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Safer Chemical Alternatives: Related Efforts, Tools, and Resources
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:

Data Sources for Chemical Uses in Products and Processes
An annotated bibliography (with links) of toxicity and hazard data sources for specific chemicals of...

Data Sources for Chemicals of Concern
An annotated bibliography (with links) of toxicity and hazarad data sources for specific chemicals o...

Domestic Substances List
An inventory of approximately 23,000 substances manufactured in, imported into or used in Canada on ...

Nike Restricted Substances List and Sustainable Chemistry Guidance
Corporate restricted substance list for every material used in Nike products, and implementation gui...

Safer Products and Practices for Disinfecting Surfaces
Comprehensive report and analysis of different disinfection chemicals and their health and environme...

U.S. EPA Design for the Environment (DfE) Assessment of Bisphenol A (BPA)
Synopsis of the processes, results of an in-depth, multi-stakeholder alternatives assessment to help...

Related Efforts, Tools, and Resources

Several initiatives or efforts may have some bearing on or enhancement to the adoption and use of methods to identify and assess safer alternatives. Each of these are explained briefly below.

  • Policy
  • Government Guidance
  • Data and Information Accessibility
  • Standardized Classification and Labeling
  • Substitution
  • Alternatives Assessment Methodologies
  • Restricted Substance Lists
  • Green Design
  • Pollution Prevention
  • Lean and Environment
  • Industry and Institution Challenges
  • Eco-Certification Programs
  • Consumer Awareness Campaigns


International chemical reforms are slowly impacting chemical use and export commerce in the U.S., such as 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), which restrict the chemicals permitted in imported products.

Canada's Chemical Management Plan has a component which will enable the Government of Canada to use existing tools and regulations to challenge industry to provide new information about how it is managing these 200 chemical substances. These chemical substances will be assessed within a three year timeframe. The Government of Canada will then decide what actions are taken based on the assessments.

Domestically in the U.S., city, state, and federal laws impact commerce of certain chemicals in certain products. For example, in 2011, Washington State enacted a law requiring several manufacturing industries manufacturers of toys, cosmetics, jewelry and baby products to report and label products containing certain substances. The bill was originally much wider in scope and number of chemicals covered, but the preceding enactment of the 2008 federal law, Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), had imposed federal standards for maximum acceptable levels of lead and other heavy metals in children’s products. Finally, here is an example of a city resolution, passed by San Francisco, to ban the distribution of toys and childcare products that contain phthalates.

At the individual company level, leading businesses are seeking to capture emerging markets (demanding safer products) by redesigning their products and catalyzing change in their supply chains.

A non-profit called BizNGO convened a workgroup which developed and implemented the following four principles for chemicals policy for manufacturers. Several of these principles put onus on the company purchasing agents to implement and work with the supply chain. The title of these principles are as follows. More detailed definitions are available at BizNGO’s Guiding Principles for Chemicals Policy.

  • Know and disclose product chemistry.
  • Assess and avoid hazards.
  • Commit to continuous improvement.
  • Support public policies and industry standards that advance the implementation of the above three principles, ensure that comprehensive hazard data are available for chemicals on the market, take action to eliminate or reduce known hazards and promote a greener economy.

Government Guidance

In 2013, OSHA produced an advisory, step-by-step toolkit to provide employers and workers with information, methods, tools, and guidance on using informed substitution in the workplace. It helps improve worker well-being through eliminating or reducing hazardous chemicals, meanwhile creating other benefits, such as cost savings, efficiency, leadership, and corporate stewardship.

It is useful for all type of businesses—from manufacturers using chemicals in production processes as well as for businesses that use products containing chemicals in their everyday operations.

Workers also can use this toolkit to better understand chemical use in their workplace, find opportunities for using safer chemicals, and engage with their employers throughout the process of identifying, evaluating, and transitioning to safer alternatives. The guidance details are presented in a series of overarching steps:

  • Form a team to develop a plan
  • Examine current chemical use
  • Identify alternatives
  • Assess and compare alternatives
  • Select a safer alternative
  • Pilot the alternative
  • Implement and evaluate.

