Alternatives Assessment: A Key Tool for Safer Chemicals in Products

Increasing the safety of products calls for a structured, thoughtful approach: knowing which chemicals of concern you want to remove from your supply chain, putting in place a methodology and resources to meet that goal, and evaluating progress as you move forward. That’s at the core of the pillars of leadership for safer chemicals we’ve identified through our collaborations with Walmart and others.

Behind the Label - the blueprint for safer products in the marketplaceHowever, figuring out how to move from hazardous chemicals to those that are inherently safer – without increasing risk or compromising performance – takes having a clear, replicable process. Chemicals Alternatives Assessment (CAA), sometimes referred to simply as Alternatives Assessment, is one such process, a powerful methodology that can help you select ingredients in line with your safer product design objectives. CAA helps product designers identify, compare and select safer alternatives to chemicals of concern (including those in materials, processes or technologies) on the basis of key attributes – notably their hazards, exposure potential, performance, and economic viability.

CAA was born out of a need to help companies make smarter choices about the chemicals used in every day products, and ultimately make our world a healthier one. As a methodology, CAA was developed as a practical way of incorporating safer product design into product development and reformulation.

Right now the application of CAA is following a trajectory similar to that of life cycle analysis in its early years: the community of practice has gradually grown and diversified in the last decade, from environmental health researchers to industry practitioners. Application of CAA has become more integrated into the daily work of users across academia, government, and business. A recent Environmental Health Perspectives article found that increased use of CAA across sectors has led to a rapid evolution of the field of practice, resulting in a number of frameworks and methods. So much so, that the National Academies, one of the premier scientific institutions in the United States, published its own framework in 2014 to bring together for practitioners the major concepts and elements of CAA developed over the past decade.

No matter the framework or implementation methodology used, Chemicals Alternatives Assessment as a practice is governed by an overarching set of principles:

  • Reduce hazard by replacing a chemical of concern with a less hazardous alternative. This approach provides an effective means to reduce risk associated with a product or process if the potential for exposure remains the same or lower. Consider reformulation to avoid use of the chemical of concern altogether.
  • Colors-of-Chemistry-iStockAssess use patterns and exposure pathways to limit exposure to alternatives that may also present risks.
  • Obtain access to and use best available information that assists in distinguishing between possible choices. Before selecting preferred options, characterize the product and process sufficiently to avoid choosing alternatives that may result in unintended adverse consequences.
  • Require disclosure and transparency across the supply chain regarding key chemical and technical information. Engage stakeholders throughout the assessment process to promote transparency in regard to alternatives assessment methodologies employed, data used to characterize alternatives, assumptions made and decision making rules applied.
  • Use information about the product’s life cycle to resolve trade-offs, meaning better understand potential benefits, impacts, and mitigation options associated with different alternatives. When substitution options do not provide a clearly preferable solution, consider organizational goals and values to determine appropriate weighting of decision criteria and identify acceptable trade-offs.
  • Lastly, take action to eliminate or substitute potentially hazardous chemicals. Choose safer alternatives that are commercially available, technically and economically feasible, and satisfy the performance requirements of the process/product. Collaborate with supply chain partners to drive innovation in the development and adoption of safer substitutes. Review new information to ensure that the option selected remains a safer choice.

EDF worked with a leading group of experts from NGOs, academia, government and business in 2013 to codify and publish this philosophy as the Commons Principles of Alternatives Assessment (2013). Today, these principles have over 100 signatories ranging from business leaders to environmental advocates who all recognize the critical need for a paradigm shift in how chemicals are evaluated and selected during product development.

As your company examines its own supply chain impacts, processes like Chemicals Alternatives Assessment can help you more effectively consider ingredient hazard potential when selecting among candidate ingredients during product development and reformulation. As mentioned above, a number of tools and implementation frameworks exist to help you put CAA into practice, including OECD’s Substitution and Alternatives Assessment Toolbox. We encourage companies to work to incorporate CAA into its product design process and will continue to share additional resources that can help them ensure safer products for consumers and communities alike.

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