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New Toxicity: Business Changer

Laws like RoHS and REACH are pushing the boundaries of environmental regulation. In the process they are meeting with stiff resistance from industry. The resulting conflict is a clash of values that centers on perceptions of toxicity.

Old environmental law and most industrial practices cover acute toxicity. Chemicals are handled as hazardous substances if they can cause injury or death from direct exposure to relatively large quantities. Safeguards consist mostly of physical barriers that prevent workers from coming into direct contact with the hazardous chemical. Toxic substances that cannot be contained are released through venting and effluent streams. Dilution is still a commonly used control method.

In the past fifty years, the ability to quantitatively measure chemicals in the environment has increased manifold. Scientific studies of the biological impact of chemicals on organisms have become increasingly complex and sophisticated. Multi-variable studies that reveal complex interactions are much more common than they were back in the 50s and 60s.

All of this has changed the field of toxicology. Now toxicologists include specialists who look for developmental effects, endocrine disruptions and reproductive impacts. These new fields expose long-term effects that have large consequences on entire populations. The concerns are not about acute exposure, but about the fate of an entire species in the face of low-level, persistent exposure to organic pollutants.

The clash comes about because the new regulations incorporate the new toxicity, while industry attitudes are still based on the acute exposure paradigm. As with any such cultural clash, it will take time to work out. The end result is quite clear to some.

Ultimately, industry will need to adopt the new toxicity model. The reasons are political, moral and financial. Support for environmental protection is broad-based among consumers. While not a core value, it is a popular one. Its popularity can go up or down with the global economy, but a large group of environmentalists remain committed under all circumstances. That group keeps the political support alive through low cycles and generates excitement that boosts support in better times.

Choosing environmentally friendly manufacturing processes is a moral imperative as well. The damage is already known and backed up by numerous scientific studies that show repeatability of the impacts. When an act causes measurable harm to others, our moral sense requires that we stop the action. To continue to use a polluting manufacturing process is wrong, and it does political damage to the company reputation as well.

Finally, going green is financially beneficial. Redesigning processes and products to eliminate pollutants saves money in the long run. The field of green chemistry is growing rapidly and generating new ways to make materials using low-temperature, non-polluting methods. A genuine commitment to green business still carries a marketing advantage. This advantage will persist until being green is a commodity.

The December 2008 proposed changes to RoHS really do little to alter the strategies that have proven most effective for businesses. Those companies that complied early and over-achieved are now enjoying the protective, consequential effects. Companies electing to proceed under one or more exemptions, now must deal with compliance anyway. The best advice is still the simplest - comply fully as soon as possible. To do otherwise can harm your business and the environment.

Additional Resources

Defining Toxic
Toxicology testing shifting from animal models to cell models, Science News 23 Feb 2008

Counterintuitive Toxicity
Toxicity does not always follow simple dosage rules, Science News 20 Jan 2007

Nonstick Toxicity
Toxicity of non-stick cookware chemical, PFOA, Science News 21 May 2008

EPA Should Test Demasculinizing Pollutants Collectively
NRC recommends testing multiple phthalate compounds collectively to reveal synergistic effects, Science News 18 Dec 2008

Gender Measure: Pollutant Appears To Alter Boys' Genitals
Measurable changes in male genitals due to exposure to phthalate plasticizers in-utero, Science News 4 Jun 2005

Corporate Campaigns Manufacture Scientific Doubt
How corporations manufacture doubt to counter scientific evidence of dangerous products, Science News 27 Sep 2008

RoHSwell Leaves