Understanding Chemical Safety
Published May 11, 2022
Innovations in chemistry have helped improve our quality of life for centuries in a variety of ways. Products of chemistry support agriculture by helping people to produce and raise healthy crops and livestock. Through chemistry, food can be preserved and packaged safely and efficiently. Chemistry has also given us products that can help prevent or control the spread of diseases, clean our homes effectively and sanitize medical equipment.
Thanks to innovations in chemistry, automobiles can be manufactured to be light weight and more fuel efficient; building materials can be made to be more durable and resilient; and electronics like cell phones, computers and televisions have enhanced functionality to meet the technology needs of today’s consumers.
While chemistry can provide numerous benefits to society, we must still safely and responsibly manage how chemicals are used. And to do that, we need to consider the scientific information available.
To determine a chemical substance’s safety, researchers and experts primarily rely on three key categories of information:
- The potency, or hazardous nature of the chemical;
- The degree of our exposure to the chemical; and
- The benefits of its use, and the potential risks of removing or replacing it.
The mere presence of a chemical ingredient in a product does not automatically mean it will cause harm. Any substance—even water—can be toxic if too much is ingested or absorbed into the body. The extent to which a specific substance may have harmful effects depends on a variety of factors, including how much of the substance a person is exposed to, the route of exposure, and the length of time they are exposed.
Understanding Potency or Hazards Requires Sound and Validated Research
So, how do scientists determine what sorts of exposures have the potential to cause harm?
Rigorous scientific research is the basis for sound decision-making on the use, safety and development of chemicals.
Useful scientific evidence on the effects of chemical exposures can come from several types of experimental studies. Some of these studies are conducted in test tubes or petri dishes; within whole living organisms (e.g., rodents); or, increasingly, using computer models. Because such studies allow the investigators to precisely control the conditions of exposure, they can generate data that is considered reliable and easy to interpret.
Another type of evidence derives from observational studies conducted on people who have been exposed to chemicals at work, through unplanned events or in their everyday environments. These explorations also are known as “epidemiology studies.”
Such studies look for patterns of disease and exposure in human populations using data from a variety of sources, including employment records, questionnaires, health surveys, medical or death records and other sources. Epidemiology studies on people who historically have had unusually high exposures to some substances (asbestos, for example) have been crucial to identifying relationships with certain diseases.
With both types of studies, it’s critical to rely on a significant body of research to arrive at a consensus point-of-view regarding the use of a specific chemical or substance. Research studies need to be reviewed, validated and replicated by other peer scientists to determine their accuracy. General guidance on interpreting scientific studies can be found here.
That’s a Lot of Toothpaste
Frequently, the exposure to chemicals in everyday consumer products is very minimal. For example, one 4.6-ounce tube of toothpaste contains about 152 milligrams of sodium fluoride. A person weighing 160 pounds would have to eat 33 tubes of toothpaste at once to experience toxic effects from sodium fluoride.
Understanding How to Properly Manage Potential Risks
Chemical formulations are engineered to provide critical performance characteristics in a wide range of products. Many times, a small amount of a given chemical can deliver significant benefits. Removing or substituting a chemical in a product merely because it is “suspected” of being harmful, without the benefit of a complete risk assessment, could create more risks than it prevents.
So, how can you know if the products you are using are safe? Ultimately, determining the safe use of chemistry products is a shared responsibility of manufacturers, the government and those who use or sell chemical products.
In the U.S., the primary chemical management law is the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). This law requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate the safety of new and existing chemicals and acts to address any unreasonable risks chemicals may have on human health and the environment via a three-stage process that includes prioritization, risk evaluation, and risk management. Effective federal oversight, such as TSCA, is designed to give Americans greater confidence that chemicals in commerce are being used safely and responsibly.