What is a Safer Chemical Policy?
A safer chemical policy limits the use of products and services that contain toxic chemicals, often as a part of an environmentally-preferable purchasing policy. Safer chemical policies are becoming increasingly prevalent as organisations realize the harmful effects of many ubiquitous chemicals and opt to use safer, greener products and services.
For example, a significant rise in both occupation-related and child asthma in recent years has been partly attributed to chemical exposure: countless cleaning products, and other common substances, contain known asthmagens. Consequently, safer chemical policies seek out products and services where asthmagens are reduced or eliminated.
Safer chemical policies are particularly relevant to organisations in the health care sector. The manufacture and use of chemicals for medical purposes and the need for clean or sterile environments in health care mean that staff are exposed to chemicals regularly, which puts them at greater risk. The health care industry also serves the people most vulnerable to harmful toxics, including children and long-term care patients.
The Four Guiding Principles of Safer Chemical Policies
The Business-NGO Working Group for Safer Chemicals and Sustainable Materials outlines four guiding principles for the development of safer chemical policies. These principles have been endorsed by numerous businesses, health care providers, and other groups, such as Hewlett-Packard, Catholic Healthcare West, and the National Resources Defense Council.
1. Know and disclose product chemistry. Manufacturers will identify the substances associated with and used in a product across its lifecycle and will increase as appropriate the transparency of the chemical constituents in their products, including the public disclosure of chemicals of high concern. Buyers will request product chemistry data from their suppliers.
2. Assess and avoid hazards. Manufacturers will determine the hazard characteristics of chemical constituents and formulations in their products, use chemicals with inherently low hazard potential, prioritize chemicals of high concern for elimination, minimize exposure when hazards cannot be prevented, and redesign products and processes to avoid the use and/or generation of hazardous chemicals. Buyers will work with their suppliers to achieve this principle.
3. Commit to continuous improvement. Establish corporate governance structures, policies and practices that create a framework for the regular review of product and process chemistry, and that promote the use of chemicals, processes, and products with inherently lower hazard potential.
4. Support public policies and industry standards that: advance the implementation of the above three principles, ensure that comprehensive hazard data are available for chemicals on the market, take action to eliminate or reduce known hazards and promote a greener economy, including support for green chemistry research and education.
Safer Chemical Policies in Action
Fundamentally, safer chemical policies are commitments to ensuring better health. But they can affect more than the environment of a single institution: they can also change the “toxic economy”.
A notable example of this change came from the largest non-profit health care provider in the United States, Kaiser Permanente. Throughout the 1990s Kaiser began to adopt an aggressive environmentally-preferable purchasing policy, focused on eliminating toxic chemicals such as mercury (used in thermometers) and latex (in examination gloves) and to purchasing green or recyclable materials. In 2003, Kaiser reviewed their flooring and determined that the PVC content of their carpet was unacceptable, but no adequately durable PVC-free alternative existed. As a result of their safer chemical purchasing policy, Kaiser decided to partner with a flooring company to develop such an alternative. Within two years, they succeeded.
Kaiser's success illustrates the broad value of safer chemical policies: Kaiser's employees and clients faced less exposure to toxics, the flooring company secured a major contract with Kaiser, and the process spurred innovation in the flooring industry.
Safer chemical policies are also being realized in Canada. The University Health Network (UHN), one of the nation's largest health care facilities, has already adopted one of Canada's first hospital safer chemical policies as a component of their environmental purchasing policy.