What’s all the buzz about green chemistry?

From chemical alternatives to new regulatory requirements at the state level, green chemistry seems to be on everyone’s lips these days. To better understand this issue, we spoke with Travis Kline, a Senior Toxicologist with AlterEcho, and the author of a recent report on the potential hazards of BPA for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. He explained recent changes in the regulatory  landscape and the forces shaping chemical management today.

Q: We seem to be hearing more about green chemistry and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and Chemical Alternatives Assessments. What’s driving this conversation?

Travis Kline

TK: The regulation of chemicals in everyday products—along with development of a chemical safety system—began with the establishment of TSCA in 1976, but the Act’s framework is widely acknowledged to be outdated.  While federal regulators have tried—and failed—to bring TSCA into a more modern era, the conversation about the chemicals in our products continues:  Some large retailers have supply chain programs targeting products that contain certain toxic chemicals, while savvy consumers are demanding greater transparency about the chemicals in their products. These non-regulatory drivers may prompt a more rapid response in the marketplace than oversight efforts and can lead directly to rapid product “de-selection” by consumers.

Q: How has chemical regulation changed since TSCA was enacted?

TK: There have been tremendous advancements on the scientific front in the last 35-plus years. One of these has been in understanding phenomena such as endocrine disruption and early life-stage susceptibility, which have altered how we evaluate the risks that chemical pose and undermined previous toxic chemical cataloging and safety testing.  In the absence of TSCA reform, concerned state regulators have been moving to fill the breach with their own chemical management rules and regulations.  While these efforts are aimed at increasing knowledge of chemical risks and safety, they pose a number of challenges for industry, including: regulatory tracking, compliance assurance, supply chain management and product manufacturing.

Q: What is ‘green chemistry’?

TK: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for Environment program, the design of chemical products and processes that decrease or eliminate hazardous substance use, generation and disposal across the lifecycle of a chemical is the essence of effective chemicals management, or “green chemistry.” Understanding the differing state approaches to chemicals management regulation and ensuring that reasonable scientific and risk-based approaches are developed and pragmatically applied is critical to the economic health of American industry.

Two key areas of current focus are chemicals in children’s products and brominated flame retardants.  Given the particular developmental sensitivities of infants and children to exposure — including in utero  exposure — and the generally higher health risks associated with early life-stage exposures, the former is not unexpected. Flame retardants have been undergoing ever-increasing scrutiny since 1977 when brominated tris was first banned for use in children’s sleepwear based on mutagenicity concerns.  Current-use flame retardants continue to increase in human body burdens with growing consumer concern.

Q: What does the future look like? Any big changes on the way?

TK: With no real prospects for TSCA reform or similar federal toxic chemical management on the horizon, it seems likely that states will continue to move forward with their own programs.  California’s Safer Consumer Product Alternatives Regulation, 2008 also known as the California Green Chemistry Initiative (Assembly Bill 1879 and Senate Bill 509) is undergoing final revision.  This legislation will enjoy oversight into a wide array of consumer products and chemicals.  Internally, organized and effective supply-chain management and product development, in response to legislation like AB1879, is critical to long-term sustainability.  Externally, there may be challenges in the short-term as companies scramble to achieve compliance where the most problematic ingredients are in current use. It all makes for an uncertain time ahead for producers, consumers and regulators alike.


To learn how to develop a chemical management strategy for your organization, tune in to next week’s NAEM’s webinar, “Product Regulation, Green Chemistry and Chemical Alternatives Analyses: Tools for Thought” on May 9 at 1 p.m. EST. 

About NAEM Staff

The National Association for Environmental Management (NAEM), is a non-profit professional association that empowers corporate leaders to advance environmental stewardship, create safe and healthy workplaces, and promote global sustainability. As the largest network for environmental, health and safety (EHS), and sustainability decision-makers, we provide peer-led educational conferences and an active network for sharing solutions to today’s corporate EHS and sustainability management challenges. Visit NAEM online at www.naem.org.

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