Green Chemistry and Chemicals Policy: Innovative Approaches to Addressing Occupational Hazards

Presented By:Michael P. Wilson, PhD, MPH and Megan R. Schwarzman, MD, MPH
Program in Green Chemistry and Chemicals Policy Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, UC, Berkeley School of Public Health

Because many industrial processes involve close contact with hazardous substances, workers are disproportionately affected by diseases associated with chemical exposures. In 2004 – the most recent year for which data are available – there were over 200,000 cases of occupational disease directly attributable to chemical exposures in California workplaces. These diseases are eminently preventable. As it stands, however, prevention is stymied by gaps in knowledge about the toxic effects of chemicals, the scope of workplace exposures, and the extent of the diseases they contribute to.

Traditional approaches to mitigate occupational chemical exposures have been largely ineffective, relying on monitoring and re-location of hazards, rather than prioritizing prevention in the design phase of chemical and manufacturing processes. To date, for example, permissible exposure limits have been established for only 193 (7%) of 3,000 High Production Volume Chemicals in the U.S.

Lacking an effective legal structure, even the most hazardous chemical substances continue to be price-competitive in the market. With some 42 billion pounds of industrial chemicals entering commerce each day in the U.S., new strategies are needed to reduce hazardous workplace exposures. .

The field of green chemistry focuses on the design, manufacture and use of chemicals, products and processes to reduce or eliminate adverse effects on human health and ecosystems. Advancements in the field will support businesses and industries, as well as communities, workers and public agencies in their efforts to minimize the use of toxic chemicals in industrial processes and products. Advancements in green chemistry practices can also open new opportunities for green collar jobs, while at the same time ensuring that these new jobs are also safer jobs.
In addition to presenting the findings of our recent report to California EPA, Green Chemistry: Cornerstone to a Sustainable California (http://coeh.berkeley.edu/greenchemistry/briefing), we will address the following topics:

  • Long-standing weaknesses in federal policy that have produced a flawed chemicals market in the U.S. and the consequences of these failed policies for the public, workers and the environment
  • New European Union policies and efforts that are opening new possibilities for a new approach to chemicals policy in the U.S..
  • Implications of green chemistry for occupational and environmental health
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