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Environmental Factor, April 2015

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Symposium strengthens efforts to ensure replacement chemicals are safer

By Ernie Hood

Katie Pelch, Trisha Castranio, Bennett and Weis

NIEHS participants in the symposium included, from left, Katie Pelch, Ph.D., training fellow in the NTP Office of Health Assessment and Translation; Trisha Castranio, sustainability analyst in the Health and Safety Branch; Bennett; and Weis. (Photo courtesy of April Bennett)

The NIH Natcher Conference Center

The NIH Natcher Conference Center was blanketed by snow on the first day of the symposium, but hosted the second day as scheduled. Attendees achieved a consensus that the field of alternatives assessment, which Weis called “the business end of green chemistry,” is poised for rapid advancement and increasing acceptance. (Photo courtesy of NIH)

The field of alternatives assessment, which is the effort to identify and use safer alternatives to chemicals, took a major step forward March 5-6 at the International Symposium on Alternatives Assessment, held at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus, Bethesda, Maryland. The symposium provided a collegial forum for government staff, university researchers, industry sustainability professionals, advocates, and other stakeholders to address this emerging field.

Despite a major snowstorm, which played havoc with attendance and caused the first day’s events to be moved to a local hotel, the attendees achieved a consensus that the field of alternatives assessment is poised for rapid advancement and increasing acceptance.

The weather prevented NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., from attending, but Christopher Weis, Ph.D., a Bethesda-based senior science advisor in the Office of the Director, stepped in to give the keynote address and participate in a panel discussion on related federal agency opportunities and needs.

Consider the need

The field of alternatives assessment is built on the concept that before choosing a chemical for any purpose — whether a cleaning agent, pesticide, laboratory chemical, or other compound — people should consider whether they actually need to use the chemical at all, and if so, whether there may be a safer alternative.

“We know that many chemicals that are in use do have safer alternatives that can be deployed to effect the same result,” said Weis. “They are safer, they are better for the environment, and they’re better for public health.”

A field on the brink

Many participants observed that, although alternatives assessment is not new, the discipline still needs to achieve more formal recognition. Organizers hoped to foster understanding of the gaps in knowledge and methods, help identify research agenda elements, and advance and support the growing field of alternatives assessment.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Joel Tickner, Sc.D., from the Lowell Center, in his closing remarks. “I truly feel that we have a nascent field of science policy inquiry coming.” Tickner spoke on alternatives assessment at NIEHS in February (see story).

Sally Edwards, Sc.D., from the Lowell Center suggested that to continue progress toward establishing a more formally organized community of practice, a research and practice agenda should be fleshed out and ultimately published and disseminated.

According to Weis, all of the stakeholders support the alternatives assessment concept. “It’s good for everyone,” he said. “It’s good for industry, academia is very interested in supporting the effort, and the government has a responsibility. We’re actively working to reduce the use of chemicals, and in cases where it’s appropriate, to substitute safer alternatives.”

The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts organized the event, ably assisted by April Bennett of the NIEHS Office of the Director. NIEHS was a cosponsor, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and ToxServices LLC, a Washington, D.C. scientific consulting firm.

(Ernie Hood is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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