Divulging the Toxins in Household Products with OnEarth‘s Laura Wright-Treadway
June 27, 2011
Laura Wright-Treadway joins “Green is Good” to discuss her recently published OnEarth article, “Pure Chemistry.” The genesis of the article stems from increased pressure from consumers for manufacturers to divulge their ingredients and processes, and to use safer, greener ingredients.
There is a certain degree of push and pull, of course. Manufacturers are weary of giving away their recipes for their products, while consumers, particularly those with young children, fear that their household products are chock full of toxins. As a result, some brands have chosen to release “eco-friendly” formulas while continuing to produce their namesake product.
“Consumer awareness has been growing over the past several years when it comes to chemicals, not only in the environment, but also when it comes to the things we eat and drink and put on our bodies,” Wright-Treadway explains. “At the same time, we’re tuned into the fact that other countries are significantly ahead of us when it comes to keeping these things out of our bodies.”
TranscriptionJOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and Mike, today we are so honored to have on the line with us from New York City, New York, Laura Wright-Treadway, who’s a New York City-based journalist with OnEarth magazine. She’s just written a brilliant article called “Pure Chemistry.” She’s also OnEarth magazine’s favorite science geek. Welcome to Green is Good, Laura.
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here with you.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Laura, what a great article your latest article, “Pure Chemistry,” is in OnEarth magazine. I’ve read it. Mike and I love the magazine, and to us it’s sort of just an extension of what we do here on Green is Good, spread the word of what’s going on and hopefully enlighten and educate our listeners, not only here in the United States, but around the world. As I shared with you off air a little bit before we went on, we’ve had at Jeffrey Hollender on the show from Seventh Generation on this issue of chemistry in our household goods. Tell us, how did you come to write this article, and what was the interest that you had in it?
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: There are a couple of things that came into play. There was a lot of interest in this topic at the magazine; there has been for some time now. As I’m sure your listeners know, consumer awareness has been growing over the past several years when it comes to chemicals, not only in the environment, but in the things we eat and drink and put on our bodies and give our kids to play with. We were really tuned into this growing consumer awareness that’s out there now, and at the same time, we’re also really tuned into the fact that other countries, not just countries but all of Europe and our northern neighbor, Canada, they are all pretty significantly ahead of us when it comes to keeping these things out of our products, our food, and our bodies, ultimately. That was really what drove us to want to do this story.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right. For our listeners out there, please go read Laura’s article. It’s brilliant. www.onearth.org. It’s called “Pure Chemistry.” It’s right on the landing page. Laura, talk a little bit about the push-pull of the American corporation who historically hasn’t been forced to be transparent with regards to the products that they produce in terms of safeness and toxicology and the sort of green revolution, sustainability revolution, and the pressures that they feel now. How are they balancing this act, and where do you see this today, and where do you see this movement going?
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: Well, as I said before, a lot of this comes from consumer pressure, people just knowing a lot more. A lot of the companies out there are really tuned into this now. There’s been a lot of push to people pressuring companies that sell cleaning products, for example, to put on the label what really is in there. They’ve been hearing a lot of people saying, “I want to know what’s going on the floors that my kid crawls on.” That has led companies like Clorox and Proctor & Gamble and SC Johnson that make all of these brand name products that line all of the shelves in the major retailers out there to find ways to disclose what’s in there. That may sound small, but it’s really an important starting point because there’s so much that we don’t know about the safety of all these individual ingredients. Just getting the information out there in the public realm has been a good first starting point for a lot of these companies. There’s also the fact that you don’t really want to come out and say, “We know that there’s a problem with our products, and we’re going to make them better now,” because that says that you knew that there was something that was not so great all along. There’s really a lot of tension here, and a lot of companies have expressed concern over confidential business information. They don’t want to give away their recipes and their secrets for their wonderful bestselling cleaning product. It has been kind of a bumpy road to get to where we are now, and there certainly will be some bumps going forward. We’re at least right now at a point where things seem to be progressing and moving in a direction that’s good for the environment and for people.
MIKE BRADY: That’s certainly good to hear and very heartening news, but Laura, I just have a question. Addressing what you mentioned at the outset, the fact that our neighbors in European countries and our Canadian neighbors seem to be ahead of the curve, or at least ahead of the U.S. on this. Let me ask you, was that fostered by a consumer movement, consumers asking questions and demanding more responsibility from companies? How, exactly, did that go? Was that more a government organizational push?
