Safer Alternatives to Toxic Chemicals Needed

Photo Courtesy of Communities for a Better Environment

Article Calls for a Coordinated Effort by Occupational and Environmental Health Professionals to Protect Workers and Communities

Scientists have shown that toys, cosmetics, food and cleaning products may contain chemicals that are toxic to humans and the environment.  Approximately 85,000 chemicals are used commercially in the United States and 2,000 new ones come onto the market each year — most unregulated — leaving workers and everyday consumers in the dark about hazards that may affect their health.1

This data gap is exposed by the authors of an article in Perspectives, who compare the European Union's progressive chemicals policy, REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals) against inadequacies in the United States, where they say harm must be proven before taking action to protect health.

According to the authors, California and Massachusetts have responded to the chemical data gap with state-level initiatives to protect the public. In Massachusetts, the Toxics Use Reduction Act introduced in 1989 requires businesses to report on their use of chemicals and prepare plans for pollution prevention. In 2008, California adopted two laws that are “first steps” in developing the information needed to protect residents from the adverse effects of toxic chemicals. Perspectives co-author Julia Quint is a member of California's Green Ribbon Science Panel, a team of experts that will oversee the development and implementation of chemical policies for the state.

“We need to reframe how we think about the health and safety of chemicals to consider a full cycle of production, use and disposal,” said co-author Margaret Quinn, professor in the Department of Work Environment and co-founder of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts Lowell.

“Right now, occupational health and environmental health are often managed separately in terms of policy, science and practice,” said Quinn. “We hope this article can show how worker occupational health and safety is directly linked to environmental health and safety. When we do that, we see a much more comprehensive picture of the problem and solution.” The authors recommend involving occupational health professionals in the development and implementation of environmental policies and programs, which will better protect workers and communities from chemical hazards.

“Workers often get lost in discussions of toxic exposures,” states co-author Holly Brown-Williams, director of policy at Health Research for Action at UC Berkeley. “We are exposed to chemicals in cleaners, paint strippers, pesticides and many consumer products, but frequently forget that they were made in workplaces. We often learn about health risks because workers are the first to become ill.”

“We need to reframe how we think about health and safety of chemicals to consider a full cycle of production, use and disposal.”
Margaret Quinn

Co-author Linda Delp, director of UCLA's Labor Occupational Safety & Health Program, said her goal is nothing short of educating workers so they can be engaged in decisions at their workplace and at the policy level, whether it is a local ordinance to California's green chemistry initiative or the Toxic Substances Control Act at the federal level.

She recently led a workshop in Los Angeles, “Decoding Green Chemistry for Workers,” funded by the NIEHS Worker Education & Training Program. Twenty people attended from labor and community groups, including truck drivers who transport hazardous materials, cleaners and car wash workers. Participants identified key chemicals of concern and expressed interested in safer alternatives, “but we don't have access to that information in a single, comprehensive database,” explained Delp.

She said there is a huge information gap for the average employee — even for someone in local, state or federal government trying to help a particular industry or labor group. “For example, what we've found in hospitals — even for the processes or toxic materials where there are alternatives — the information did not exist in a ready format for employees to access and apply it,” said Delp.

This search for safer alternatives can be a spark for innovation and economic development, notes Quinn. The article describes companies that have successfully reduced their use of chemicals in manufacturing production and processes. The changes improved both worker and community health.

For instance, studies that showed how to reduce perchlorothelyene in dry cleaning led to decisions by the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the California Air Resources Board to phase out the toxic chemical. The legislation provided a $10,000 incentive for dry cleaners to switch to nontoxic technologies.2

“We are advocating that we do business in a different way,” said Quinn. “The focus is to shift from controlling a hazardous chemical once it has been dispersed into the workplace and general environment to actually replacing or redesigning the materials, processes and practices involved with it. And this is where occupational health has something significant to contribute. A major principle of the field is called the hierarchy of controls, meaning you always eliminate a hazard as the first choice rather than trying to control or manage it. Currently the first resort is to put workers in goggles, gloves, respirators and full suits, when it should be the last.”

The authors of this issue of Perspectives say that, ultimately, a comprehensive federal chemicals management policy is needed. A different, proactive approach would identify toxic chemicals before they are used commercially and force the use of safer alternatives. They also stress the key role that occupational health professionals can play in promoting alternatives.

In the meanwhile, implementing the article's recommendations would help to protect workers and communities. These include ensuring that public health departments can access manufacturers' chemical use information; expanding support for the development of safer alternatives and work processes; training for workers, unions, and businesses; and integrating occupational health concerns when developing environmental chemical legislation and regulations.


1, 2 Lichterman J, Brown-Williams H, Delp L, Quinn M. Preventing toxic exposures: Workplace lessons in safer alternatives. Perspectives Vol. 5, No. 1 (July 2010). Berkeley, Calif.: Health Research for Action, University of California. [download]

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