First it was the BPA scare. Now we’re hearing a lot about “forever chemicals” like PFAS that take decades to break down and have been linked to cancer. Recent regulatory shifts have tried to tackle this growing problem, but they’ve left us with more questions than answers. Like, how do I KNOW a product is safe for me—and my family—are there particular words or certifications I should look for? Are the regulations being put into place actually going to help make things safer? And is this going to happen again?
At Scivera, we work with companies to help them not only make sure that they meet regulations but to choose safer chemicals by knowing how they impact humans and the environment. We have a whole team of board-certified toxicologists who look at this information for a living and make recommendations about safer chemistry, we have a team of subject matter experts who have been working in sustainable chemistry for years, but we are also a company of parents and people who care about making this information more readily available and understandable, so you don’t need a PhD to understand what it means to make safer choices.
HOW DO I KNOW A PRODUCT IS SAFE?
This is a tough question to answer. However, there are some labels used that you can and should be wary of. Namely, “chemical-free” and “non-toxic” or any other unregulated terminology similar to these words. (Did you know these terms were unregulated? Most people don’t! They’re just marketing ploys to make you feel safer without a company having to do any real work to prove it.)
Why should you be concerned if a product says chemical-free? Because here’s the thing, the water that makes up more than half of who we are is—technically—a chemical. In fact, everything in the known world eventually breaks down to different chemicals. So no product could ever be “chemical-free,” because everything in existence in our known universe is made of chemicals.
Similarly, everything has a toxicity level. In fact, toxicity is described as “the amount or degree of a substance needed to be poisonous” (Brooker 2008). If anybody drinks a colossal amount of water, they will die of hyponatremia. In other words, they have taken in so much water that it has become toxic to them. So non-toxic is just another unregulated term.
Well thanks, Scivera, you just told me what to not buy. Are there any good labels I should look for? Definitely! You will also see that certain products have been certified by different regulatory screening lists (RSLs). For instance, OEKO-TEX is a big one in the clothing industry. These certifications are important to look for because it means the product has been verified to not include any of the problematic chemicals in an RSL. The problem with RSLs, though, as we’re seeing with PFAS, is that they aren’t wholly inclusive of all problematic chemicals. In fact 85% of problematic chemicals are not on any RSL. But, for a long time, RSL certification was the best tool that we have had to ensure protection against problematic chemicals, so if you see these labels you can at least feel assured that you and the companies you’re purchasing from are trying to keep known and regulated problematic chemicals out of their products.
The best news, though, is that there’s another step that companies are starting to take which is even better! This is to use Chemical Hazard Assessments (CHAs) to look at every chemical in their products and make sure that they are safe through a variety of 23 endpoints, including environmental safety, health safety, and reproductive safety. One CHA program that is gaining momentum is Screened Chemistry, which was started by Levi Strauss & Co. and adopted by other big names like Nike. This is where Scivera and our software SciveraLens® comes in. We can help companies check RSLs and CHAs instantly to verify the chemicals that they’re using are safe. Because this technology is still relatively new, we’re working on a consumer framework so that you can verify products are safe, so stay tuned!
In the meantime, you can also check out apps and websites like Clearya, an extension to Google Chrome that will help you find safe products and notify you of toxic chemicals in products on websites like Amazon, Walmart, and Target.
ARE THE PFAS REGULATIONS THEY’RE PUTTING IN PLACE GOING TO HELP?
The short answer is the regulations are a step in the right direction, but they aren’t a total fix. The Biden administration announced their plans to “require chemicals manufacturers to conduct aggressive health and environmental testing of the chemicals. Importantly, the approach to testing would group more than 2,000 individual PFAS into about 20 different categories of similar substances, allowing the agency to more swiftly draw safety conclusions about more chemicals.” (Politico 2021) That sounds great, but there are more than 9,000 PFAS in existence, so looking at just a fraction of the problem isn’t going to provide a complete solution. Additionally, you have the fact that it takes decades for PFAS to break down, meaning they’re going to be in our water for the next generation. Some companies are working on water filters that will filter out PFAS, but of course there are economic and logistical barriers to these solutions. Still, this is a bigger lift than previous administrations have committed to with regards to chemical safety since asbestos, so we commend the Biden administration for trying to tackle this Hydra of a dilemma.
IS A CATASTROPHE LIKE PFAS CONTAMINATION GOING TO HAPPEN AGAIN?
We hope not. The great news is that with more companies seeing the value in utilizing CHAs and RSLs in their work to prevent using problematic chemicals combined with technology like SciveraLens that makes that work similar, we could be on the road to true chemical safety and sustainability. But, we still have a ways to go, and there are still bad actors out there, just check out this Wall Street Journal article. So as a consumer, make sure your preferences are known! Bain recently released a survey that said that companies who make “sustainable” products have seen 5x the growth of those that don’t. Demand companies show how their products are sustainable; ask questions about how they’re verifying the safety of their products’ chemistry; and look for certifications that show a commitment to greener chemistry. We’re all in this together.