles, in substituting safer chemicals for more toxic ones, and going beyond regulatory compliance to voluntarily undertake pollution prevention projects,” according to separate Nov. 16 comments filed by the Citizens Environmental Coalition.

In those comments, the environmental group lauded the objective of the standard–to offer a uniform way to define and report certain categories of information, their respective data elements and data quality criteria.

But the environmentalist group claims in its public comments that the standard fails to set any kind of measurable “goal” for safer, less toxic, or less hazardous chemicals or chemical processes.

Instead, the document gives notable attention to energy use and efficiency in the manufacturing process, the comments say. “We expected to read a standard that was primarily about manufacturers moving to safer chemicals and processes, reducing toxicity and process safety hazards, reducing or eliminating the discharge to the environment of chemical by-products or wastes. Instead we see a standard which calls for improved reporting and disclosure on chemical hazards about a manufacturer’s existing chemicals and processes, while asking for a lot of information about energy and water use.”

The environmental group also says that the “most serious failing of the standard” is that the draft would allow “a highly toxic and persistent, bioaccumulative chemical to be called ‘greener’ and the process which made it to be called a “greener chemical process.'”

The environmental groups also noted in their Nov. 16 public comments that there was an “absence of public health professionals and environmental NGO’s whose focus is on toxic chemicals policy. More importantly, the standard included few, if any, experts in green chemistry, green engineering, and other critical fields relevant to the standard.”

Industry Calls For ‘Flexible’ Standard

But the American Chemistry Council (ACC) in Nov. 16 comments says the standard has the potential to fill a need in the marketplace for a systematic analysis using green chemistry principles. ACC also says in its comments that the standard can be revised periodically once it is finalized, but that it should be flexible to allow manufacturers to adjust the approach to fit their business needs. “We believe that including an inflexible, overly stringent set of reporting elements at the outset is a significant barrier to adoption and use,” the comments say.

And the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Alliances says in Nov. 15 comments that the information requirements outlined in the draft standard are “extensive” and could create challenges for smaller manufacturers. “To help alleviate this and to encourage use of the standard we ask that the drafting committee consider how it might ease its usage as it continues to develop,” the comments say. — Bridget DiCosmo

Chemists propose to design safer chemicals – right from the start.

Voutchkova, AM, TG Osimitz and PT Anastas. 2010. Toward a comprehensive molecular design framework for reduced hazard. Chemical Reviews 110 (10):5845–5882.

Synopsis by Adelina Voutchkova
Nov 22, 2010

Chemists at Yale University are calling on others in their discipline to understand how to design and build safer, less toxic chemicals – right from the start. Their ideas on how to do that are proposed in an article published in Chemical Reviews, which follows an earlier paper that tackles the same topic.

A main target when designing and building unique compounds should be for the compounds to have minimal toxicity yet be commercially useful, according to the paper’s authors. The heart of their suggestions include a broader understanding of toxicity, development of more robust safety tests and use of product labeling programs.

The detailed proposal is a first step toward a new, concerted way of thinking about the design of new commercial chemicals. It focuses on maximizing the desired functions – like cleaning power for detergents – while at the same time minimizing their broader health and environmental effects.

While this seems logical, it is generally not the case. Chemists and engineers tend to focus on building chemicals with novel properties that may help solve current industrial or remediation problems or benefit society in some other way. Unlike pharmaceuticals or pesticides, the potential for new commercial chemicals to cause adverse health effects on people, wildlife and the environment is not always considered upfront.

For example, of the 700-plus commercial chemicals introduced to the market each year, more than 85 percent have no health and safety data. This is because obtaining such data is often too costly and time-consuming.

But, the potential threat of chemicals with unintended human and environmental hazards has become increasingly clear. Phthalates – as plastic additives – are now known to disrupt hormonal balance. Some insecticides – such as the repellent DEET – are severely toxic to the nervous systems of mammals. Other widely-used plasticizers – such as bisphenol A – can interfere with reproductive functions, as increasingly shown from animal research.

These are just a few examples of commercial chemicals whose unintended hazards were discovered long after they were first introduced to the market. To avoid such pitfalls in the future, the authors combed chemistry, biology and toxicology research articles for ways to evaluate chemical safety. They compared how different disciplines test substances meant for products and devised a different approach for chemists to use as they venture to design new commercial compounds.

First, the chemists and engineers who make the compounds need a better understanding of how chemical properties influence toxicity – that is, how they are absorbed and the biological responses to chemical exposure. Many toxicology databases with this information already exist – especially in the area of designing drugs to perform particular functions. Drugs that survive the digestive tract and efficiently enter the blood can be specifically designed. In a similar way, if a commercial chemical is designed to not enter the bloodstream, it will be excreted and thus, much less likely to be toxic to people. Unfortunately, designing a chemical that is not toxic to humans or other animals is vastly more complex than merely ensuring it is excreted quickly, but this is a start.

Second, the right testing tools are needed to scan the creations for toxic effects before product development goes too far. Understanding a chemical’s behavior in a laboratory setting – with test tubes, cells and tissues – can help in understanding its behavior when it interacts with humans and the environment.

In some cases, predictive laboratory tools can forewarn of hazards, but there are still many hurdles to overcome. The available tests and tools are not often applied until the chemical has been produced. In addition, no reliable predictive tools exist for many of the dangerous but subtle hazards – such as endocrine disruption.

An example of an impressive effort to guide development of new chemicals is being carried out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment (DfE) program. The program will help industrial scientists consider the environmental and health implications of new chemicals they plan to introduce to the market. Manufacturers who meet the stringent criteria for human and environmental health safety can place a special DfE label on their products, which will also benefit consumers as they strive to make better informed decisions about the products they purchase. Companies that do not meet the criteria may miss out on the marketing advantages of the DfE product label.

Clearly, there is a need for scientists to understand which chemical features are associated with particular hazards and design new chemicals rationally to avoid these elements at the drawing board. Although this approach cannot obliterate the need for detailed health and safety testing, it can significantly improve the odds that a new chemical will not be highly hazardous to people and animals. Bridging the gap between chemistry and toxicology may be a necessary first step to a new way of thinking that could radically reduce chemical hazards.