Common consumer products - from laundry soap to cleaning products - are made through chemical materials and processes. However, many consumers are unaware of the potential hazards these chemicals may pose to their health. A growing trend in the manufacturing and retail industries involves informing customers about the materials in their products, and even taking one step further to reduce chemical exposure by eliminating hazardous chemicals, according to Green Biz.
One of the ways manufacturers can help lower people's exposure to harmful chemicals or substances found in everyday items is by incorporating green chemistry. Green chemistry is defined as designing chemical products and processes that will phase out or remove hazardous substances, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Health effects of hazardous chemicals
Hazardous chemicals can also generate potentially harmful fumes, including volatile organic compounds. Also known as VOCs, these gases can be emitted from a large number of items, including paints and lacquers, building materials and even office equipment like copiers. When VOCs are released into the air, they can affect the quality of the air, especially indoor air as concentrations of VOCs can reach up to 10 times higher indoors than out, according to the EPA.
Building occupants exposed to VOCs could experience long term health effects. These effects can range from eye, nose and throat irritation to damage to vital organ systems like the liver and kidneys. As chemicals can affect the health of those who handle them on a daily basis, both the public and private sectors are working together to eliminate potential chemical hazards.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently released a toolkit for employers to find ways to substitute or eliminate the use of harmful substances.
"Considering safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals is not a new approach," OSHA said. "Thinking about safer alternatives allows employers, workers, and decision-makers to identify solutions, rather than continuing to evaluate and quantify the problem. This approach can reduce costs and keep businesses competitive."
Green chemistry market to grow to $98.5 billion
In a study cited by the EPA and conducted by Pike Research, green chemistry has the potential to save industries $65.5 billion by 2020. The study showed manufacturers can reduce manufacturing costs by incorporating safer chemicals in their products and processes. Alternatives to standard petroleum-based feedstocks can include renewable sources, which can be produced from wood, agricultural waste or other materials. The study found sustainable sourcing from these materials can be done at a lower cost than petroleum products.
In addition to cost savings, manufacturers can also benefit from shrinking their environmental footprint. Hazardous chemicals can also generate greenhouse gas emissions as well as reach toxic levels. Companies that are committed to corporate responsibility in raising environmental awareness and increasing their sustainability should consider switching to green chemicals.
"The worldwide chemical industry is valued at around $4 trillion, so even small improvements in efficiency can have very large impacts," said Mackinnon Lawrence, senior analyst at Pike Research. "Just by bringing laggard companies up to the baseline standard of the industry as a whole, it's possible to capture more than $40 billion in cost savings and avoided liabilities."
The green chemistry market is projected to expand to $98.5 billion by 2020 from just $2.8 billion in 2011, according to Pike Research. The shift from hazardous to green chemicals is approaching quickly as government entities such as the state of California have introduced laws that require manufacturers to find safer alternatives and processes. According to Green Biz, businesses are also taking on more responsibility to eliminate hazardous chemicals. For example, Walmart recently called for informed substitution as consumers are becoming more concerned about the effects of the products the retailer sells.