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Guided by the values and expertise of medicine and public health, Physicians for Social Responsibility works to protect humanity from the gravest threats to health and survival. Right now, you can make a difference by registering your comments on the EPA's new Clean Power rule to limit carbon from existing coal-burning power plants. Just click the button to get started.

Green chemistry: the prevention component of real TSCA reform

Posted by Molly Rauch, MPH on April 13, 2010

PSR is a proud partner in the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, which is working to pass smart federal policies to protect us from toxic chemicals. The SCHF coalition has developed a campaign platform that explains the nine components of sound and comprehensive chemicals policy. One of them addresses green chemistry:

“There should be national support for basic and applied research into green chemistry and engineering, and policy should favor chemicals and products that are shown to be benign over those with potential health hazards.” – Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families 

This part of the campaign platform is on my mind because I attended a Congressional briefing today, in which the American Chemical Society brought together industry scientists and policy experts to discuss green chemistry. From the title of the briefing – “Advancing Sustainability: Safer Alternatives to Products and Processes” – you might not know that every panelist was going to discuss the need to reform the Toxics Substances Control Act, something that EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson has said is one of her priorities. But every panelist did indeed discuss TSCA, from Anne Wallin, director of Sustainable Chemistry for the Dow Chemical Company, to John Frazier, director of Considered Chemistry for Nike.

Green chemistry is an approach to chemical engineering and manufacture that seeks to address sustainability and toxicity through careful design of chemical processes. It requires thinking about a chemical through its entire life cycle, not just about its manufacture, from sourcing the feedstock to its use and disposal. What I like about this approach is its emphasis on prevention. (After all, that is one of the fundamental pillars of public health.) Creating incentives for safer alternatives on a federal level could transform our nation’s chemical policy landscape from one of defense – constantly trying to restrict the dangerous chemicals already in commerce – to one of innovation, in which federal policy incubates a new chemical paradigm.

Also presenting at the briefing today was Ansje Miller, policy director for the Center for Environmental Health in California. She spoke about the basis on which consumers make purchasing decisions. As she so clearly explained it, consumers buy things based on information about function, price, and performance. Most people assume that if a product is available on the market, it has already passed a safety test of some kind. If it’s in the store, or readily available to buy, we can assume it’s relatively safe.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. This is one of the failings of TSCA: the market is flooded with products and substances which have not been tested for chemical toxicity. And as Ms. Miller pointed out, the “consumers” who purchase products are not just the families in the neighborhood hardware store. They are children, cosmetics users, communities next to factories and other waste streams, workers, and even big companies such as WalMart and Kaiser Permanente. Such companies are huge consumers, and even they do not have sufficient information about the potential hazards in products of interest.

One way to change that is to make health data on chemical more readily available. But what if we changed that by ensuring that chemical manufacturers didn’t produce toxic products in the first place?

Please ask the EPA to support real TSCA reform today.

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