Public-private group explores sustainable alternatives assessment
By Eddy Ball
NIEHS provided much more than meeting space and hospitality during a Health and Environmental Sciences Institute (HESI) workshop Feb. 7-8, evaluating assessment strategies for selecting safer, sustainable alternatives to chemicals of concern.
NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., gave opening remarks to the interdisciplinary group of technical experts from academia, business, and government. NIEHS grantee Joel Tickner, Sc.D. a recognized authority in alternatives assessment and sustainable product development, presented the keynote address. Several NIEHS and NTP scientists, including HESI workshop organizing committee member Darlene Dixon, D.V.M., Ph.D., participated in the three working group sessions.
“We need to identify toxic chemicals before they reach the market place,” Birnbaum said as she began her presentation. With her discussion of the effects of early-life exposures on development and adult-onset diseases, she offered the multistakeholder group a public health perspective on lifecycle analysis of products, by emphasizing that unsafe products and chemicals may have negative effects on health long after exposure occurs.
As Dow Chemical Company toxicologist Pam Spencer, Ph.D., workshop co-chair, explained in her opening remarks, properly assessing alternatives to replace unsafe products and ones with unintended negative health effects is important in terms of profitability, as well as public health.
“It can take ten years and $250 million to research, develop, and register a new crop protection product,” she said, noting that only a very small percentage of chemicals proposed for agricultural applications ever make it successfully from the lab to the field.
Inspiration and perspiration
In her charge to participants, Spencer made it clear that she expected them to produce during the two-day meeting, which was equally divided between presentations and discussions, and the give-and-take of workgroups examining attributes and tools; decision-making and weighing; and data gaps. One important goal, she said, was the creation of short overviews for specific groups, and technical articles with more original data for publication in one or more peer-reviewed journals.
The morning of the first day included short talks by industrial consultant William Greggs of Soleil Consulting; University of California, Los Angeles law and environmental sustainability specialist Peter Sinsheimer, Ph.D.; and BASF senior sustainability specialist Bruce Uhlman. These speakers introduced several themes that gained added force with a keynote address by Tickner, a University of Massachusetts Lowell professor and a leading advocate of the precautionary principle in product safety and functional analysis.
“California is the million pound gorilla in the room,” Tickner said, as he described the social, regulatory, and economic pressures driving alternatives assessment today. Product developers are facing new, basic questions, including whether some products, such as fire retardants and dry cleaning solvents, are needed at all. Instead of looking solely at convenience and profitability, engineers are being called upon to determine whether a function, such as degreasing, can be performed as well by a safer chemical.
Safety can also mean accepting ambiguities, Tickner explained. “There’s rarely going to be an easy drop-in,” he said, “[and] we shouldn’t let perfection of the data be the goal. … Take action — that’s the bottom line.”
Lessons learned and a sober look forward
When the workshop reconvened following the breakout sessions, two things were clear from the group reports. On the one hand, participants felt they’d gained valuable insights from stakeholders with different perspectives on product safety and made significant progress toward their goals. On the other hand, there was a consensus that much more work remains to be done.
“We’ve picked the low-hanging fruit,” observed Procter and Gamble environmental toxicologist Donald Versteeg, Ph.D. “The other work is more difficult.”
In her closing remarks, Spencer agreed, saying, “We’ve just scratched the surface.” But that realization failed to dampen the enthusiasm participants felt about their two days together. “This was an extremely successful workshop,” Spencer said, as the workshop came to a close. “I’m really excited that we’ll be able to take this to the next level.”