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: To the extent of my knowledge, it was a little bit of both. Certainly, consumer pressure came into the picture, but also there’s a different sort of culture, particularly in Europe, when it comes to looking at preventing problems before they arise, as opposed to solving them afterwards. Governmentally, there’s a different approach, and it created an environment that was a little more hospitable to this way of thinking about the products that we manufacture and consume as an individuals.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s give the audience some of the wow numbers that you uncovered when you were writing this great article called “Pure Chemistry.” How many chemicals are all around us, and how many of these chemicals are on the market today? How many have been tested for safety?
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: That is a good question. There are about 82,000 chemicals that are registered and approved for manufacturing today. Some are produced in vast quantities, some in smaller amounts, but the number is really significant. The number of those that were registered with some sort of safety information is surprisingly small. It’s only about 3,300. That has a lot to do with the fact that we didn’t really even think much about this at all until the late seventies. At that point, we already had something in the range of 60,000 chemicals in production at the time. Those were all just given a free pass. Since then, those that have been registered for production, the 3,300 number amounts to only about 15% of those that were registered with some sort of safety information.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Today, are there laws in place regulating these chemicals, or is that part of the evolution that we’re talking about today?
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: There is a law. There’s one law called the Toxic Substances Control Act. It’s a bit of a mouthful. It was passed in 1976, on the tail end of when a lot of environmental laws were being put on the books, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Those bedrock environmental laws have done wonders to clean up the air and the water. At the time, when people started to think about how about all these other chemicals and the products we produce, people sort of felt as though the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, we were really covering our bases in terms of the types of pollution that would affect human health and environmental health. It just didn’t really occur to people that once you put these chemicals into plastic toys, in TV sets, that they might actually get back out and get into our bodies. It wasn’t a matter of dumping into the environment; it was something more insidious and less expected. There is a law, but it’s out of date. There’s some pressure to update it now for sure.
MIKE BRADY: It’s funny because you talk about the numbers of chemicals that are out there and in common use today, but quoting from your article, today the Centers for Disease Control routinely test Americans’ blood for the presence of 219 classes of chemicals as part of the annual national health and nutritional examination survey. Other studies, you go on to say, have detected as many as 493 chemicals in our blood. Amazing number.
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: It’s really shocking, isn’t it?
JOHN SHEGERIAN: One thing, Laura, that I love about your article is you talk about solutions and who’s on the cutting edge of solutions and who’s doing what, and that’s what’s so great about your article called “Pure Chemistry.” You’ve already mentioned the gaps of how many chemicals are out there, how many have been really tested, what we really don’t know in the marketplace. But who’s now on the cutting edge of being solution-based? Talk a little bit about what you uncovered about the University of California – Berkeley and their Center for Green Chemistry, and what that really means for all of us.
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: Absolutely. There is a lot of reason to be hopeful and not just to bury your head in the sand when thinking about this topic. I came across a lot of people who really doing fascinating and important work to try and change things. The University of California at Berkeley is one such place, where they’re taking the idea of building chemicals that are benign from the outset and taking it to another level. I’ll just start by saying that green chemistry has been growing over the past 10 years or so. Green chemistry refers to creating chemicals that are benign by design, that are not going to wreak havoc on our delicate balance of proteins and hormones and everything that makes us tick. They’re taking this concept, and they’re saying, “We want not only chemists to know how to do this, to design smarter, but we want the businesspeople who will be marketing and selling these products, the public health officials who will be helping to design regulations for these things, we want everyone to know how the process should work going forward.” So, they’ve got several different schools there that are all working together to try to advance a new way of thinking about the way we design molecules and, ultimately, the products we buy.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Laura, there are two fascinating examples in your article with regards to benign by design. Can you please give that 1% example that you gave in your article to our listeners, why it’s so critical that this next generation of students are learning to design and chemists are learning to design by design?
