A new paper published in Environmental Science & Technology proposes an overhaul in chemical management across American and Canadian government organizations and businesses, describing an “essential-use” approach intended to eliminate harmful chemicals from daily life. The authors argue the approach can improve public health, the environment, and the economy.
In a nutshell, the essential-use approach states that potentially hazardous chemicals should only be used in products when necessary for health, safety, or some critical function in society—and when no alternatives are available. Such an approach would be a drastic shift from how chemicals are currently regulated. According to Carol Kwiatkowski, a scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute and one of the paper’s authors, “In the US and Canada, most chemicals have not been evaluated prior to use. Once a chemical is suspected of causing harm, it can take decades before any restrictions are enacted. By that time, the chemical is often replaced with a similar one that will also take years to regulate.” Kwiatkowski argues that the essential-use approach will minimize risk before anyone is harmed.
Originating with the Montreal Protocol, which a global treaty designed to protect the ozone layer by gradually eliminating the production of chemicals that deplete it, the essential-use approach has been adapted by scientists to address perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The European Union endorsed this approach, spurring some US states to take similar stances against the use of PFAS-class chemicals. Maine, for instance, aims to ban all PFAS use by 2030 except in products where it’s unavoidable.
The authors recommend that American and Canadian organizations implement the essential-use approach with the following process:
- Identifying chemicals of concern based on a range of hazardous properties.
- Quickening the decision-making process around these chemicals with three questions:
- Is the chemical necessary for a product?
- Is this chemical the safest option?
- Is using the chemical justified because it’s necessary for the safety, health, or functioning of society?
- Applying essential use early in the process of developing, using, and managing chemicals of concern.
- Supporting decisions by engaging with experts and sharing information needed to identify essential uses.
Simona B?lan, supervising environmental scientist with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the first author of the paper, believes that the essential-use approach can improve existing chemical management processes by addressing a higher number of chemicals more efficiently. Additionally, she says, “It promotes innovation by shifting the market toward safer solutions. This will make products, people, and our planet healthier.”