Beyond BFRs and BisA: The next chemical backlash

Beyond BFRs and BisA: The next chemical backlash

Toxic label - CC license by Flickr user maticulous

How do you avoid the reputational harm and the cost of being associated with the next chemical targeted by health and environmental activists? Consider:

You’ve read about electronics companies who used brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and were criticized for not removing them from products quickly enough, even though no regulation mandated their removal.

You’ve read about companies that supply clear water canisters or baby products, who were demonized for having infinitesimal concentrations of bisphenol A (BPA) in their cans and bottles.

You have no idea how many ways phthalates are used, except you keep reading about new California Proposition 65 allegations of the phthalate DEHP being used in products ranging from power tools, wire coating, to kids pool toys.

You are under the impression that if you’ve pulled these high-profile chemicals out of your products that you are “safe.” And you are -- for now.

What’s next? Should you wait for the next chemical of concern to reveal itself, then scramble to remove it from your products? Or do you take a more proactive approach by working to anticipate what chemicals will be on the next list for “deselection” as a result of activist, consumer, media, and possibly regulatory pressure? At a consumer level, it may seem that the deselection process happens rather quickly. However, I believe this loosely defined, informal process has early markers that are easily identified if you know what to look for and where to look.

Most chemicals that end up on a deselection or ban list of some sort begin their trek toward deselection as a research topic in a university somewhere in the world. The results of the research are subsequently published in a technical journal like the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. For example, earlier this year this journal published an article titled, Can Standard Genotoxicity Tests be Applied to Nanoparticles?. Now, just because a chemical appears in a technical journal somewhere doesn’t mean that it will end up being banned. There is a lengthy decision process that each chemical or family of chemicals must go through that can take a decade or more before we ever see a change in product formulation, if at all. For example, right now nanomaterials are getting a great deal of attention, but it is unknown when or if these materials will be deselected, if at all, and which materials will be targeted. In the case of BPA, the early technical articles showed up in the 1980s, but the tipping point for deselection did not take place until the early 2000s.

Can this process be predicted? Maybe not solely from the first article that is published. However, at a certain point, it is possible with a great deal of certainty to predict the chemicals that will be targeted for deselection and regulatory ban.

A number of years ago, I saw that one of the chemical additives purchased by the company I was working for was on the precipice for the path of deselection and ban. I took my concerns to the company leadership and made the case for why I thought the additive would be banned. Although I was unable to pinpoint exactly when the business would lose the ability to use this additive, I assured them the day was coming.

Hearing the case, they decided to investigate if there were similar alternatives they could buy that would meet their needs. None existed. Finding this, they immediately began an R&D program to develop a replacement. Sure enough, a few years later the additive was targeted for deselection. Thanks to long-term thinking, the company had a solution in hand. In fact, it was the only company with a tested solution and its competitors were forced to license the newly developed solution.

The moral of this story is that with proper planning you can prepare for the future and save products from being pulled off the market. You may even make some money off your competitors if you play your cards right.

So what chemical is next?

One that we think is next to face deselection and eventual ban is triclosan. You may not know the name but you have likely used a product that contains triclosan: It is a common ingredient used in consumer and houseware products boasting antibacterial properties, such as cutting boards, soaps, toothpastes, and lotions.

First, let me say that triclosan, like many of the chemicals currently being scrutinized by activists, is fully legal and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in household applications such as soap. But think back to other chemicals that have faced deselection pressure, like phthalates and brominated fire retardants (BFR’s). They did and still do, in most cases, meet all the regulatory requirements for their various applications. But like BFRs, triclosan persists in the environment. Thus, once it washes down the sink and to some extent, passes through the wastewater treatment facility, it can be found accumulating in the sediment.

For a little perspective, a lot of things persist. The glass bottle in front of me is persistent, so there must be more to the story. Triclosan reportedly has the potential to degrade in conditions commonly found in the environment that it is exposed to, such as water treatment systems, and rivers, lakes, and streams. One of the suspected degradation products in dioxin.

There is also evidence that triclosan has the potential to biomagnify from sediments up through the food chain, and the metabolites and degradation products have been shown to have biological activity, the implications of which are largely unknown and will be studied in the coming years. Another red flag is the presence of triclosan in biomonitoring, wherein this chemical has been measured in plasma, urine, and breast milk, although whether there is a negative health implication due to its detection in humans is still a widely debated and contentious issue.

The bottom line is that although safe in its intended use, triclosan ends up in the environment and has received the attention of the media and a few regulators. It is our contention, given there are alternatives to the product, that triclosan will soon be on the deselection list.

Triclosan is just the beginning. We have a list of many other chemicals we feel will be targeted for deselection in the coming years based on the criteria we have developed for tracking. Moreover, as testing and transparency grow in our world, the process will likely speed up for deselection.

Image of toxic cream tubes by SujaImages via Shutterstock