The ubiquity of chemicals and our growing environmental awareness are helping to usher a new era in chemistry. Chemicals are part of modern life, yet we are increasingly aware that even tiny quantities of toxins can have harmful health effects including asthma, neuro-developmental disorders, and certain cancers. Chemicals are also being connected with a variety of distinctively modern diseases and disorders including obesity, diabetes, autism, and ADD.
According to a 2006 report (pdf) by the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of California, Berkeley, the US produces or imports 42 billion pounds of chemicals every day, 90% of which are created using oil. Moreover, it says, "Global chemical production is expected to double every 25 years for the foreseeable future."
According to a recent biomonitoring survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average American has trace amounts of over two hundred environmental chemicals, including arsenic, cadmium and pesticides.
The Chemical industry employs almost a million people in the US, making it an important economic force. However, the chemically derived, non-biodegradable products commonly known as plastic, makes up nearly 12% of American trash, 27 million tons of plastic ended up in landfills in 2005 and only 6 percent was recycled.
Plastics are not only destructive to the environment, they are harmful to human health. Modern plastics employ chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, both of which are thought to disrupt the endocrine system, leading to developmental problems. Some 6 billion lb. (2.7 billion kg) of the BPA are produced globally each year. The CDC has found BPA in the urine of 93% of surveyed Americans over the age of 6. To better understand the health effects, the EPA has launched a new investigation into BPA.
BPA is not the only industrial chemical in common use that may alter the normal functioning of the endocrine system. Phthalates and flame retardants like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have been linked to reduced sperm counts and feminization in animal studies.
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, has failed in its mandate to regulate the chemical industry. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been able to restrict very few chemicals and it lacks the power to ban dangerous carcinogens like asbestos. The vast majority of the chemicals in use in the US have unknown human health effects as the EPA has only tested about 200 of the 83,000 chemicals in the TSCA inventory.
Under the current system, chemicals are deemed safe until the EPA can prove that they are dangerous. To be considered dangerous, the EPA must conduct tests which can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Congress is considering new legislation to regulate the nation’s chemicals. The Safe Chemicals Act, proposed by Representative Bobby Rush (D-IL) and Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) would dramatically strengthen the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) ability to regulate chemicals and make industry responsible for demonstrating the safety of existing and new chemicals.
As a matter of social and self interest, the business community shares the view that chemicals need to be regulated. On April 15, the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) proclaimed their support for the new legislation.
Jeffrey Hollender, Co-Founder, Seventh Generation and ASBC member said, "we support updating TSCA because it is vital for protecting the health of people and the planet. It will have important benefits for us as a downstream user of chemicals through greater information and innovation. As a consumer products company, this will restore consumer trust in our industry."
The most immediate way to reduce the global plastic impact is to simply use less of it, but for those chemicals deemed vital, there is a promising solution to the modern world’s dependence on chemicals. The new field of green chemistry designs chemicals through processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances, leave no dangerous residue and use less energy.
At this year’s annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, more than 1,600 of 12,000 presentations were dedicated to sustainability and this number will increase dramatically when the TSCA is replaced by more functional legislation later this year.
The TSCA has provided little incentive for U.S. manufacturers to invest in green chemistry technologies, but the proposed legislation directs the EPA to create a green chemistry research grant program and establish a network of research centers to help find safer alternatives to dangerous chemicals.
Although there are concerns about evaluating safety and closing loopholes for new chemicals, there is good reason to be optimistic about the passage of a chemical reform bill. The business community is working alongside government to push its passage. "Today's astute business leaders are concerned about the health and business impacts that could arise if the products they use or sell contain toxic chemicals. A strong Safe Chemicals Act can help create a more competitive, innovative, and economically sustainable economy in the US," said David Levine, co-founder of the American Sustainable Business Council.
The public is increasingly demanding greater accountability, irresponsible businesses that poison people and the planet risk more than legal sanctions, they risk their reputational capital and retribution through direct actions.
With the backing of the business community and the general public, it looks as though there is enough support to bring America’s unregulated use of toxins to an end. Due to a confluence of regulations, litigation, and competitive pressures, green chemistry is no longer just part of the mission of a forward looking company, it is soon to be enshrined in American law.
There’ll be a day in the future when all chemistry is going to be green,” says John Warner, director of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry. “In that world we’d never need regulation again.”
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources for news, information and tools on sustainability. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics and eco-economics.