Why do chemicals in our air and water have to be unsafe?

A brave new world known as “green chemistry” seeks to reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances in the design, use and disposal of products. Photo by Thinkstock

Dear EarthTalk: So many chemicals in everyday products are harmful to our health and the environment. Why aren’t we developing safer alternatives?

Donna Langston

Asheville, N.C.

Researchers today are beginning to question the safety of many chemicals used in consumer products. Studies have linked Bisphenol A (BPA), flame retardants, phthalates and many other chemicals found in everyday products to a wide range of health problems, including cancer, learning and behavioral problems and reproductive illnesses.

Despite the federal government’s slowness in calling for it, nonprofit labs and for-profit companies alike have been busy developing safer alternatives to some of these harsher chemicals. The brave new world of “green chemistry,” in which reducing or eliminating the use or generation of hazardous substances is top priority in the design, use and disposal of products, is leading to a rash of new, safer ingredients.

Companies looking to put a “BPA-free” sticker on their bottles, for instance, can make them instead with Eastman Tritan copolyester, a plastic alternative that doesn’t disrupt hormones as Nalgene and CamelBak do.

Phthalates — used to soften plastic toys — can be replaced with a product called Grindsted Soft-N-Safe, made from acetic acid and castor oil from the castor plant.

Formaldehyde adhesives used to make plywood and other wood products can be replaced with soy-based resins, wood fibers and plastic-wood fibers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) supports the effort through its sponsorship of the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards. The annual awards program recognizes and helps fund efforts to reduce the amount of hazardous substances released into the environment or entering the waste stream and efforts that reduce the public health hazards associated with the release of such substances.

But while the EPA has the power to spur green chemistry, it is powerless to ban many dangerous chemicals in widespread use. The 1976 law that still governs use of many chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), presumes that chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. TSCA has failed to require basic testing for the toxicity of some 62,000 chemicals grandfathered in when the law was first passed.

“Once thought to pose little likelihood of exposure, we now know many chemicals migrate from the materials and products in which they’re used — including furniture, plastics and food cans — into our bodies,” reports the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign. The campaign warns that just about every American carries hundreds of these chemicals in their bloodstreams.

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) recently introduced a bill, the Safe Chemicals Act, aimed at overhauling the outdated TSCA. It would require safety testing of all existing chemicals and would promote so-called green chemistry and the development of safe alternatives to unsafe chemicals.

The act would provide the EPA with the authority it needs to protect public health, while enabling the marketplace to innovate safe products, reports Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund. The bill’s sponsors say it expects to have widespread support on both sides of the partisan divide.

Dear EarthTalk: I’m looking for the best places to search for green jobs but am having trouble locating them on traditional job search sites. Where should I look?

 H. Jenkins

Biloxi, Miss.

With the environment now high atop the public agenda, green jobs are more popular than ever. Defined by www.eco.org (a leading green jobs website) as any job in any company where the primary focus is on reducing the impacts of our activities or products on the environment, green jobs serve to maximize efficient use of resources while minimizing degradation of the planet from pollution and waste.

“Eco-jobs can range from engineering a photovoltaic solar cell to designing a building for more energy efficiency to landscaping a yard to minimize erosion to finding more sustainable forestry techniques,” reports www.eco.org.

While you may be hard pressed to find environmental job opportunities on general employment search websites, sites like www.eco.org that specialize in green job listings can make your search easy. Also, many general environmental sites have employment sub-sections. Green job seekers and employers alike use these websites to find each other and get their work done, whether in the nonprofit or for-profit worlds.

The www.eco.org site prides itself on hosting a wide range of listings from colleges, environmental and other nonprofit groups, media outlets and government agencies. With Google and Bing listing the site first for the search term “eco,” the website generates hundreds of thousands of page visits per month from thousands of green job seekers and employers and also keeps its audience engaged through social networking.

Another leader in the field is the nonprofit Green Jobs Network, which provides online services including a green job board and a 20,000-member group on the professional networking site LinkedIn. The group also uses its www.GreenJobs.net website as a platform for webinars, and is the home of the frequently updated Green Collar Blog, which provides career resources and information on the green jobs sector.

Environmental Career Opportunities (www.ecojobs.com) is another tried-and-true source for green job listings. Some 50,000 targeted job seekers subscribe to the company’s bi-weekly newsletter that contains unique green job opportunities. Still other places to look for green jobs include www.EcoEmploy.com and the Environmental Career Center.

Another site, www.Greenjobs.com, focuses on job opportunities specifically in the renewable energy sector. Jobseekers can use the website to apply for jobs, post their resume, obtain guidance on finding and applying for jobs, gain background information on the renewable energy sector and access a directory of relevant companies and organizations. Employers can take advantage of the firm’s recruitment services.

Browsing job listings at other more general environmental websites could also turn up that perfect opportunity. SustainableBusiness.com and the U.S. Green Building Council feature extensive green job listings as sub-sections of their websites.

And yet another way to find a green job is to sniff around the website of a company, organization or institution in your field of interest for specific job listings — or better yet, call them on the phone to find out if there are any openings.

EarthTalk is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free trial issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.