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Environmental Factor, February 2013

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Tickner encourages alternative solutions in green chemistry talk

By Ian Thomas

Joel Tickner, Sc.D.

Tickner noted that alternatives assessment is a critical approach to ensuring informed substitution, so that actions to remove a chemical of concern do not lead to new problems. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Chris Weis, Ph.D.

Weis represented the NIEHS Office of the Director, which sponsored Tickner’s presentation. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Many toxicology studies operate with the goal of identifying which chemicals are harmful to the public, then exploring the various mechanisms that make them so. However, according to Joel Tickner, Sc.D., an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the time has come for scientists to take a more solutions-driven approach.

“The role of basic toxicology will always be to understand what chemicals make people sick, and why,” said Tickner, an environmental health researcher. “There comes a point, however, when scientists must stop reacting to problems and start looking for new alternatives to solve them.”

This notion of alternatives-based research is the foundation for a field Tickner and others refer to as alternatives assessment.

A focus on functionality

As Tickner explained, while manufacturers and consumers alike are always interested to know which products may be harmful to their health, often times they’re more interested in knowing which ones aren’t.

“In the end, it’s all about functionality,” said Tickner. “If company X discovers that bisphenol A could be harmful to its customers, odds are it’ll be less interested in understanding the science behind why that is, and more interested in finding chemical alternatives that are both safe and equally as efficient with regard to product application.”

NIEHS Toxicology Liaison and lecture host Chris Weis, Ph.D., agrees.

“Chemical engineers are beginning to think of toxicity as a design flaw in their products, and they need reliable tools to screen for safer alternatives,” said Weis, who gave the talk’s introductory remarks. “In many ways, this requires scientists to be more proactive in how they examine these issues, and NIEHS is proud to be a part of that developmental process.”

An institutional investment

According to Tickner, many companies such as Nike and Walmart have already made substantial investments in alternatives assessment, as have a number of federal agencies.

“Collaboration is the key,” he stated. “We’ve set up an array of networks, both in and out of government, to help researchers share information, and it’s our hope that investments like these will lead to new innovations that benefit everyone.”

(Ian Thomas is a public affairs specialist with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

Eight steps of alternatives assessment

  • Engage stakeholders
  • Define the goal
  • Identify chemicals of high concern
  • Prioritize uses for further evaluation
  • Identify and prioritize alternatives
  • Compare alternatives
  • Select an alternative
  • Promote the adoption of safer alternatives

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