SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  18 July 2013
Volume 14 Issue 7

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Benign by Design—Replacing Toxic Chemicals

Hans Peter Arp, NGI, Norway, Knut Breivik, NILU, Norway, Steven Droge, Utrecht University

Finding innovative ways for the next generation of industrial chemicals to be environmentally benign or beneficial was the focus of scientists, industry representatives and regulators attending the SETAC Glasgow session “Benign by Design—Replacing Toxic Chemicals.” This session complemented Michael Braungart's keynote address at the meeting about the Cradle to Cradle® approach, as it was similarly focused on innovation that would lead to ways of avoiding future pollution. Arguably, this approach is underrepresented within the SETAC community, where a large focus is on identifying problems with contaminants rather than avoiding them.

A key issue brought up by several presenters was the need for open collaboration with product chemists to identify benign chemical replacements. This was a message from Vivianne Yargeau (McGill Univiersity), who talked about the hunt for green plasticizers from the CIHR consortium, as well as Pim Leonards (VU University) and Karl-Heinz Spriestersbach (PINFRA), who presented research towards identifying benign flame-retardants, such as the ENFIRO project, from an academic and industrial perspective. In the search for such benign replacements, scoring tools that rank the properties of chemicals according to multiple commercial and environmental criteria can also be useful, as was brought forward by Paola Gramatica (Univeristy of Insurbia) and Tim Verslycke (Gradient), who suggested some guidelines for such scoring. The diversity of considerations involved in designing benign or green chemicals is immense; therefore defining a chemical as truly benign is problematic and open to false marketing. This was poignantly illustrated by John Weinstien (Military College of South Carolina) who identified several American household products marketed as green alternatives that were more toxic to aquatic organisms than the more popular counterparts. Obviously, aquatic toxicity was not considered in this particular definition of “green.”

Benign design, however, does not just include the chemicals themselves or their life cycle. How to use toxic chemicals more responsibly (for example by more efficient delivery mechanisms for pesticides), how to educate people to adjust their behavior (for example by using less antifouling on their boats), or reviewing the need of certain chemicals in modern society (for example less household fires from smoking could imply less flame-retardants are needed), must all be taken into account. Benign or beneficial design is a central aspect of SETAC, though one that is currently underrepresented with just this single session occurring in Glasgow. Hopefully this exciting topic will grow within the SETAC community in the coming years.

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