The story of the Sambhavna Clinic, a non-profit holistic health clinic in Bhopal, India, built to treat those injured by the Union Carbide toxic gas release in 1984. enlarge video
HCWH's co-founder Gary Cohen is a recipient of the prestigious Skoll Award. This video, chronicling the evolution of HCWH's work, premiered at the 2009 Skoll World Forum. enlarge video
- Why are Chemicals a Health Problem?
- Chemical Related Diseases
- Gaps in Chemical Regulations
- Why We Need New Chemical Policies
- Transforming the Chemical Economy
Why are Chemicals a Health Problem?
The ubiquitous exposure to toxic chemicals in everyday life has increasingly become a health concern. Unfortunately, many products used in health care contribute to hazardous exposures — including cleaners and disinfectants, phthalates in medical devices, flame retardants in furniture, formaldehyde in furniture and solvents in labs.
Emerging scientific research is raising the level of concern about the health impacts of chronic chemical exposures. We now know that:
- Even small doses of chemicals can cause disease — interfering with sexual development, disrupting hormones and causing cancer at very low levels.
- Children and developing babies are most vulnerable. See Our Stolen Future.
- Hundreds of synthetic chemicals are found in human breast milk and in the cord blood of babies in the womb. See Body Burden: The Pollution in Newborns (pdf)
- Chemicals can act like drugs in our body, disrupting systems at low levels of exposure, and potentially causing harm in combination. See Bringing Order to Chemical Chaos (doc)
Chemical Related Diseases
As chemical use has grown in industrialized societies, so have chemical-related diseases, including cancer, asthma, birth defects, developmental disabilities, autism, endometriosis and infertility. Mounting scientific evidence links the incidence of these diseases in part to environmental toxicants.
In the US today:
- 1 in 2 American men and 1 in 3 American women are expected to get cancer in their lifetimes.
- Asthma and learning disabilities, which are associated with chemical exposures, have risen. Dozens of now common conditions such as birth defects and low sperm count are strongly linked to some chemicals in the environment.
Gaps in Chemical Regulations
Despite the clear links between pollution and health, the laws created to protect the public and workers are inadequate. Independent reviews of our nation's laws to regulate chemicals have found they:
- Fail to provide for adequate testing of existing and new chemicals and materials, such as nanomaterials, so that we are ignorant of the full hazards of most chemicals, 
- Fail to regulate known hazards because laws don't give regulators adequate authority
- Fail to provide incentives for safer alternatives to come to market
- Fail to provide individuals with the right to participate in a decision-making process regarding chemical use in their community or workplace
Why We Need New Chemical Policies
Addressing chemicals on a chemical-by-chemical basis has proven insufficient. Many environmental purchasing programs and environmental campaigns target specific chemicals of concern for reduction. However, hazardous chemicals remain in commerce because:
- Manufacturers switch from a targeted chemical to an untested or unlisted chemical that is not necessarily preferable
- The chemical-by-chemical approach is very costly and slow
- When the government fails to require manufacturers to perform toxicity testing, the burden is on the public to finance testing and environmental monitoring of chemicals in commerce, further slowing change.
Transforming the Chemical Economy
Health care institutions have a particular ethical responsibility to use products containing chemicals that pose less risk to human health. A growing number of hospitals are taking a "better safe than sorry" approach to chemicals — eliminating suspected hazards and switching to safer alternatives. Benefits of this approach to the bottom line can include reduced disposal costs, reduced liability and improved health for employees.
As health care and other large institutions are addressing these problems, leading industries are getting the message.
Dell, IKEA, H&M, Collins & Aikman, Herman Miller and Shaw Carpets are examples of companies committing to using safer chemicals. Innovation is both feasible and profitable and other companies need to set similar goals and get active.
Read the case studies of leading companies that are working to clean up their chemical supply chains in Clean Production Action's Healthy Business Strategies for Transforming the Toxic Chemical Economy (pdf).
New regulations in Europe and in various US states are also beginning to address the inadequate regulation of chemicals. For more about government reform efforts in the EU and US.
1. CHE Toxicant and Disease database
2. American Cancer Society, Cancer Facts & Figures 2007 (pdf)
3. Chemical Regulation: Options Exist to Improve EPA's Ability to Assess Health Risks and Manage Its Chemical Review Program, GAO-05-458, US Government Accounting Office, 6/05 (pdf)
4. Jennifer Sass, Nanotechnology's Invisible Threat: Small Science, Big Consequences, Natural Resources Defense Council (pdf)
5. Michael P. Wilson, Green Chemistry in California: A Framework for Leadership in Chemicals Policy and Innovation, California Policy Research Center (pdf)
- Chemical Policy Principles: Letter to Obama Administration
- Common Substances in Hospitals May Cause Asthma: HCWH report (pdf) Read the press release
- Dioxin, PVC, and Health Care Institutions (pdf)
- EWG Survey links chemical exposures on the job to diseases in nurses
Environmental Working Group website
- Europe's Rules Forcing US Firms to Clean Up
Unwilling to surrender sales, companies struggle to meet the EU's tough stand on toxics (LA Times article)
- Green Chemistry in California
U.C. Berkeley website
- Healthy Business Strategies for Transforming the Toxic Chemical Economy (pdf)
- International Agency for Research on Cancer website
- REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals)
Learn about EU's REACH Law
- Sustainable Hospital Project
database of alternatives
- Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website
- US state-level reform efforts
The state of Maine seeks to ban bisphenol-A (BPA) as the first "priority chemical" in their Kids-Safe Product Act
- US Kid-Safe Chemicals Act
- What does Chemical Contamination Cost Health Care? download pdf or view web presentation