Data and Information Accessibility

ChemHAT is a relatively new information tool for gleaning hazard information about many chemicals.  The current version of ChemHAT (September 2012) draws on chemical hazard information compiled by the Healthy Building Network from authoritative data lists.  Users search the database by its chemical name or, if you have it, its CAS (Chemical Abstracts Services registration) number. The search yields a page with a series of icons that quickly tells the chemical hazards and health effects, typical industrial uses, common exposure pathways, and links to data sources and case studies for safer alternatives.  

For more of the consumer-type products, an app is available from GoodGuide, that allows a smartphone to read the product barcode (on thousands of different consumer and cleaning products), and then lists the GoodGuide scientist’s ratings on environmental, health, and society impacts of that product. This provides instantaneous information to the public on the relative safety or toxicity of a product. A similar consumer-friendly database (available online) is the Environmental Working Group’s SkinDeep, which lists individual ingredients and gives the health or environmental concerns and data gaps for each ingredient. Another good resource is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Household Products Database, which provides ingredient lists for thousands of products on U.S. store shelves and some safety information on the ingredients.

These tools present occupational or chemical hazard information in a more comparative or qualitative or informational manner, moreso than  providing scientific study results with toxicity endpoint data, (such as an LD50 - a measure of mammalian toxicity).  These are great examples of how chemical hazard information is becoming more readily available to the public, and to purchasing agents.

Digging further into the realm of industrial chemical use, some level of chemical hazard and toxicity information for chemicals and products is provided on Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), (which will be transitioning to Safety Data Sheets with implementation of the  international Globally Harmonized System, or GHS), product labels, and spec sheets. Depending on the manufacturer and legal requirements, the amount of information may be limited or in some cases undisclosed.

There are several entities, typically government or NGOs, that have authoritatively categorized, rated, or listed chemicals on certain human or eco-toxicity endpoints, without providing the actual toxicological or epidemiological data to which they ranked the chemical. These can be useful information sources when no toxicological data is needed. Two examples are the Canada Domestic Substance List (DSL), which provides a yes/no categorization for several criteria endpoints, and California's Prop 65 list, which lists chemicals that are deemed by the state of California, to cause cancer or reproductive harm. In the state of California, any chemical on the Prop 65 list must be included on product labels.

For those who want more detailed toxicological or epidemiological information on specific chemicals in compounds and in products, data is available online in many databases that summarize scientific and toxicity test data. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as 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. The Hazardous Substance Data Bank has compiled data and research summaries from many different sources, and many international databases also exist. There are also modeling tools that estimate some toxicity endpoint data, such as the U.S. EPA's PBT Profiler.

A useful list of these and more data sources is available from the Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse (IC2) at “Data Sources for Chemicals of Concern" and “Data Sources for Chemical Uses in Products and Processes".

Finally, the scientific literature is also a means of finding hazard data on a chemical or compound, if the above sources do not yield adequate results.

Standardized Classification and Labeling

There are two important systems working towards wider use of labeling standards that facilitate the identification and communication of chemical hazards to all who are potentially exposed: the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals and the Hazardous Material Identification System (HMIS).

The GHS was developed and internationally agreed to by many governments to provide standard criteria and a consistent approach of classifying chemicals according to their health, physical and environmental hazards. Several branches of U.S. government are working to implement GHS.

It uses pictograms, hazard statements, and signal words and other elements, in a standardized order, to communicate hazard information on product labels and safety data sheets in a logical and comprehensive way. A glossary of these elements can be found at the U.S. EPA’s Pesticides: International Activities webpage.

A second standardized labeling program is the Hazardous Material Identification System (HMIS) which was developed by the National Paint & Coatings Association (NPCA) as a compliance aid for the Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s Hazard Communication Standard. It provides clear, recognizable information to employees with color codes corresponding to the hazards of a product, assigned numeric ratings indicating the degree of hazard, and alphabetical codes designating appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) employees should wear while handling the material. The label is placed on many different types of chemicals and industrial products . An example label is shown below.


