Safer Alternatives to Toxic Chemicals

More than 80,000 synthetic chemicals have been produced and used in the workplace since the early 1940's. Now, almost 70 years later, very few of these have ever been adequately tested for their potential impact on our health. OSHA regulates a handful of these chemicals and has established acceptable risk levels for worker exposure. However, employees are still working in environments where they are exposed to harmful chemicals.

Scientific evidence increasingly shows that many of these toxic chemicals at work and at home are contributing to an epidemic of diseases such as: asthma, birth defects, cancers, developmental disabilities, diabetes, endometriosis, infertility, Parkinson's disease, as well as others.

There are Safer Alternatives out there that can be used to substitute harmful chemicals for safer ones. Choosing Safer Alternatives to these chemicals will prevent work related illnesses and improve worker health and safety. Innovative industries and green chemistry can create safer products and good-quality, long-term jobs that are needed in Massachusetts, and which are increasingly in demand in today's economy.

Building Environmental Labor Alliances

MassCOSH has played a leadership role in engaging support from labor organizations, including the state AFL-CIO, regional labor councils, and union locals with the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow. The Alliance is a coalition whose goal is to correct fundamental flaws in government policies that allow harm to our health and environment. Working together, the Alliance and its labor partners have supported legislative efforts in passing a bill to require state agencies and public offices to use non-toxic cleaning supplies. In July 2006, Governor Mitt Romney passed the Mercury Products Bill in order to curb mercury pollution in Massachusetts. Passage of the Bill has been a top priority for the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow. It is expected to dramatically reduce emissions of mercury from municipal waste incinerators, one of the largest airborne sources of mercury in the Bay State. The Bill will also improve workplace health and safety by requiring non-mercury products, such as blood pressure cuffs and school science lab chemicals, as well as recycling programs, to safely manage energy efficient bulbs which still have trace amounts of mercury. The success of the Alliance's Blue-Green Alliance Building suggests that the partnership of labor, environmental, and community groups will continue to facilitate progressive policy change in Massachusetts.


Report: MassCOSH's staff union and National Blue-Green work on toxic chemicals[PDF]


Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) 5 Chemical Project

Labor won a legislative victory requiring the state to provide information on replacing toxic chemicals with safer alternatives for 5 toxic chemicals. This study is just the first step in changing the way we approach chemical hazards in our workplaces and communities.

A survey of 25 union locals, conducted in 2006 by MassCOSH, asked unions about five chemicals that TURI was studying with which their members work and whether they would have an interest in learning more about substituting hazardous chemicals with safer ones. While most expressed a strong interest in being involved with decisions about the chemicals they use, many responded that they lack information about chemical hazards.

The primary toxics to be addressed are the five chemicals for which the TURI study has completed a detailed review: perchloroethylene, formaldehyde, DEHP, lead, and hexavalentchromium.

"The TURI study shows that there is credible scientific evidence that these five chemicals are very dangerous to workers and consumers and should be replaced by safer substitutes," said Tolle Graham, Healthy Schools Coordinator at MassCOSH.

View: 5 Toxic Chemicals chart and Safer Alternatives Toolbox [Powerpoint]

"As an individual who suffers from asthma and allergies, I am hopeful that the findings of the TURI 5 Chemical Alternatives Assessment Study will be used by businesses and industries to use those that will maintain a safer, cleaner and healthier Commonwealth," said Representative Frank Smizik (D-Brookline), co-chair of the joint Committee on Natural Resources, Environment and Agriculture.

Toxics Use Reduction (TUR) Union Capacity Building Initiative

The overall goal of the Union TUR Capacity Building Initiative is to promote product substitution (replacing harmful products with safer ones) by building a group of unions that are knowledgeable about and actively promote TUR in their workplaces and in their public policies. Specific goals of the project are to:

  • educate unions about toxics use reduction and safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals, and
  • encourage unions to act by assisting them in identifying chemicals of concern and concrete action steps for moving toward safer alternatives and toxics use reduction.

The Union TUR Capacity Building Initiative builds on the TURI 5 Chemical Project, a pilot outreach project that MassCOSH conducted in 2006 to investigate union awareness of chemicals and safer alternatives. The results of the chemical survey found that:

  • many unions lack hazard information about the full range of chemicals used
  • the majority of unions contacted are not familiar with TUR and TURI
  • the majority of union contacts were interested in more information about safer alternatives for these chemicals and others, and
  • safer alternatives are not tracked in ways that the unions were aware of, indicating that most workers have little input into decisions about chemical substitution.

MassCOSH staff discovered that many union representatives had never been asked about the specific chemicals they use.

MassCOSH, local unions, and health and safety activists are continuing to take leaps to achieve safer alternatives in the workplace by promoting the use of nontoxic chemicals through legislation and workplace action.

You are key to making health and safety changes in your workplace. Use the Toxic Chemical Survey to identify health and safety hazards in your workplace--toxic chemicals are not worth your health.

Contact MassCOSH for help with health and safety action steps you can take.