EPA ‘Safer Choice’ Label Program, Criteria Under Fire

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By Pat Rizzuto

Does a detergent that Procter & Gamble Co. makes merit a ‘safer’ label designation? The issue has re-ignited a debate among trade association executives over the type of analysis needed to justify such labels.

Some sections of the chemical industry would like to see the Environmental Protection Agency adopt a risk-based approach that would consider additional factors when determining what products qualify for a Safer Choice label. However, other business voices and environmental advocates have voiced opposition to such a move, which one chemical industry specialist said could lead to endless debates over chemical risk estimates.

The debate over the EPA’s approach to reviewing products occurs as continued funding for the Safer Choice program is uncertain: the White House’s fiscal year 2018 budget request would zero out funding for those activities.

Three CEOs recently discussed the future of the Safer Choice program, a voluntary initiative through which companies can demonstrate that their products are made with chemicals that are safer or more environmentally-friendly than alternatives. Companies seek the Safer Choice label to show customers that there are eco-friendly, less toxic household products on the market.“Chemicals in commerce should be assessed based on their risk and exposure,” Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council said May 18 during the Consumer Specialty Products Association’s mid-year meeting. “We will consistently oppose any assessment of chemicals that is based on a hazard-only approach,” he said.

The CEO for another trade association and chemical policy specialists from environmental and labor groups argued that hazard-based approaches present clear criteria consumers can trust.

A hazard-based approach looks only at the properties of an ingredient, such as the ability of table salt to raise blood pressure. A risk-based approach also would consider the probability that the hazard would happen, taking into consideration factors such as level and frequency of exposure.

Dooley said P&G’s Tide® Coldwater detergent is a “classic example” of the problems that arise with hazard-based chemical assessment. The detergent cleans clothes without the need for hot water thereby reducing consumers’ energy bills, according to P&G.

Despite those environmental benefits, the detergent didn’t qualify for the EPA’s Safer Choice label because it had two ingredients that posed a greater hazard than are allowed under the program’s criteria, Dooley said.

“How is a product like this that is going to reduce energy consumption, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, not a safer choice for the environment?,” Dooley said.

Metrics

An EPA spokeswoman confirmed that agency staff spoke with P&G about its detergent in 2007, when the Safer Choice program was called Design for the Environment. The EPA spokeswoman said the company didn’t formally apply for the label. All other aspects of the discussions are confidential, she said.

Tracey Long, a P&G spokeswoman, told Bloomberg BNA: “We appreciate programs like Safer Choice. We also see opportunities to incorporate a broader array of environmental metrics into Safer Choice that would make it even more informative,” she said.

The voluntary Safer Choice program encourages products to achieve certain standards. Safer Choice and its criteria were developed by industry, consumer, environmental, and labor groups in partnership with the EPA to encourage use of chemicals that are the safest available for the function they perform in a product.

The standards updated in 2015, for example, encourage “the use of energy-saving technologies including the use of concentrates and detergents that work in cold water.” The program also requires products that bear the Safer Choice label to meet certain “master criteria.”

All chemical ingredients, regardless of their percentage in the product, are examined. Each ingredient must meet specific, measurable targets that attest to its lack of or reduced carcinogenicity, reproductive/developmental toxicity, toxicity to aquatic life, and persistence in the environment, EPA’s website says.

Chemicals known or expected to cause cancer in people, for example, would not be allowed in a product carrying a Safer Choice label.

Adding Risk to the Equation

The Consumer Specialty Products Association supports the Safer Choice program, Steve Caldeira, president and CEO of that association, told Bloomberg BNA.

“Our member companies have made significant investments in the program which now has over 2,000 brands and 500 companies participating,” he said following the mid-year meeting.

The program fosters innovation and competition among companies and benefits consumers but could benefit by adding more flexibility such as adding risk to its criteria, Caldeira said.

Risk-based chemical analyses, for example, could allow Safer Choice labeling to be based on a wider spectrum of chemicals’ health and environmental effects than may be possible through the hazard-based toxicity and environmental effects criteria currently used, Caldeira said.

`Magic’ With Numbers

Charlotte Brody, vice president of health initiatives for the BlueGreen Alliance, told Bloomberg BNA the program could start losing support from environmental and labor groups if it moved towards a risk-based approach.

“Hazard gives us a more science-based framework that is less likely to be gamed,” Brody said.

Using risk-based methods could mean “we would very quickly move away from good science and move to estimates of estimates of estimates,” Brody said.

“We could spend 10 years arguing about how much of a dangerous chemical is too much,” Brody said. “When we start arguing how much is too much we move away from good science and move to magic with numbers—that’s what’s important about safer choice—clear criteria.”

Consumers’ Trust

If industry groups were to convince the Trump administration to move away from the compromises industries and advocacy organizations reached as they crafted Safer Choice, Brody said advocacy groups would start telling consumers the program could no longer be trusted.

“I imagine that not only we at BlueGreen, but all the greens at the table would move away and advertise that we think [Safer Choice] would be meaningless,” Brody said.

David Levine, co-founder and CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council, said the cleaning product, clothing, food and other manufacturing companies that have joined the council “pay attention to what consumers are looking for, and one of those things is clarity in the market place.”

“Safer Choice has set guidelines that have earned trust of consumers,” Levine said.

Reducing energy consumption as cold water detergents do, is great, he said. “Companies should be investing in that, and investing in safer chemistries.”

However, Levine said, Safer Choice was set up as a chemicals assessment program, not a program to reduce climate risks.

Jennifer McPartland, a health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said it’s inappropriate to judge Safer Choice’s success by arguing it should have accomplished a goal for which it was never designed.

P&G should be commended for being innovative and designing a cold water detergent that cuts energy use, McPartland said. “It would be even more impressive” if eventually they also can get the ingredients in that product to meet the Safer Choice criteria, she said.

Safer Choice on the Chopping Block

The President’s fiscal 2018 budget request would eliminate the EPA’s Safer Choice program, because it seeks no funding for the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics’ pollution prevention work. Other voluntary programs, such as the agency’s Energy Star initiative that recognizes appliances and other products that save energy, also are on the chopping block.“Zeroing out pollution prevention would be a disaster for American businesses,” Levine said. “Increasing numbers of businesses are taking responsibility to make their products more sustainable, and government serves an important role in setting standards and developing credible labels.”

Notwithstanding his preference for a risk-based approach to chemical assessment, Caldeira, with the Consumer Specialty Products Association, said it would be a mistake to eliminate the Safer Choice program.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at prizzuto@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com

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