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Safer Chemical Alternatives: Background and Overview
Table of Contents
Background and Overview
Reasons for Action
Identifying Chemical Hazards - Labeling Systems
Related Efforts, Tools, and Resources
Case Studies and Examples
Where to Go for Help
Complete List of Links

Essential Links:

Chemicals Prioritization: An Approach by the American Chemistry Council (ACC)
The American Chemistry Council's (ACC)'s approach to prioritizing chemicals is used to identify prio...


Pesticides, fertilizers, solvents, phthalates, heavy metals, perfluorinated compounds, brominated fire retardants, bisphenol-A (BPA), pharmaceuticals, antibacterials, ... These are just a few of the types of pollutants or chemicals of concern that are frequently covered in the media. Some are used in significant quantities in manufacturing and many are contained in consumer products. Several are being phased out, either voluntarily or by mandate, for specific uses, such as certain brominated fire retardants and bisphenol-a (BPA). However, historically, these replacement chemicals are not always proving to be significantly safer alternative(s).

Some of the chemicals in use today have potential toxic or physical hazard effects on human health and safety, ecological health, and ecosystems. Numerous blood, urine, and cord blood tests on humans show uptake and retention of pesticides, fire retardants, BPA, heavy metals, and other chemicals. Terrestrial and aquatic studies have shown concerning levels of some chemicals in animals, plants, soils, and water.

The severity of such effects depends on many factors, such as a chemical's toxicity, or potential physical hazard (such as explosivity or flammability), a chemical's level of persistence and ability to bioaccumulate in humans and animals, soil, air, or water, and the susceptibility of the exposed human, animal, or ecological area.

When a business, or an environmental technical assistance provider, or even a consumer, become concerned about the use of a chemical, there are some initial research and strategies to begin understanding the hazard or toxicity of the chemical or substance. There is a growing body of information, resources, and expertise, along with systematic chemical alternative methodologies to help assess and to support decisions on selecting safer alternative chemicals and products, or minimizing the use of toxic or hazardous chemicals.

This introduction and the remaining sections of this hub discuss why safer chemical alternatives are important, and also covers:

  • practical methods for the layperson (non-toxicologist/chemist) to better understand chemical hazards in manufacturing,
  • how to begin identifying and asessing potential alternatives chemicals or substances for specific uses,
  • who can assist with toxic and hazard alternatives assessments,
  • examples of successful identification and implementation of safer alternatives, and,
  • a synopsis of general, but related efforts and tools in the area of finding safer alternatives, such as pollution prevention, green design, sophisticated comparison tools, and consumer resources.

The intent is to further the ability for technical assistance providers, and/or within small to medium sized manufacturers and businesses, to assess toxic and hazardous chemicals at a very high level, or more detailed level as expertise is developed, to identify potential safer alternatives, and reduce or eliminate use of toxic chemicals.

Risk assessments and life cycle assessment of chemical(s) can be useful tools in alternatives assessments, but these types of analyses are much broader and deeper in scope than covered here.

Chemical Pathways to Humans and Ecosystems

Chemicals can be released to the environment through all life cycle stages: extraction, transportation of raw materials and energy, production, distribution, use, and disposal.

During manufacturing, chemicals used either in a process or at a facility, and/or used in a product, may be released to wastewater, in air emissions, in landfill leachate that eventually reaches groundwater, through incineration, and even sometimes in stormwater. Air emissions can deposit into waterways and soil, transferring the chemical from air to other media. Permits allow for acceptable levels of certain pollutants to be released via a facility's air emissions, wastewater, stormwater, or hazardous wastes.

Spills and accidents, and application of fertilizers and pesticides are examples of direct releases of chemicals to the environment.

When it comes to consumer use of manufactured products - chemicals contained in products can be released to air from:

  • offgassing and evaporation
  • aerosol or spraying
  • combustion
  • demolition and remodeling activities (which often eventually result in soil and water contamination

Examples of how consumer use of manufactured products contribute to chemical pollution of water include (but are not limited to):

  • use of soaps, antibacterials, cosemetics, shampoos, and other products that are washed off during bathing
  • use of detergents, laundry aids (softeneners, bleach, etc.), during laundering
  • release of fabric pre-treatments during laundering
  • runoff of fertilizer and pesticide
  • improper use or clean-up of solvents, paints, wood treatment products, automotive products, and other hazardous materials used by consumers
  • human digestion and excrement (which ultimately winds up leaving unmetabolized or untreatable constituents such as caffeine, pharmaceuticals, and heavy metal residuals in treated wastewater).

Exposure Pathways to Humans, Animals and Ecological Systems

Depending on the pathway and volume of the release, chemicals in the environment result in exposure to humans, wildlife, and ecosystems. The primary exposure pathways for humans and animals are inhalation or respiration, ingestion, or absorbtion through skin, eyes, or open wounds. Many chemicals are bioaccumulative in plants and organisms, and tend to increase in concentration up the food chain.

