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Policy: Good Chemistry

Gecko sleight of tail; robo fish; Playboy bunny research; penguin poop; more.

Good Chemistry
Green alternatives to toxic substances.

Companies normally don’t like to reveal how they repel the stick on no-stick fry pans or what in bug bombs makes the creepy-crawlies scatter. “Trade secrets” is their defense, and it leaves consumers worrying that they could be buying products laden with toxic chemicals.

From lead-painted toys to BPA in plastic bottles, a slew of public safety scares have consumers clamoring for ingredient lists, and some companies and government agencies pushing for transparency. In January cleaning product manufacturers will voluntarily begin disclosing what’s inside their bottles. The Environmental Protection Agency is taking steps to protect consumers, too. Last year it began developing action plans to determine what, if any, restrictions should be placed on six controversial chemicals, including BPA and phthalates. But industry lawsuits will likely slow progress, and the regulation the EPA plans to employ—a long-overlooked section of the Toxic Substances Control Act that authorizes the agency to ban, restrict, or require labeling chemicals—might first require congressional reauthorization.

Meanwhile, the chemical industry is making some strides to clean itself up. The EPA, the American Chemical Society (ACS), and nonprofit standards board NSF International are working with industry to draft voluntary standards to measure chemicals’ “sustainability.” Raw ingredients will be scored on metrics likely including energy use, waste products, and toxicity. Consumers probably won’t see the information directly, but makers and eco-labelers would and could advertise the goods’ green base. “There’s the possibility of having materials in the marketplace that have overall better environmental and human health profiles,” says Procter & Gamble’s Don Versteeg. The standards will be published by the fall.

The growing “green” chemistry field develops nontoxic alternatives to harmful substances. For instance, Dow Chemical replaced fossil fuels with soybean oil in polyols, the chemicals in polyurethanes that go into seat cushions. The new standards could officially recognize the substance as sustainable. “We have a real interest here because there’s a lot of greenwashing going on,” says Dow’s Anne Wallin.

Even with input from the EPA and academics, some are skeptical of the industry defining sustainability. “It doesn’t work,” says Terry Collins, director of  Carnegie Mellon’s Institute for Green Science. “They won’t take into account what matters,” including the effects of low doses of chemicals on the endocrine system, which industry is loath to address.

Yet, says ACS’s Bob Peoples, the standards are a major advance. “If we want to design the perfect standard, it will take us 10 years. In the meantime, we might have no standard.” Still, Collins hopes the EPA makes industry-backed standards “irrelevant.”

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