Substitution can occur at the process or product level. For example, a process chemistry may be substituted, such as chlorinated solvents in degreasing. At the product level, substitution may involve only a “drop-in” substitute, or it may be that a product must be redesigned, for example, redesigning electronics enclosures to avoid brominated flame retardants.

Immediately implementable “drop-in” substitutes are possible in some situations, but many will require changes to a production process or product design that may impose performance, cost, or other trade-offs.

A few databases of substitute products are available but have limited scope, such as such as the Cleaner Solutions Database, CleanGredients (requires subscription), and the Massachussetts’ Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Green Alternatives Wizard.

  • offers, created by the Toxics Unit Reduction Institute (TURI), allows searching on cleaners and solvents based on their functionality, safety screening for VOC content, ozone depletion potential and more, along with case study or trial info and vendor-specific information.
  • CleanGredients®, managed by GreenBlue, requires a membership subscription, and is intended to help formulators identify better ingredients, and help suppliers showcase better ingredients. This online database of cleaning product ingredients, provides verified information about the environmental and human health attributes of listed ingredients.
  • The MIT wizard provides four search options to replace of find an alternative for processes or chemicals often used in labs. There are definite gaps in the level of information in this database, for some of the chemical or process searches listed in this database, but it can be useful for initial research into alternatives

Alternative Assessment Methodologies

Alternatives assessment tools and methods, while not always fully conclusive, offer a place to start toxics use reduction planning and search for safer alternatives. An assessment is an informed substitution approach which at the very least, allows categorization of a chemical as higher, medium, or lower concern based on set hazard or toxicity data (and/or modeling outputs) and criteria.

Assessments can be progressively broader in scope to the point of comparing different chemicals or products, evaluating trade-offs, evaluating life cycle impacts, and establishing substitution or alternatives plans that identify challenges to implementation. In some cases, safer alternatives may not exist or may not be technically viable, in which cases additional research, development and technical support may be needed.

Alternatives assessment activities may occur at numerous levels of governance. For example, at a federal level, an alternatives assessment may focus on what alternatives exist for a particular chemical or functional use of a chemical. At the state, local and firm levels, an alternatives assessment may focus on whether and how a particular alternative would work in a particular production process or product line.

There are more systematic frameworks and specific tools being developed or becoming commercially available, which utilize toxicity and hazard data sources to support decisions on safer chemical alternatives. A full alternatives assessment goes beyond purely comparing chemical hazards, to incorporating technical and economic feasibility considerations. Dupont’s framework, linked below, is an example where the scope considers hazard data, feasibility parameters such as performance, manufacturability, and economic viability, and more.

Framework examples:

Tool examples:

  • Clean Production Action's GreenScreenTM
  • 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)

Prohibited or Restricted Substance Lists

Some countries, companies, trade associations, and consortiums have generated restricted substances lists (RSL) that prohibit the internal and/or supplier use of specific substances. Examples range from the prohibited lists for imported products in the European Union (or EU), which limits U.S. export markets containing specified chemicals to the EU, to company-generated lists prohibiting certain chemicals for their entire supply chain.

Several industrial RSLs are accessible for others to model or adopt, such as - American Apparel & Footwear Association, Nike, Inc., and Levi Strauss & Co.

Green Design

On the design side, efforts such as Green Chemistry, design for environment (DfE), green building, and others are actively formulating and/or design environmentally preferable chemical or products. While these disciplines greatly depending on the desired outcome/product, they may use criteria, principles, curricula, certification requirements, and design strategies.

More specifically on Green Chemistry and DfE:

Green Chemistry: With roots in the early 1990s, numerous research organizations, associations, businesses, and educational institutions are working toward this. In the mid 1990s, the Green Chemistry field established their Twelve Principles, many of which have relevance in the quest for safer alternatives for industry in general (not just to the field of chemistry). Leaders in the U.S. green chemistry effort include the American Chemical Society Green Chemisty Institute, Warner Babcock Institute, Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, and The Green Chemistry in Commerce Council (GC3).

