What do businesses like Kaiser Permanente, Catholic Healthcare West, Seventh Generation, Construction Specialties, and countless other U.S. companies have in common? They are forced to play ‘toxic chemical detective’ — a time and resource-consuming game made necessary by our nation’s failing chemical policy. The goal is to protect your customers by removing toxic chemicals from products, while keeping an eye on the bottom line. Here’s the catch: chemical manufacturers are not required to disclose what ingredients they use. Nor are they required to demonstrate that the chemicals they make are safe, before they go to market. And even if a chemical is shown to cause harm, like asbestos, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has very little authority to take it off the market.
As part of my work with the Business-NGO Working Group for Safer Chemicals and Sustainable Materials, I collaborate closely with businesses that are making substantial efforts to avoid toxic chemicals. These businesses are not just trying to work around our broken system, they are changing the game by selecting safer products and joining frustrated consumers in demanding stronger federal protections. The good news is, Congress is starting to wake up to the needs of businesses who use chemicals to make products and serve customers, aka ‘downstream users.’ Both the Senate and the House are considering legislation that could shut down the ‘toxic chemical detective’ game for good, bringing substantial relief to businesses across the country.
Companies that buy products that may contain toxic substances need federal reform that:
- Creates a minimum data set of all chemicals in commerce (within the next five years).
- Takes expedited action on PBTs (persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals) and other chemicals of high concern.
- Requires greater disclosure of chemicals of high concern in products.
- Ensures that new chemicals only come to market after full safety determinations.
- Promotes safer alternatives.
To make sure the public conversation doesn’t descend into the old ‘business v. environment’ frame, we need businesses from every sector to speak out for what they need to operate safely and profitably. We are proud of the diverse businesses that are already actively involved. They are:
— working with the American Sustainable Business Council
— and speaking directly to members of Congress
On June 3rd we hosted a forum of business leaders and non-governmental organizations to discuss what chemical users need from federal policy reform. To prepare for that event, several companies wrote case studies explaining why they want to update the current system and detailing the efforts they have made to find, assess, and avoid toxic chemicals. These are the stories we need to remember when complaints arise about how new chemical regulations will ‘stifle innovation’ or ‘create business uncertainty.’ What could be more stifling or uncertain than having to rely on chemicals you can’t vouch for? Or not being able to completely answer consumer questions about what’s in the products you are selling, or using to provide services?
Catholic Healthcare West (CHW) manages to combine business success with a commitment to sustainability. As a member of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, they have taken a clear stand on the need to pass new federal regulations on toxic chemicals.
“The moral and operational imperatives are here, now, for health care to support safer chemicals reform. This isn’t just a fight between environmentalists and the chemical industry, it’s really about who cares for human health.”
CHW has created several complex mechanisms to avoid the use of toxic chemicals in products, which can lead to patient or worker exposures:
- Purchasing guidelines, in which CHW requests product chemistry data from suppliers and prioritizes chemicals of high concern, like PBTs.
- Contractual obligations with manufacturers, suppliers, and distributors to avoid identified chemicals of concern.
- Phasing out the reproductive toxicant, DEHP, in most medical devices.
- Thermometer exchange programs in local communities to help remove this toxic substance from the waste stream.
- Identifying where chemicals of concern are used in their facilities and evaluating hazards in our hospitals that can lead to occupational and environmental problems.
“While CHW has done much to play detective, to find out the toxic chemicals in the supplies we use and create markets for safer alternatives, there is only so much one individual organization can do to change the toxic chemical economy. CHW supports safer chemicals policy reform. As a health care organization we invest billions of dollars annually in providing high quality health care. We do not want to undermine our investments by purchasing products whose chemical life cycle contributes to the diseases we treat every day.”
Kaiser Permanente is a non-profit organization with $40 billion in annual revenues, serving 8.6 million members in nine states. They have used their immense purchasing clout to create new markets for safer medical products, like non-mercury blood pressure devices and esophageal dilators. They have spent years removing the reproductive toxicant, DEHP from their operations; replacing DEHP-containing PVC in intravenous tubing, catheters, and other medical equipment; even reducing PVC plastic in flooring, baseboards, and wall guards. But they realize even their own efforts will always fall short without robust federal laws to support them.
“It is very time consuming to develop a list of chemicals of high concern, determine which products they are in, identify alternatives and evaluate their safety, performance and cost. For example, when we tested alternatives to PVC flooring, we had to invent our own testing protocol and use industrial hygienists to perform tests to understand the health impacts of the alternatives. That degree of investment is simply not feasible for most products and materials we buy, nor is it possible for smaller organizations that do not have the resources and organizational skills that Kaiser Permanente has developed over decades.”
“Despite Kaiser Permanente’s purchasing leverage, we experience limitations in achieving our goal of using products and materials that are environmentally sustainable. To meet our goal, we would benefit from public policy that requires manufacturers to ensure adequate safety testing of chemicals in their products and make that data available for review.”
A leading brand of natural household and personal care products, Seventh Generation is an excellent example of how socially responsible businesses are thriving in today’s marketplace. Their name comes from the Law of the Iroquois that states, “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” Seventh Generation is a member of the Safer Chemical, Healthy Families coalition, joining the campaign in calling on Congress to pass new legislation to mend our broken chemical management system. Seventh Generation and other brands like it have led innovation in the marketplace, showing that if you build in sustainability, people will flock to your product.
“For Seventh Generation sustainability is a core product concern along with the traditional concerns of price, efficacy, manufacturing capability and quality assurance…We start with policies and standards that guide the design and formulation of our products to ensure they meet the highest standards of environmental and human safety. These standards include a prohibition on carcinogens, chlorine bleach and phosphates as ingredients, as well as standards for overall product toxicity, eye and skin irritation, biodegradability and a host of other human health and environmental safety criteria.”
Seventh Generation believes that federal reform can improve our nation’s health, rebuild consumer confidence, boost green innovation, and transform the marketplace.
“…comprehensive chemicals reform will create an effective and trusted regulatory system that enhances the value of products across their supply chain.”
Construction Specialties has created a niche for itself by developing and manufacturing environmentally responsible building products. This $300-million-a-year business helps builders avoid PVCs, PBTs, and other chemicals known to harm human health and the environment.
“The demand for environmentally responsible and relevant building products is growing rapidly. Building owners, architects, contractors and building occupants are selecting products made with chemicals that have low to no toxicity and that are integrated into new products at the end of their life cycle.”
Construction Specialties sees TSCA reform as a historic opportunity to improve human health.
“Congress, along with the building sector, has an opportunity to improve indoor air quality and thereby human health and the environment through the greater use of inherently safer chemicals in building products.”