Thursday, August 28, 2014

Tackling Toxics: How do we really know a chemical is safe?

By Andrew Wineke, communications, and Alex Stone, chemist, Hazardous Waste & Toxics Reduction

We all want safer products. No one ever argues in favor of putting hormone disruptors in children’s toys or substances toxic to fish in tires.

But when an inventor or manufacturer is designing a product, how do they really know what chemical ingredients are safe? Asbestos was considered a safer alternative when it was introduced. And “safe” compared to what? Pesticides are not supposed to be safe – for bugs. And how do they prove it?

Chemical hazard assessments

This is where chemical hazard assessments come in. A chemical hazard assessment is a tool to help organizations evaluate a chemical’s impact on human health and the environment. The key component of a chemical hazard assessment is that it enables the user to compare chemicals against each other on a level playing field.

The GreenScreen® for Safer Chemicals method, for instance, ranks a chemical on 18 different potential impacts on human health and the environment. Running a GreenScreen assessment will tell you things like whether a given chemical can cause cancer, or if it’s flammable, or whether it’s safe for fish.

Several major manufacturers and retailers use GreenScreen or similar systems to screen the ingredients that go into their products. These companies go to their suppliers and say, “show us that your chemical is safe.”

However, a full GreenScreen report can run more than 20 pages – just for a single chemical. Sometimes that’s too much, particularly for smaller businesses or if a company is just doing a preliminary assessment.

Quick Chemical Assessment Tool

To meet this need, we developed a simpler method, the Quick Chemical Assessment Tool, or QCAT. It’s based on GreenScreen and uses the same databases of chemical hazards, but it looks at a smaller set of potential health and environmental endpoints. A QCAT report is about five pages long.

Still too much? There are a number of chemical hazard databases, such as Pharos, that are inexpensive to use and will give a quick rundown on potential problems in just a few seconds.

Want to learn more?

We are offering a free, day-long class, “An Introduction to Chemical Hazard Assessments,” Sept. 25 in Lacey. You can register here, or download this brochure for more information. Other QCAT classes will be offered in 2015.

If you aren’t ready to take a class or need help right away, we can often conduct QCATs for Washington businesses, although some limitations apply. Contact to inquire.

Visit Ecology's website for more about assessing the safety of chemical alternatives.

Stay informed about our efforts to reduce the use of toxic chemicals by following our Tackling Toxics series right here on the ECOconnect blog.

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