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Safer Alternatives to our Toxic Lifestyle

Submitted by Bob Andrews

There is no doubt that chemistry has brought us many of the modern wonders we enjoy, from plastics and epoxies to pharmaceuticals, to batteries, to cancer treatment, to innovative consumer products, to lightweight fuel-efficient aircraft.

But chemistry has a downside. Health studies have linked many industrial chemicals to cancer, neurological damage, endocrine disruption, birth defects, asthma, and other health problems. Adults alive today have in their bloodstream measureable amounts of over 200 industrial chemicals. Do we know the effects of these substances? Hardly. Only a small fraction of commonly used chemicals have been studied for their effects on health, and the interactions of various substances are even less understood. Even so, the pace of development is accelerating, with new substances introduced daily.

Many people assume that chemicals are routinely tested for their safety; most are not. True, laws like the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) and the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) require reporting of industrial emissions of hazardous substances, and OSHA mandates compliance with worker exposure limits on toxic substances. But determining the toxic effects of substances is a complex process that can take decades and millions of research dollars. Even after extensive study, results can be controversial, leading to further delays in adopting policy. Thus formaldehyde, a known carcinogen and asthma trigger, remains a common component in building materials, fertilizers, and beauty products from which it off-gasses and is inhaled. Though one of the most studied substances in existence, formaldehyde was only designated a High Hazard Substance last year.

More complicated are substances like n-Propyl Bromide, a solvent used in glues and paints, which was recently highlighted in a NY Times article for its neuro-toxic effects on furniture workers. Or, take Bisphenol-A (BPA), one of the earliest developed so-called ‘plasticizers’ that make plastics pliable and easily handled. Used as a thin lining inside food cans and as an additive in plastics used for everything from beverage bottles to baby toys, BPA has been suspected as an endocrine disruptor that can alter maturation development in infants and children. BPA has been in the news for this, but studies raising concern about it are controversial within the scientific community. Meanwhile product makers, wishing to advertise “BPA-free” are substituting other substances about which little is known.

Fortunately, the news is not all discouraging. Chemists are beginning to embrace the new discipline of “Green Chemistry”, whose principles dictate that health and environmental safety are considered in the development of new substances. California recently adopted the recommendations of a Green Ribbon Chemistry panel regarding the chemical makeup of products sold in the state. Exciting new research is finding safer alternatives to the toxic status quo. For example, researchers at UMass Lowell have developed bio-based alternatives to toxic isocyanates used in adhesives, and surfactants derived from cashew shells to replace hazardous surfactants in detergents. Dry cleaners have started converting from dry cleaning based on Perc, a carcinogenic petroleum solvent, to ‘wet’ cleaning, based on less toxic water-based surfactants that clean fine garments just as well.

Massachusetts also leads by supporting industry to replace toxic chemicals used in industrial processes with safer alternatives, and save money in the process. Other states, Canadian provinces, and the European Union are emulating the Massachusetts example.

Toxics will always be with us, but by choosing safer alternatives consciously and intelligently, we can live healthier lives, and better protect our environment. Learn more by attending the May Sustainable Concord Coffee on Tuesday, May 21, 7:30-9am at the Harvey Wheeler Community Center in West Concord. Mark Myles will speak about “Safer Alternatives to our Toxic Lifestyle.”

Again, if you want the town to plan and act more sustainably, study the warrant and use the principles to guide you in thinking about how you will be voting. If that seems a bit complicated and challenging to do all by yourself, come to the Sustainable Concord Coffee on April 17, 7:30-9 AM, at the Harvey Wheeler Community Center. The topic is “Town Meeting Articles and Sustainability.” Join us in discussing articles that will do the most, or least, to make us a truly healthy and sustainable community.

Bob Andrews is a Concord resident and a member of the ConcordCAN! Steering Group.