Each object that we buy, use and then throw away at the end of its life is a compound of chemical substances which, linked together, offer the aesthetic, physical and use characteristics that we require.
The chemical content of the product is the sum of a long chain of activities, which arrives upstream through the production chain.
The manufacture of an object can involve many elements, from a few common chemicals, up to hundreds of synthetic chemicals. Take for example a typical household cleaning product that may contain a dozen different chemicals, or an electronic gadget that could be the result of several hundred substances used in its manufacture.
Some chemical compounds end up in the final product while others serve as intermediates in the production chain.
Most likely some toxic chemicals could be part of the mixture needed for its production, in fact, chemicals with special attributes are used to obtain some properties of the product such as durability, texture, color or fragrances, etc.
It is no coincidence that chemicals with toxic properties can be abundant among these special chemicals, for example, the effort to create "durable" properties (such as water-repellent fabrics) tends to favor chemicals that are more difficult to recognize and to break down for biological and living systems, in fact, they can resist to dissolution and can reach high harmful levels in nature.
So it can be assumed that toxic substances may also be part of some products that we could use.
Let's see some families of chemicals:
Plastics are a large group of polymer-based materials.
Commonly used polymers are polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS) and polyurethane (PU or PUR). However, the list of polymers is much longer and new recipes and additives are constantly associated.
The mixing of different polymers (such as multilayer materials) is also a normal process that serves to improve the functioning of plastics. The choice of the polymer to be used in production depends on the desired function.
Almost all polymers are produced from petroleum-derived fossil raw material. Bio-based polymers, such as PLA made from agricultural raw materials, are increasingly used although they still have a very marginal market share.
Some limitations of their development depend on a not negligible ecological impact in their production.
Most plastics contain numerous additives (functional chemicals) to improve performance. The amount of additives applied can vary from 0 to 95% depending on the polymer and the type of product.
Many of the negative properties of plastics often come from additives rather than the polymers themselves.
These are normally used to soften plastics. In fact, while some polymers are inherently "soft", other polymers require significant amounts of plasticizers to become flexible. PVC is the typical polymer where an important use of plasticizers is made.
Phthalates are a common group of plasticizers that are used in large quantities, often around 30-60% of the total composition of plastic. Several phthalates have dangerous properties, as we have seen in a recent article .
Since phthalates are not chemically bound to the plastic material and can escape from the product, it is likely that end users will be exposed to them during its use or even through food chain, as phthalates can be absorbed into the environment.
Flame retardants are used to make a product less flammable and, based on the technical characteristics of the product to be made, the commitment of these additives may be required .
Examples of such uses can be found, for example, in protective clothing, curtains and fabrics used in furniture, to name but a few. Some flame retardants currently used, particularly halogenated compounds, have been shown to have hazardous properties, and some are subject to international and / or national regulations.
Historically, brominated flame retardants (BFRs) have been widely used, proving to be toxic as they bio-accumulate and persist in the environment.
The regulation of chemicals in products is a relatively recent achievement, in fact it has not always been this way. For decades, chemicals have been little or no regulated, with some specific exemptions, while the vast majority of chemicals could be used without the need to provide evidence of their safety.
If a substance had been identified as a serious toxic pollutant, it was discovered more by coincidence rather than on the basis of systematic examination. No general testing of chemicals for harmful properties was normally required.
This has changed slightly in the last few years. The EU has enforced REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals), a comprehensive legal framework covering all chemicals in use, requiring companies that market chemicals to submit a set of test data .
The US equivalent, TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act), sets out some basic requirements but has a much more limited scope.
What is REACH
In 2007 the European Union introduced a comprehensive framework legislation for chemicals called Reach. This requires companies, which manufacture or import chemicals, to register them with a central agency (ECHA, based in Finland).
With registration, companies must also report the basic properties of the chemical and, if produced / imported in larger volumes, also information indicating whether substance is dangerous.
The aim is to make producers and importers responsible for the products they put on the market and to improve knowledge of the chemicals used. The REACH regulation also contains a system for the "authorized use only" of chemicals that are highly hazardous to health and the environment.
What is the TSCA
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is a US regulation that covers the manufacture, processing, distribution, use and disposal of commercial chemicals and industrial. Introduced in 1976, it mainly focuses on new substances introduced after TSCA recognition.
What is RoHS
RoHS is a European Union directive introduced in 2006 to limit the use of certain hazardous chemicals in the manufacture of electronic and electrical equipment. Currently prohibits or restricts ten substances / groups of substances; 4 heavy metals, 4 phthalates and 2 groups of brominated flame retardants.
What is California “Proposition 65”.
In 1986, the State of California introduced the "Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act", but more often referred to as "Proposition 65".
Requires the state to publish a list of known chemicals that can cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm. The list is updated frequently and currently includes around 800 chemicals.
The law requires companies to notify Californians of significant quantities of chemicals in products they buy, in their homes or workplaces, or that are released in 'environment.
Proposition 65 also prohibits Californian companies from knowingly discharging significant quantities of listed chemicals in the presence of drinking water strata.
Automatic translation. We apologize for any inaccuracies. Original article in Italian.