Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
I'm Dreaming of a Toxin-Free Christmas

With the holidays fast approaching, many of us are scrambling to make last-minute purchases for friends and family. As items cross the check-out counter, products enter our lives carrying with them a chemical footprint that is often overlooked. While no overarching labeling scheme reveals the chemical makeup of most products, we can cheer some inspiring activity moving us toward toxin-free consumer products in the future. We may not see immediate changes in product chemistry this holiday season, but there is reason to hold onto hope for next year’s shopping list.

If you’ve got sweaters or socks on your gift list, take note of a promising new initiative created by a group of major apparel and footwear brands. The Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) plan aims, as the name implies, to eliminate the release of hazardous chemicals from products and manufacturing processes by 2020. The group has set an ambitious timeline and tracks progress with regular reports. While it will take time before targeted chemicals are fully eliminated from all brands and products available to consumers, the momentum behind this focus on non-toxic clothing and footwear is promising. You might even say it’s analogous to a red-nosed reindeer guiding the way through a fog of chemicals!

For everyone shopping for the little ones in the family, another shining star on next year’s tree is the State of Washington’s enforcement of its Children’s Safe Products law. Washington’s Department of Ecology has been responsible for cataloging toxic chemicals in products intended for children. In the first-ever regulatory action of its kind, Washington required manufacturers to state the amounts of 66 chemicals of concern found in these products, and published the results on the state’s public website. The result? Some companies are changing how they make children's products and parents have more information to help keep their children safe. And the state can plan further steps to remove hazards from children’s products including everything from clothes to toys.

You might not think that efforts to reduce the health risks of flame retardants affect your gift-giving, but a surprising number of consumer items contain potentially harmful flame retardants, especially furniture like that cute pink toddler couch you were thinking about getting your niece. California has modified its testing standards to ensure continued protection of consumers from fire risks while allowing for the removal of toxic flame retardants in many products. This was done by moving away from insulation-flammability tests that drive flame retardant use but don’t end up addressing fire risks. Instead, California will be requiring a test on the cover fabric where fires start and which doesn’t require flame retardants to pass. Flame retardants are known to cause cancer, disrupt hormones and bioaccumulate in marine environments. Governor Jerry Brown noted, “California is curbing toxic chemicals found in everything from high chairs to sofas.” The high cost of flame retardant additives will drive the elimination of their use nationwide — now that testing rules have changed.

A toxin-free Christmas may not be just a dream: California’s flame retardant rules will have a direct effect on products as early as next year; the research findings from Washington will influence chemical stewardship and product design in the mid-term; and the ambitious goal of ZDHC is a focused and concentrated effort for industry leaders to address chemical issues over the next six years, and is poised to be an industry game-changer. The dream is only more likely to become a reality across all types of products as more of these game-changing actions emerge. These promises fill our stockings with inspiration and hope for safer gift-giving in the future.

This post first appeared on the Pure Strategies blog on December 17, 2013.


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