Chemicals, Products, and Health: Global Challenges

The health, business, and regulatory implications related to products that contain or are manufactured with toxic chemicals was the topic of discussion at the Pardee House seminar on Thursday, March 19.

Pardee Faculty Fellow Henrik Selin moderated the session, titled “Chemicals, Products, and Health: Global Challenges.” Other panelists included BU Prof. Wendy Heiger-Bernays (School of Public Health) and Mark Rossi, co-director of Clean Production Action, and founder and chair of BizNGO.

Prof. Selin set the stage for the discussion by talking about the health uncertainties, regulatory gaps and disparities, and political issues associated with attempts to develop and enforce government policies related to chemical use in products. He noted that the sheer number – tens of thousands of different chemicals used in various consumer products – is an immense challenge for scientific research, data collection, and regulatory programs. He also talked about the many disparate regulatory approaches both between and within countries that create issues for business operating on an international or global scale.

Prof. Heiger-Bernays, who works on the BU Superfund Research Program, spoke of the ubiquitous use of chemicals as ingredients in personal care products such as shampoos and toothpaste, in food packaging such as canned food liners and plastic wrappers, in protective coatings on clothes and furniture, as well as in components of common electronics. Some chemicals are known to be cancer-causing agents, and others are known to be “endocrine disruptors”, which disrupt hormone signaling systems in the body and ultimately can affect metabolism, reproductive or nervous systems, or create other health issues.

As a specific example, she noted that flame retardants, which were banned from use on children’s pajamas in the 1970s, have continued to be used widely in the foam in furniture such as sofas and mattresses. She mentioned studies that have shown these chemicals are found in household dust and in human blood and urine. Once such chemicals are used in furniture and other household products, they move through the environment into the air and water, and have been found in fish, and washing machine effluent, eventually making their way into the food chain and water supplies. She said there are “known pathways and good evidence” that these chemicals can affect human health.

Mark Rossi followed by discussing efforts to move businesses toward “precautionary efforts” by finding ways to substitute or eliminate the use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing and as product ingredients. He talked specifically about three programs – Green Screen, the Chemical Footprint Project, and a network called BizNGO – that are working on these issues.

He cited some specific examples of companies that suffered huge hits to their bottom lines and reputations – including Mattel, Johnson & Johnson, and aluminum bottle maker Sigg, which went bankrupt when it became public that their products contained ingredients known to be harmful to human health. He said companies can avoid such problems if they have a policy of transparency in overall business operations, they take responsibility and “ownership” for any problems that arise related to their products, they take an interest in knowing exactly what materials are used in their supply chains, and they take action to ensure their products do not contain harmful ingredients or components and immediately correct any problems. By taking these measures, companies can enter a “virtuous cycle” of avoiding health and safety issues for workers and customers, keep costs down, and avoid “legacy” issues such as generating toxic wastes, which are strictly regulated and may cause problems in the future.