More regional or targeted programs include such programs as green chemistry programs at numerous universities, a consortium within Washington State that is currently preparing a Green Chemistry Roadmap, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality which adopted a three-phase green chemistry “Action Plan” and set aside funding for implementation , along with the states of California, Minnesota, and Oregon.

Design for Environment (DfE): There are three major elements of DfE; design for environmental manufacturing, design for environmental packaging, and design for disposal and recyclability. All three elements include the objective of minimizing toxicity (among other objectives such as minimizing energy, material, and water consumption over the useful life of the item, etc.). The DfE principles can be applied at a specific chemical or material level, but are also applicable to the design of more complex products such as electronics, appliances, and to the built environment.

Two federally managed programs related to DfE and sustainable design, are the U.S. EPA’s Design for the Environment (DfE) program, and the National Institute for Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) Prevention through Design are briefly described below:

  • EPA's DfE Program works in partnership with industry, environmental groups, and academia to reduce risk by promoting safer alternatives for chemicals of national interest, through its Safer Product Labeling and Alternatives Assessment programs. The drivers are to create incentives for the development and application of inherently safer chemicals and reduce the use of chemicals that may pose a hazard to human health and/or the environment. The alternatives assessment involves the above partners convening and developing an in-depth comparison of potential human health and environmental impacts. For more than 15 years, EPA’s DfE has evaluated human health and environmental concerns associated with traditional and alternative chemicals and processes in a range of industries – typically focusing on industries that have potential for chemical risk reduction and are motivated to make lasting, positive changes. These analyses have empowered hundreds of businesses to select safer chemicals and technologies.
  • The NIOSH Prevention through Design (PtD) Program promotes the prevention and control of occupational injuries, illnesses, and fatalities through “designing out” and minimizing hazards and risks in the early stages of the design process. The PtD initiative applies to the construction, manufacture, use, maintenance, and disposal of facilities, materials, and equipment. Many domestic and international entities recognize PtD as a cost-effective way to promote occupational safety and health.

Potentially useful networking and shared learning opportunities may exist by joining groups working on actual DfE projects (such as EPA’s DfE assessment program), and on sustainable design efforts (such as the Green Product Design Network (GPDN), promotes invention of sustainable products that can be readily adopted and marketed.

Additional resources that may be helpful with green design of products, are various materials testing labs, such as the Sustainable Materials and Renewable Technologies (SMART) at UNC Charlotte, the Sustainable Manufacturing Lab at Purdue University, and the Materials and Engineering Lab at Washington State University.

Pollution Prevention

Many of the above topics discussed fall under the pollution prevention (P2) umbrella. The U.S. EPA’s website defines P2 as: “reducing or eliminating waste at the source by modifying production processes, promoting the use of non-toxic or less-toxic substances, implementing conservation techniques, and re-using materials rather than putting them into the waste stream”. One of the principles of green chemistry encompasses P2 very well: "Prevent Waste Rather than Clean It Up or Treat It".
The relevant takeaway from P2, with respect to finding safer alternatives, is to that there may be operational, technology, or behavioral opportunities to eliminate the need for a hazardous chemical altogether, rather than finding a substitute product or process.

Organizations specializing in P2, source reduction, and also in the fields relating to manufacturing efficiency (such as systems design, continuous improvement, and lean manufacturing), apply systems thinking, use checklists, process maps, and other tools, as well as learnings from previous case studies, to identify P2 opportunities, and evaluate the feasibility of elimination of ‘waste’ or toxics.

Lean and Environment

Lean manufacturing has traditionally addressed productivity inefficiencies and non-value-added activities in manufacturing. Since 2006, there have been concerted efforts to incorporate enviromental, (and more recently, economic and workforce development) opportunities into lean efforts. The U.S. EPA's Lean and Chemicals Toolkit describes the opportunity to address chemical reduction or alternatives in value stream mapping events and kaizen events. A few ways to identify and potentially find suitable alternatives to the use of hazardous chemicals are to involve environmental and/or safety staff in lean events, add input, output, and time metrics on chemical use and use of personal protective equipment (PPE), to the value stream maps, and use root cause analysis.