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: There was an example that was given to me by an executive at Dow Chemical of a product that they were looking to develop internally. They wanted to build this superplastic, and they’d made a great deal of progress and spent many millions of dollars developing it. Eventually, it got to the phase where they were testing it for safety, and they discovered in their studies that about 1% of the population was seriously allergic to this stuff. When you think about what 1% of the human population means, that’s many millions of people. They knew right away that they couldn’t take it any further, that they had to stop right there and just say this is a wash. That’s a big loss for them in terms of research and development time, as well as a lot of money. You do that over and over again, and it really starts to hurt your bottom line. That’s just one example of where a major company is starting to see how this way of thinking can really help and to hire a chemist who is trained to think about how a molecule might function once it gets into the human body, what sort of reactions might go on based on the chemical structure, you save yourself a lot of time and money by not even developing something that you already could say, “I know that there’s something that looks like this molecule that’s very toxic. Let’s just not even develop that.” That’s the way of thinking that ultimately saves time and money for major companies.
MIKE BRADY: It’s amazing too because, again, it goes back to what you stated at the beginning, about the European nations and our Canadian neighbors too, the mindset of problem solving by thinking ahead and what can go wrong with this picture, and let’s solve that problem now before we get started.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Also, explain again the green chemistry issue. What does really green chemistry mean for our students out there and our young entrepreneurs out there and also our big executives out there? The importance of green chemistry as a future trend.
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: There are a lot of reasons why green chemistry is really important as a future trend. When the two pioneers of the field set out to advance this new way of thinking, they weren’t just thinking about making chemicals that are benign by design; they were also thinking about all of the waste that comes with designing molecules. You could just as easily make something in two steps rather than 12, and that means you’ve got a lot of savings there. That’s green chemistry at work. You’re finding ways to cut steps out of the process. You save time and money in that way and resources. It’s one component of the whole, which helps to not only save money in the end when we’re talking about cleaning up our messes, but also time and effort as well.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right. When you were talking about UC – Berkeley in your article, you talked about the multidisciplinary approach and program that they have. Talk a little bit about the word I saw for the first time in your article, bioneer. What does the word bioneer mean with regards to green chemistry and the article that you’ve written?
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: Bioneers are best known for their annual conference, which brings together lots of different sustainability-minded folks to talk about cutting edge ideas within the field of the environment and sustainability. They, last year, had one of the founders of green chemistry come to talk about this growing trend and what it means going forward and why it’s so important. It’s been an incubator for helping this idea to continue to grow and gain momentum. Through that, increasingly, there’s been more and more consumer awareness of what’s going on and what the better alternatives could be.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. You have the example about the new superplastic that was designed but negatively affected 1% of the population, and therefore it was scrapped. Mike and I always talk about with our guests the three tenets of sustainability, people, planet, and profits. Talk a little bit about when you now use green chemistry and also benign by design programs, these big companies like Dow and other great companies, how does that positively affect their bottom lines?
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: One example is I spoke a good deal to someone from Staples. Staples not only sells paper and pencils to regular old consumers like you and me, but they also have a very large business to business branch that serves about 65% of all Fortune 100 companies. That supplies them with all the cleaning products and janitorial supplies that they need to run their huge complexes. Over the past few years, Staples has developed a Sustainable Earth by Staples line that has been growing considerably among their business clients. They get requests from customers saying, “We want to use your products, but we don’t want such and such chemicals.” They’ll provide a list of the things they know they do not want in those products. Some of them are things that consumers are already really aware of, like BPA, which became famous over the past few years for its presence in baby bottles and sport bottles, and the fact that it can leech out and it’s now being found in people. They’re saying to their suppliers at the outset, “We’ll take your products, but we don’t want them if they have these nasty chemicals.” It’s really a great business opportunity for those who are getting in on the game.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you’re saying it’s good for the bottom line because it’s also a good sales tool to be more transparent about what really is the chemicals that these folks are using.
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: Absolutely.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talking about that, Mike and I had two shows with Jeffrey Hollender from Seventh Generation on, and Mike and I were literally fascinated and hung on every word that he said. Our listeners also responded so well to those two shows. Talk a little bit about gaps in the marketplace and growing and new companies that have filled some of those gaps, like Method and Seventh Generation. Do you want to share what you’ve learned about them?
