Industry scientists who want to replace an ingredient in a product with a more environmentally friendly chemical. State agency officials developing a purchasing list of environmentally preferable goods. Union representatives concerned about workplace exposures to chemicals. Consultants who conduct life-cycle assessments of products.
These are a few examples of users starting to explore the High Production Volume Information System (HPVIS), an interactive public database of information about thousands of mass-produced chemicals. It can be found online at www.epa.gov/hpvis.
HPVIS, under construction by the Environmental Protection Agency, is the culmination of the HPV Challenge Program. Through that effort, initially forged by EPA, Environmental Defense, and the American Chemistry Council in 1998, chemical manufacturers are making health and safety data about their products available to the public.
The chemical industry cautions that the database contains only basic hazard and physiochemical information on HPV chemicals. These sets of data are only designed to help regulators determine whether a chemical might need further testing for potential environmental and health effects.
But academics, companies, consultants, state officials, and activists are putting the new database to "uses we never contemplated this information would be put to," said Charles M. Auer, director of EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention & Toxics. He spoke at a conference on characterizing chemicals in commerce last month.
One of the users of HPVIS is Health Care Without Harm, a group that campaigns for the use of safer products in health care. Lara Sutherland, a researcher and writer for the group, said the organization is seeking an alternative to polybrominated diphenyl ether flame retardants in the plastic bodies of electronic goods, such as computers, used in health care facilities. She told the conference that vendors of this equipment generally don't have toxicity or environmental persistence data about alternative flame retardants. HPVIS is a source for such data on these alternatives, she said.
The HPV information can be helpful as well to companies wanting to reformulate products with environmentally preferable alternatives, said Joel Tickner, assistant professor in the department of community health and sustainability at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. However, this database alone is insufficient to provide all the information these companies need before selecting an alternative that will work best for them, he said at the conference.
Rita Schenck, executive director of the nonprofit Institute for Environmental Research & Education, said much of the information in HPVIS can be useful for life-cycle assessments. These analyses track the environmental and health impacts of a product from manufacturing to disposal. Environmental fate and ecotoxicity values are the most useful information in the database for life-cycle assessment of a particular chemical, Schenck told the conference.
Even EPA is tapping HPVIS for a variety of applications.
The agency plans to use the data to improve its computer models for estimating physical properties, such as the rates of degradation in water or air, of untested, new commercial chemicals, Nhan Nguyen, chief of EPA's Chemical Engineering Branch, told the conference.
Data on the HPV chemicals may be helpful for identifying or comparing alternative chemicals in the safer-substitutes efforts that EPA is leading, Nguyen said. One of these programs is designed to identify alternatives to tetrabromobisphenol A, a flame retardant used in printed circuit boards. Another is encouraging the use of safer surfactants in detergents.
The agency will also draw on HPVIS to refine an online tool for screening chemicals for environmental persistence, bioaccumulative properties, and toxicity characteristics, according to Nguyen. Elizabeth Harriman, deputy director of the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute, said the HPVIS data show consistently higher values for persistence of some chemicals in water than does the existing online tool, called the PBT Profiler.
At the conference, representatives of state governments and manufacturers of goods such as carpet said they want to use the HPVIS data to help guide them in purchasing or creating more environmentally benign products.