The extent of impacts or affects from a chemical impacts depends on many factors including the toxicity and/or hazardous characteristics, the amount and duration of release, the "dose" absorbed or ingested or respired, and the susceptibility of the exposed organism (human, animal, biota, plant) or media (land, water, air).

Some of the ways humans are exposed to chemicals of concern in homes might include inhalation, skin/dermal absorption, and ingestion. Examples of inhalation exposure might include breathing the offgasses from degradation of additives in furniture foams occur (such as brominated fire retardants), or breathing perchloroethylene as dry cleaned clothes "air out" in the home. Skin exposure (dermal) can happen in a number of ways, including lead exposure from handling lead-based products in some art or hobby-soldering supplies, or paraben or phthalate exposure from applying certain skin products. One example of ingestion is bisphenol-A that leaches from canned food liners into the food product.

Toxicity and Hazard EndPoints

A toxic or hazard endpoint is the result of a study conducted to predict or determine how dangerous a substance is. Data collected from such studies are used to report the relative toxicity or hazard of the compound to various regulatory agencies and environmental compliance groups. Toxic endpoints can include mortality, reproductive effects, and other physiological and biochemical changes. Hazard endpoints cover the physical hazards such as flammability and reactivity.

Publically accessible tools and data are becoming more available, allowing for meaningful comparison of chemicals and products to determine the safest alternative from a toxicity or hazard standpoint. Analyzing the data, determining the potential effects, and comparing chemicals in a systematic way typically involves evaluation of toxicity endpoints (below) and may require some level of expertise in one or more of the following or related fields: toxicology, industrial hygiene, chemical engineering, and/or environmental science.

Representative endpoints that may be considered within a given chemical toxicity and hazard assessment framework are listed below. This list is not all-inclusive for the different assessment methodologies. offers definitions of several of these endpoints.

Human Health

  • Mortality
  • Carcinogenicity
  • Reproductive toxicity
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Neurotoxicity and developmental toxicity
  • Genotoxicity/Mutagenicity
  • Sensitization and allergenic potentiales
  • Skin or eye irritation
  • Repeated dose/Organ toxicity


  • Acute aquatic toxicity
  • Chronic aquatic toxicity
  • Sediment toxicity
  • Terrestrial toxicity
  • Ocean acidification potential

Environmental Fate

  • Bioaccumulation
  • Persistence
  • Biodegradability
  • Transport and distribution

Physical Hazard Properties

  • Reactivity
  • Flammability

Identifying Chemicals of Concern and Assessing Alternatives

In the past, it has often been difficult to determine the toxicity or hazard potential of chemicals, compounds, and many materials and products. Ingredient disclosure requirements, customer pressure down the supply chain, international chemical policy reform, some federal regulations, and consumer or customer demand for increased transparency are some trends that are driving the increased awareness, and increased availablity of toxicity or hazard information. Over time, this should allow increased ability to identify chemicals of concern that are in current use at a business.

Typically, the first step towards safer chemicals, is to realize the potential toxicity or hazard of a particular chemical or substance, whether used in manufacturing process or contained in the manufactured product. If the hazard is enough of a concern, the next step is to identify and assess alternatives. Then, it is time to evaluate whether there is a safer substitute and whether it is feasible, or put efforts towards designing a safer substitute, or eliminate or reduce the use of the material.

Chemical alternative assessment or analysis is one important aspect of evaluating whether there is a safer chemical or product. Alternatives analysis provides a deliberative framework to help decision makers understand and compare the hazards of a chemical. A chemical alternatives assessment can range in scope, from a somewhat narrowed analysis (e.g., just evaluating human health data), to a level of very in-depth analysis of chemical hazards, risk, life cycle impacts, commercial availability, feasibility in manufacturing, and economic viability, and other benefits or drawbacks.

From a product manufacturer's standpoint, Proctor & Gamble's advice in the process of selecting of a safer substitute, is to engage stakeholders (especially end users of the products they supply), ensure a problem is truly solved, determine a way to measure efficacy of the end product or material, and work toward minimizing overall risk from the end product, not just a single chemical or compound being replaced.

Throughout any of the alternatives analysis steps taken, there are numerous government and non-government organizations, databases, case studies, and websites that currently offer information, data, tools, and/or assistance in assessing chemical safety.

Assistance Resources

  • Governmental organizations such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the National Institute of Health (NIH), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (U.S. EPA) Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, U.S. EPA's Design for Environment Program, and similar state or local counterparts
  • Non-profits and educational institutions developing chemical assessment frameworks and/or designing safer chemicals and products,
  • Consultants that can assist with a formal toxicity or hazard assessment
  • Domestic and international entities working on harmonizaton of hazard labelling and ingredient disclosure.

