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BizNGO: Businesses and NGOs working together to promote safer chemicals in products and manufacturing

By Bev Thorpe

Chemicals are increasingly viewed as contributors to the rising levels of cancer in Canada and the US. Almost one in two Canadians can expect to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. As the President’s Cancer Panel in the US noted in 2010, “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to environmental carcinogens is widespread.”

The situation in Canada is comparable. We face the same general lack of information about the human health and environmental impacts of chemicals in the products we buy and although Canada has a dedicated screening programme to fill these data gaps (funded through our own tax dollars; not paid for by chemical producers), our regulations are not focused on a clear goal of eliminating all known or suspected carcinogens from use.

Instead regulations in both Canada and the US are deeply flawed. Chemical producers still do not have to submit full environmental and human health impact data on the chemicals they produce prior to market. And those chemicals known or suspected to be carcinogenic can still be used in our economy if producers and users can demonstrate ‘adequate control’ of exposure. Perchloroethylene, a common dry cleaning solvent declared to be officially ‘toxic’ by the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) was not targeted for substitution. Instead federal regulators encouraged drycleaners to reduce their exposure to this chemical through the use of better dry cleaning machines.

Many consumers associate chemicals with cleaning products, paints and pesticides not realizing that hazardous chemicals in plastics, such as PVC shower curtains and flooring or hazardous flame retardant chemicals in electronic products can leach into our homes and household dust. We all contain hundreds of hazardous chemicals in our body tissues through the food we eat, the air we breathe and the products we buy. Most worrying: even babies are now born ‘pre-polluted,’ with a recent study finding 300 industrial chemicals in umbilical cord blood.

So, in the absence of regulations that prioritize the substitution of carcinogens and other hazardous chemicals, how are we to achieve a non-toxic future? Pressuring the government to focus on green chemistry innovation and adoption is a necessary though slow bureaucratic process. Companies increasingly realize that hazardous chemicals in their products are a big business risk and are seeking ways to reduce their liability and reputation damage.

In 2006 a group of companies and environmental health advocates met in Boston to discuss how to advance safer chemicals in products. The result was the formation of the BizNGO Working Group for Safer Chemicals and Sustainable Materials. What makes this working group so unique is that campaigning advocates and companies are collaborating to produce tools and strategies that advance safer chemicals in the economy. This is a far cry from the often held notion that campaigners and companies are always at loggerhead over how chemicals should be used in industry. In reality, leading companies understand the value of working with NGOs to gain their scientific insight into the next group of chemicals to be targeted by advocates and the public.

In return, NGOs gain useful insight into barriers that companies face when trying to find safer substitutes for such chemicals of concern. Such barriers include lack of information and safety data from their chemical suppliers and lack of tools to ensure that replacement chemicals are comparatively safer in the long term. Just because a chemical is not listed as a known or suspected carcinogen, reproductive toxin or other similar hazard does not mean it is safe. It may simply not have been tested.

This presents huge business risk for companies who are ‘downstream users of chemicals’ such as product manufacturers and retailers. These companies rely on the chemical manufacturers to assure them the chemicals they use in their products are safe but in reality they rarely get full disclosure or full safety information from their chemical suppliers. Yet it is these companies who face liability and reputation damage when product recalls are forced such as the removal of polycarbonate baby bottles due to the presence of Bisphenol A (BPA) in the plastic. It is not the producers of the BPA chemical who make the news; it is the retailers who stock these products on their shelves.

Of course it should be the responsibility of downstream companies to know and assess the hazards of the chemicals in their products. Company participants within the BizNGO Working Group share their experiences with other company leaders to find the most successful ways to pressure chemical suppliers for complete information.

Last year the collaboration produced the BizNGO Principles for Safer Chemicals and this year the working group will produce a Guide to Safer Chemicals to help companies implement these principles through best practice. A series of company fact sheets, testimonies and other resources have also been produced for government regulators and the general public explaining why these leading companies support chemicals policy reform.

Company leaders within the BizNGO have given testimony in support of chemicals policy reform to federal regulators in Washington who were surprised and appreciative to hear a different industry voice than the usual chemical manufacturers’ lobby. Such company testimonies support the NGO campaigns for comprehensive chemicals reform and demonstrate that the protection of public health and the environment is part of innovative business thinking. Green chemistry and safer chemical adoption are achievable. This type of collaboration between NGOs and leading companies is essential if we are to hasten our progress towards the elimination of hazardous chemicals in our economy.

Bev Thorpe is to Co-Director of Clean Production Action and is a former Board Member of Prevent Cancer Now. For more information you can contact her by email.

Also in the Winter 2012 Issue of An Ounce …

Published: February 3, 2012