Chemical drum

Making Chemicals Safer

When many people think of industrial chemicals, they think of those scary-looking yellow drums, containing unknown but almost certainly hazardous goo. This image is so pervasive because the public knows little about the specific properties used in manufacturing, industry and energy production.

But a new International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) initiative hopes to change that with a strategy to bring more information to the public about the chemicals it produces. The Global Product Strategy (GPS) is part of the United Nations Environment Programme’s attempt to ensure chemicals used and produced in a way that has minimal impact on the environment and human health.

As part of that, the ICCA, which represents 56 chemical industry associations on six continents, has set up a database spelling out risk and safety information on more than 1,000 chemicals its member companies use and produce. The safety assessments are presented in what Greg Bond, corporate director of product responsibility for Dow Chemical, calls a “bite, snack, meal approach.”

The “bite” is an overview with eight to 10 bullet points on the product’s safety. “It’s for the eighth-grader with the aptitude to go to medical school,” Bond said.

The “snack” consists of a three-to-four-page product safety assessment written in more complex terms. It targets those who wish to know a great deal of information about the product but who lack formal chemistry training.

The meal is for an EHS professional. It serves up references that those with chemistry backgrounds can use to get the more-technical information that informs safety assessment.

“Transparency and improving transparency is critical to improving public confidence, which is our goal,” Bond said. “This means that the public will have more confidence that the products that they buy can be used safely.”

Another part of increasing that confidence includes making chemicals greener – that is, reducing the effect they have on the environment and human health. Bond said Dow is working to increase the portion of its revenue that comes from such more-sustainable products.

“It goes beyond mitigating the unintended consequences,” he said. “We’re looking at products cradle-to-cradle: Using resources more efficiently, minimizing their footprint and delivering solutions that are more sustainable.”

Bond said that part of this involves looking at the safety of the “green” substitutes. “As we’re looking to substitute greener chemistry for existing chemistry, we want to make sure that what you’re substituting is in fact safe.”

And that’s where the GPS comes in, helping chemical companies identify situations in which the safety of a substituted substance is inadequate

But this movement isn’t always compatible with the push toward complete openness that GPS is hearkening with many traditionally used chemicals. “If we’re going to innovate green chemistry, need to be able to protect the investments from competitors who aren’t going to make that investment,” Bond said. “We believe we have right to protect our process technology.”

The EPA doesn’t always agree, though. In early June, EPA removed the confidentiality claims for some 150 chemicals, revealing to the public the names and results of a series of safety studies on chemicals used in dispersant formulations and consumer products such as air fresheners, non-stick and stain resistant materials, fire resistant materials, nonylphenol compounds, perfluorinated compounds and lead.

In response to EPA’s action, Bond said Dow was complying, declassifying those substances that were no longer protected by the confidentiality claim. He said the company was also “critically evaluating” its future claims of confidentiality to ensure they met with EPA’s standards.

Ultimately, Bond said, achieving the goals embodied in GPS will take efforts from both government and industry. “The best chemical management system is a blend of good science and risk-based regulation that is cost-effective and fairly enforced with voluntary industry action.”

About the Author

Laura Williams is a content editor for Environmental Protection. She can be reached at [email protected].

Featured Webinar