Material Resources

  • Material safety data sheets (MSDS) or safety data sheets (SDS),
  • Publically available toxicity databases
  • Publically avilable risk assessment reports on specific chemicals
  • Publically available case studies of successful substitutions or reduction of toxic chemicals in manufacturing,
  • Assessment frameworks
  • "Drop-in" product or chemical substitution databases,
  • Restricted subsance lists which may be market-driven or required by law
  • Voluntary restrictions

These information sources range from fairly straightforward and simple to access and understand, on up to a level which requires significant expertise to interpret.

Trends and Related Efforts

Markets and regulations are changing. International chemical reforms are slowly impacting chemical use and commerce in the U.S. A few of the more important examples include the European Union's Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical substances (REACH), the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHs), and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE). These require documentation and/or prohibiting U.S. export of products containing certain materials.

The Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of Chemical Classification and Labelling is a system for standardizing and harmonizing the classification and labelling of chemicals, across the globe. It is a logical and comprehensive approach to establish commonality in:

  • Defining health, physical and environmental hazards of chemicals;
  • Creating classification processes that use available data on chemicals for comparison with the defined hazard criteria; and
  • Communicating hazard information, as well as protective measures, on labels and Safety Data Sheets (SDS).

Some level of chemical and product hazard and toxicity information is publically available, such as on Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), which are provided by product or chemical suppliers to industrial users, product labels and shipping papers, and actual study data results and databases, which can inform decision-making about chemical safety and choices. For example, U.S. EPA has two public sites, the Toxicity Forecaster database (ToxCastDB) and a database of chemical exposure studies (ExpoCastDB), which is connected through EPA's Aggregated Computational Toxicology Resource(ACToR). This is an online data warehouse that contains data on over 500,000 chemicals from over 500 public sources.

Various other databases have compiled available data and information, including the Hazardous Substance Data Bank, the Canada Domestic Substance List, California's Prop 65 list, and several international databases. A discussion and links to these and other portals is provided in the section titled "Identifying Chemical Hazards - Labeling Systems ". There are also modeling tools which use modeling to estimate toxicity endpoint data, such as the U.S. EPA's PBT Profiler.

More systematic frameworks are being developed and applied to use toxicity and hazard data sources to make decisions on safer chemical alternatives for industry. These are described breifly below with a few examples, and are covered in more detail in subsequent sections of this document. Note that this example list of tools does not include risk assessment or risk analysis methodologies, because the scope of this topic hub is limited to approaches that are practical for small to medium sized businesses.

Method or Strategy



Chemical source reduction or pollution prevention

Design solutions to either eliminate use of a toxic or hazardous chemical or improve inefficiency of use

- NIOSH' Prevention through Design

- Inventory analysis and consolidation

- Process or material movement design for minimal loss and maximum use efficiency
- Redesign processes or production schedules to reduce need for cleaning

Alternatives assessment tools

Systematic tools that provide a framework for compiling and ranking toxicity and/or hazard data on chemicals, allowing informed decision-making on future chemical choices and uses

- Clean Production Action's GreenScreen[TM],

- Washington Department of Ecology's Quick Chemical Assessment Tool (QCAT)

- Toxic Use Reduction Institute's Pollution Prevention Options Assessment System (P2OASys)

- U.S. EPA's Tool for the Reduction and Assessment of Chemical and Other Environmental Impacts (TRACI)

- BGIA's Column Model for Chemical Substitutes Assessment

- Zero Waste's Chemical Assessment and Ranking System (CARS)

Alternatives lists or databases

Published databases or lists that recommend "drop-in" substitute chemicals or processes

- Cleaner Solutions Database
- CleanGredients (for formulators, requires subscription)

- MIT's Green Alternative Chemicals and Processes Wizard

Green chemical and product design

Strategies or protocols, that impart criteria, principles, or requirements to design a safer chemical or product

- Green chemistry

- Design for Environment (DfE)

- U.S. EPA's Design for Environment Program
- Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT)

Prohibited, or Restricted substance list (RSL)

Some countries, companies, trade associations, and consortiums have generated lists of restricted substances that cannot be used in commerced products for that entity. (These can include imports for a country, and supply chain inputs for companies).

- European Union (EU) REACH (covers products imported to the EU)
- American Apparel & Footwear Association

- Nike, Inc.

- Levi Strauss & Co.

Finally, for consumer products, several groups are working to help consumers find out what's in a product, and start helping consumers understand potential health and environmental impacts. One means of ingredient disclosure is through thorough labelling. There are also several available information sources such as GoodGuide (with over 700,000 products rated),,, and the Environmental Working Group studies on constituents released during the use of cleaning products.


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Hub Last Updated: 5/21/2015