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3 Ideas That Could Shake up The Way we Think About Chemicals

If implemented, the ideas could signal a major shift in how we test and label chemicals.

A few weeks ago, I published an interview with John Warner, a prominent green chemist with an accomplished and storied career in the field.

During his keynote address and our chat after InformEx, held in New Orleans this year, Warner laid out what he called a “crisis in innovation” in the field of chemistry — saying that he estimates that 65 percent of technologies that could have been invented haven’t come to light. (Read the full article here.)

He also outlined three ideas that he referred to as “elements of safer chemical policy.” If ideas like this were implemented, it would signal a major shift in how we think about testing and regulating chemicals. Here are Warner’s ideas, in his own words.

1. We should never make lists of bad molecules — we should make lists of good tests. There are people who say BPA is bad. Some say it’s good. Look them in the eye and they are both passionate, high-integrity individuals. But we’re arguing that clearly one of their tests is not right. If I, as a scientist, want to invent an alternative to BPA, if my only description of success is ‘We don’t want BPA,’ I can’t go and iterate in the lab. But if they say, ‘Here is a test we value, BPA fails this test and gets a 7.2 [for example] we don’t want a product that gets higher than 4,’ now I can go in the lab and test it. Doesn’t work? I tweak it. And I can now come up with a replacement.

But because we identify the bad molecule and not the bad test we get what everyone calls ‘unfortunate substitution’ — we get BPS instead of BPA. It seems good, until someone else tests it. There’s got to be a test for cancer, neurotoxicity, etc. So, get a group of smart people together and focus on the tests.

2. Stop looking at ingredients and start looking at final products. During every manufacturing process ingredients vanish because they get transformed into something else. More importantly, things appear. So the ingredients list has nothing to do with what the final product is.

If I’m worried about toothpaste, test the toothpaste. Looking at ingredients is not very representative of what’s in the product, but we also get all bound up in trade secrets. Yet, society has a right to know how products behave.

3. Label chemical content the same way we label food. I should be able to go to a website and look at toothpaste and see a number for the cancer scale, a number for endocrine disrupter scale, a number for ozone depletion, and then I can decide what I want to buy. Or an environmental group can tell me how which products are safer.

If you buy food, the government requires that you know how many calories, protein, etc. is in that product. And we like the personal freedom of looking at this information. Why can’t we do the same thing with toxins?

What do you think of Warner’s ideas? Should we change the way we test and label chemicals? Let us know what you think by commenting below.

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