California and Dr. Susan Klosterhaus carry on the work begun by Rachel Carson

By Ben Bezark

Rachel Carson photo from Smithsonian Institution. 

Rachel Carson played a critical role in shaping how people in the US and around the world view humanity's effect on nature. Her book Silent Spring was published 50 years ago. An accomplished scientist, Carson asserted that blindly spraying chemicals such as DDT throughout the natural world was having consequences that, if unchecked, would lead to a springtime where no birds would sing because they would be dead from human-made poisons.

Last month the Institute’s senior scientist, Dr. Susan Klosterhaus, joined other leaders to discuss new laws taking effect in California to protect people from hazardous chemicals in products. These new laws, and the work of the Institute, are a direct extension of the work of Rachel Carson.

California Pushes for Safer Consumer Products

Cradle to Cradle product certification and the California Safer Consumer Products Law share a common goal of utilizing preferable alternatives to toxic substances in product production. California’s groundbreaking new toxic substance control law will be more than just another Restricted Substance List (RSL). The intent of the law is to redefine design parameters that producers use when designing their products.

Former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the law in 2009, mandating that a process called alternatives analysis be performed to identify safer substitutes for hazardous chemicals used in consumer products. The proposed regulations aim to move slowly, identifying just a few priority products known to contain one of 1,200 or so chemicals of concern (as identified by a list of globally restricted substances), and asking the industry to perform an alternatives analysis for the chemical in question, with the goal of answering the question, “Is it necessary?”

“Is it necessary?”

At the September meeting, Debbie Raphael, director of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, outlined the intent and focus of the new regulations, to be administered by her department. The law aims to address two key questions: Are toxic substances necessary in consumer products? and How do we know that a given substitute is actually better that what it replaces?

Conventional approaches to the regulation of toxic substances often generate a Restricted Substance List, and industry obligation is to make sure none of those substances are in their products above approved threshold limits. The challenge comes when a manufacturer adopts an alternative similar to the restricted substance in question, potentially reintroducing similar toxic hazards. With thousands of new synthetic chemicals being produced every year, the human and environmental safety data cannot keep up, and new alternatives are often considered safe until proven harmful when chemical toxicity information is not available.

Dr. Susan Klosterhaus, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute’s senior scientist and policy manager, participated in a panel on alternatives analysis at the September meeting moderated by Dr. Lauren Heine, consulting co-director of Clean Production Action and director of the Green Screen for Safer Chemicals, a chemical hazard assessment methodology.

Remaking the Way We Make Things

Panelists discussed steps being taken by industry, academia, and non-profit organizations to offer solutions and provide guidance on new approaches to alternatives analyses. Dr. Klosterhaus spoke about Cradle to Cradle product certification and the role it plays as a multi-attribute continuous improvement quality standard. As a certified product works its way up through the levels of certification, its material composition is assessed, and each substance is evaluated against 20 hazard endpoints to determine its known or likely effects on humans and the environment. Those substances that are found to have adverse effects, with a high likelihood of interaction with humans or the environment, must be phased out to achieve Gold-level certification; this process of optimization works as a kind of alternatives analysis.

At the meeting, Dr. Klosterhaus said "A major part of Cradle to Cradle certification is in product optimization - this is where alternatives analyses come in.” Cradle to Cradle CertifiedCM products have a commitment to phase out all problematic substances, so manufacturers invest time and money to identify alternatives that are then assessed for inclusion as a preferred substance according to the rigorous C2C material health criteria. The ultimate goal is products made with safe and healthy materials.

Continuing the Work of Rachel Carson

The new law and the work of the Institute continue Carson’s work. In Silent Spring, she made a compelling case against the indiscriminate use of pesticides by documenting the unintended consequences leading ultimately to a spring where no birds sing.

The Safer Consumer Products Law and Cradle to Cradle certification share a common intent: To remake the way we make things, encouraging the development of safer consumer products using safe and healthy materials designed for use and reuse that do away with unintended consequences for birds and every other living thing.

Ben Bezark is the Institute's certification specialist.