Industry and Institution Challenges

Two programs in the U.S. offer challenges, motivation, and recognition programs for safer chemistry and products.

  • The Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge is sponsored by the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention of EPA in partnership with the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute. This program recognizes chemical technologies that incorporate the principles of source reduction and green chemistry into their design, manufacture and use. Nominations for awards under the program are reviewed annually, with several application categories, and winning recipients (see list) receive national recognition and an award.
  • The 2025 Safer Chemistry Challenge Program is sponsored by the National Pollution Prevention Roundtable and is designed to motivate, challenge, and reward facilities to reduce use of chemicals through source reduction.


Numerous certification and labeling schemes are in place, that have established environmental criteria to which they then assess products to determine which ones meet their specific criteria. If a product does meet their criteria, they allow it to be labeled and/or promoted as meeting that standard.

Just because a product has an eco-certification printed on its label doesn’t necessarily mean it should be trusted. Knowing which certification programs are credible and how they assess the products can help purchasing agents and consumers buy products that are truly safer alternatives. The quality or reliability of these programs depends on the established criteria, the type of evaluation conducted to ensure a product meets that criteria, and how the certification is maintained. Another way to ensure a program is credible, is to check the Eco-Labels section of Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices website, which gives the low-down on what labels really mean and whether they are backed up by government regulations.

Reliable programs will often include input from stakeholders from multiple sectors, such as consumer groups, environmental groups, manufacturers, and government to determine the criteria for a program. This multi-stakeholder input and third party certifications of products to the standard are important facets of a credible program and type and help prevent conflict of interest.

Three widely known programs are Green Seal, Ecologo, and US EPA’s Design for the Environment (DfE). All of these programs allow their certified products to be labeled with their logo and posted on the program websites.

  • Green Seal is a non-profit organization in the Unites States that develops life cycle-based sustainability standards for a wide variety of products ranging from household products, paints and coatings to construction materials. They also offer third-party certification for products that demonstrate compliance with their standards.
  • Ecologo was a program founded by the Canadian government. They develop stringent standards and certify products from the United States and Canada in over 120 categories ranging from adhesives to office machines.
  • The EPA’s Design for the Environment safer product labeling program evaluates and labels products that meet the program’s standards. Design for the Environment labels a wide variety and many specific brands of industrial and consumer products.

A few additional examples, covering different types of commodities such as durable goods, include BlueSign - an independent standard created to apply to the entire production chain of the textile industry, and EPEAT – a set of criteria guiding purchase of environmentally friendlier electronics.

Consumer Information

Consumer awareness and scrutiny of potentially harmful chemicals in purchased products is emerging as a market driver. Several watchdog and research groups have produced lists of chemicals to try to avoid in products, along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Household Products Database, which provides ingredient lists for thousands of products on U.S. store shelves and some safety information on the ingredients.

Others have developed online databases that evaluate certain classes of consumer products, such as:

  • Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep Cosmetics database- This database compares the ingredients on personal care product to information in toxicity and regulatory databases and to score the products.
  • GoodGuide provides information about the health, environmental and social performance of products and companies in order to help consumers make more informed purchasing decisions. The products range from food and personal care items to cars.
  • Healthy Toys is a database created by the Ecology Center, a Michigan-based non-profit, and supported by several other toxics awareness organizations. The information is based on the analysis of lead, chlorine, cadmium, arsenic, mercury and bromine in samples conducted by environmental health organizations and other researchers around the United States.

In addition to databases, some organizations have studied and compared certain products for their toxic constituents and/or what is released during use of the product. One telling example is EWGs test of 30 janitorial cleaning supplies in schools. These results are listed online, and include air contaminants released during use, disclosed ingredients, and asthmagens and carcinogens detected.


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Hub Last Updated: 5/21/2015