Susan discusses problems we face as we work to remake our material world with healthy and safe materials.
Prior to joining the Institute, I spent more than 15 years conducting research on chemical contaminants in the environment, studying to what extent they accumulated in wildlife and their potential toxicity. The first paragraph of every research paper I wrote began with answering the questions: ‘Why are we studying these chemicals?’ and ‘How did they end up in the estuary or in the dust in our homes?’ The answer was, because they were or are still used in consumer products that surround us -- flame retardants in furniture and baby products, surfactants in detergents, and antibacterial chemicals, plasticizers, and other chemicals in a variety of personal care products and other common household items.
After reporting to what extent these chemicals have accumulated in our homes and environment, I concluded the reports by answering the questions: ‘So what does this mean?’ and ‘Are the chemicals going to negatively harm us or wildlife?’ And the answer was always the same: “The chemicals have been associated with a wide variety of effects but few toxicity studies have been conducted and therefore the potential impacts are for the most part unknown.”
With the burden of proof of safety on the government and the general public rather than the chemical industry, it has been impossible to sufficiently test the nearly 100,000 chemicals used today in commerce for their potential toxicity.
Meanwhile, while we wait for additional toxicity studies, chemicals continue to accumulate in people and the environment. I studied numerous examples of industrial chemicals such as PCBs and the PBDE flame retardants that were produced and used for decades before their potential to cause harm was fully recognized. Their use was eventually regulated or phased out, but only after much of the damage had been done and they were in our bodies, our homes, and our environment.
Too often these restrictions lead to the use of chemicals that are less well studied and it takes years before we learn that they are just as harmful as the chemicals they replaced.
After finding out that baby products sold today contained a carcinogenic chemical that was phased out of children’s pajamas in the 1970s, I decided to play a more active role in helping to stop this ‘whack-a-mole’ chemical use cycle.
I joined the team at the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute so that I could help designers and manufacturers make better products -- products that not only contain chemicals that are safe for people and the environment, but products that can also be recycled for future uses and are manufactured using responsible practices.
My favorite aspect of the Cradle to Cradle product certification program is that it inherently recognizes that changing product design and manufacturing processes is not easy. As a continuous improvement quality standard, the program provides a pathway for improvement over time and acknowledges that innovation is needed to take each step to higher and higher levels of C2C product certification.
A commitment to design better products following the Cradle to Cradle principles is all that is needed to get started.