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: Absolutely. Seventh Generation is a really good example of a company that has stepped up and really built itself up to take advantage of this growing consumer awareness about the things that are being put into the products that we use. They are now found on grocery store shelves everywhere. You really can’t go into many stores in New York City and not find them at this point. I listened to someone from Seventh Generation recently talking about this question of confidential business information and the idea that there are these great industry trade secrets when it comes to our cleaning products. He was really saying that anyone who has the right equipment can figure out what’s in your product, so it’s not such a great secret anymore. You can find out if you really want to, so at this point, they are already out there in the market, taking advantage of the fact that people want these products. They’re being transparent about what’s in their ingredients, and they’re helping to push the rest of the market to move in that direction.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk a little bit about what you feel about the future, then. You’ve seen, now, a snapshot. You’ve written about the snapshot of where we are and with Berkeley working on this. Are other colleges going to take Berkeley’s approach and create these multidisciplinary programs? What do you feel like both with regards to the global brands that represent the corporate world and learning institutions like UC – Berkeley?
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: I think that there’s a lot of great momentum right now. There are several schools out there that are already taking green chemistry by the horns and really promoting it among chemists. The hope is that because Berkeley is now taking this multidisciplinary approach, and also because Berkeley is such a powerhouse in the field of chemistry, that it will begin to catch on in the minds of others, that others will begin to say, “We can do this too.” Although I don’t know of other multidisciplinary centers off the top of my head, I wouldn’t be surprised if others crop up within the next few years. It’s really something that seems to be growing rapidly now. As far as major corporations are concerned, one thing that I want to mention that seems like it’s evidence of this growing consumer movement is something called the Good Guide, which your listeners may know. It’s one of several databases out there, where you can go in and you can look up a product that you might want to buy or a product category that you’re interested in, and it will give you information on that product, how much information is out there in terms of its safety. They’ll give you a product score for it, so you have a sense for whether or not it’s something that’s good to bring into your home or really a terrible thing, and you can find an alternative. What’s impressive to me about this is the numbers. They have about 700,000 visitors every month. That’s a significant and growing number, and they’re now beginning to talk with major online retailers about having their ratings pop up alongside products when you go to buy them online. There’s increasing pressure for companies to do the right thing, and they’re responding. From talking to people at the Good Guide, they get calls from companies that are really nervous when their products don’t get good rankings, and they want to know how to improve it. Their marketing really depends on a lot of this now.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Laura, that’s a brilliant point and a great resource. I want you to pause there and give a shout-out. Mike and I don’t have that Good Guide here. Why don’t you share with our listeners what’s the URL for the Good Guide?
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: I believe it is goodguide.org.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. Our listeners, to access Good Guide, goodguide.org. That’s such a great and important part, and you say it has 700,000 visitors a month now?
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: That’s what it’s got at the moment. From speaking with them, it sounds like they’re growing pretty rapidly. It’s a great resource and one that I turn to on a pretty regular basis. I have their Droid app on my phone, and I use it, I would say, a couple times a week when I go shopping.
MIKE BRADY: Laura, John, while you two were talking, I went and I searched. It’s actually goodguide.com. John, this is really fabulous. Laura, thanks so much for sharing this with our listeners because there it is. It’s got the ratings, and these are common products. I see on the top right now dishwashing liquid, peanut butter, even car washes. It’s amazing.
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: It really is. I use it constantly. Whatever it is you’re looking for, you can find baby products, televisions, I looked up my new refrigerator. I’m not sure what I found off the top of my head, but there’s a lot on there.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s perfect. For our listeners again, as Mike just pointed out, go to goodguide.com to learn how the products you’re using are rated. Laura, we’re down to the last minute or so. Your final thoughts with regards to what you’ve written about and where we are. You do such great work, and you get to look into such fascinating issues. I love to always ask our guests, do you feel hopeful or do you feel hopeless? Where do you feel right now with regards to the issue of chemistry and the products that we use?
LAURA WRIGHT-TREADWAY: I have to say I feel hopeful. It took me a while to get there. This was a lot of intense reporting, but in the end, the people that I met at Berkeley and the executives that I spoke with who were interested in sustainability at these companies, they really are doing the best that they can to make the products that we buy safer down the road. I believe that we’re on a path that will get us to a better place.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so great. Laura, when you write more for your great publication, and again, for our listeners out there, the NRDC’s OnEarth magazine, and you can reference it at www.onearth.org. You can read Laura’s latest article called “Pure Chemistry.” Laura Wright-Treadway, you’re not only your magazine’s favorite science geek, you’re now our favorite science geek here at Green is Good. Thank you for making green is good.