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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Green Science Policy Institute:
Engaging Across Sectors to Drive Meaningful Change

The Institute’s work includes education and cross-sector partnerships to reduce harmful chemicals in products. We spoke with Senior Scientist Tom Bruton, PhD to learn more about the organization’s history, cross-sector collaborative efforts and focus in the midst of a global pandemic.

Shaw’s annual sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program recognizes organizations working on innovative projects and initiatives that support the wellbeing of people and the planet. Since 2008, the Green Science Policy Institute has been working to facilitate safer use of chemicals to protect human and ecological health. The Institute’s work includes education and partnerships among government, business, academia and public interest groups to develop solutions for reducing harmful chemicals in products.

Shaw recently interviewed Tom Bruton, PhD — Senior Scientist at Green Science Policy Institute — to learn more about the organization’s history, cross-sector collaborative efforts and focus in the midst of a global pandemic.

How did the Green Science Policy Institute come about?

TB: We were founded in 2008 when our executive director, Arlene Blum, discovered that the same toxic flame retardant that her research had helped to get out of children's pajamas back in the 1970s was still being used in furniture and in baby products. It was in dust, in everyone's house across the United States. She set off on a journey to understand the policies that were driving the use of those flame retardants and to pull together scientific evidence for why they were unnecessary and even harmful. We've grown from there — and our research and policy work focus on the use of “Six Classes” of harmful chemicals in consumer products and building materials worldwide to better understand these chemicals, their functions, where they are used, and how they can be avoided.

How do you effectively engage across different sectors and industries to drive meaningful change?

TB: The goal behind our work is to be an unbiased source of scientific information about chemicals of concern and consumer products. And we do this in a few ways; one way is by grounding our work and our communications in science. We do a lot of original research on chemicals and products — and we collaborate with academic scientists to stay updated on what's going on in the scientific literature. We also work collaboratively with stakeholders, rather than against them. That's something that sets us apart from some environmental groups. Manufacturers can sometimes feel like environmental groups are always just out to get them — and we try hard to take a different approach. We work collaboratively to serve as a resource. A lot of our work is focused on bringing together different groups of people across disciplinary groups to think about a problem and come up with creative solutions. That work often brings people together who might not always have the chance to interact — and can result in new ways of seeing and thinking about a problem and finding solutions.

What are some of the biggest challenges and concerns that you encounter in your work?

TB: An overarching concern that we have is that there are tens of thousands of different chemicals in commerce. Most of those chemicals have not been adequately tested for health and safety and the regulatory system that we have for ensuring that that health and safety testing is just not strong enough. It's just not fast enough — and often the research and regulatory system will spend many years and a lot of money studying one harmful chemical. Then, before there’s a decision to do something about it, chemical producers have moved on to making a different chemical that the rest of us know little about, and that system starts over again. Our idea for getting around that cycle is to try and encourage stakeholders to avoid entire classes of harmful chemicals whenever they can — to ask questions and avoid having to reformulate their products. This idea of what we call the ‘class concept’ is key.

How has the pandemic affected your work? What’s next on the horizon?

TB: The pandemic has caused stress and strain for everyone — but there have also been some silver linings. For example, while we haven't been able to get together in person, we have gotten really good at connecting online. That has meant that we have been able to include people who wouldn't be able to travel all the way to California for a meeting. We have been able to expand our reach internationally — and bring people together more easily in some ways. As we look to the future, we are thinking a lot about the class of antimicrobial chemicals. We have heard from product manufacturers and large purchasing organizations that there has been a lot of marketing of products with added antimicrobials during the pandemic. And while they are not explicitly saying that these products will protect you from COVID-19, there’s an implicit message that they will. So, we are trying to beef up on the science around those chemicals through gathering academic experts to know about them. We want to see what opportunities there are for reducing unnecessary uses of that chemical class.

This article is one in a series of articles recognizing the second slate of organizations to be honored by Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program. The nine organizations selected for this year’s recognition program have displayed tremendous effort and progress to support the wellbeing of people and the planet amid the unprecedented challenges of 2020. To read more about the other organizations recognized by Shaw, visit the landing page for this blog series.