Reflections on science, policy & prevention
Since I joined CHE late last year, I’ve had the opportunity to learn and think about the role the Collaborative plays in the environmental health space. As we move that work forward in the months ahead, I'll periodically discuss emerging research and share perspectives here on the CHE blog.
A couple of themes have run through my work over the years. The first is a commitment to solutions-oriented science and policy, finding feasible ways to change products and processes to protect human health and the environment. The second is an interest in right-to-know — empowering and protecting people through access to information.
Scaling up solutions: Pollution prevention & toxics use reduction
I’ve spent much of my career working in the field of pollution prevention and toxics use reduction. Toxics use reduction focuses on finding ways for businesses and communities to change processes or products to reduce or eliminate chemical hazards. The focus is upstream – where products are being designed or manufactured — rather than downstream, cleaning up chemicals from air, water, soil, household dust, and food.
Core principles of this approach include hazard-based decision making, careful identification of safer alternatives, and a willingness to seek technically and financially feasible changes. You can hear my explanation of some of these concepts in a podcast interview from last year, and I’ll go into more depth in future blog posts.
These principles and the solutions they can generate are not new. I recently looked back at a pollution prevention report I worked on with the Swedish Chemicals Agency in the early 2000’s. One of the case studies we highlighted was a business that used halogenated solvents for cleaning metal parts — a serious hazard both for workers and for surrounding communities. The business initially reduced its use of these carcinogenic, neurotoxic chemicals by making tweaks to its cleaning processes. Later, the team found a way to eliminate the need for metal cleaning, making it possible to eliminate the solvents entirely.
In the years since then, many similar success stories have been documented (you'll find a few of them here). Yet in many cases, such techniques are still not established as best practices across industry sectors.
There’s an ongoing need to learn from and scale up the many solutions that have been demonstrated over the years. Going forward, I’ll be sharing examples of opportunities to reduce toxics, and highlighting relevant efforts at the municipal, state and federal levels.
Strengthening regulation for public health
In upcoming CHE webinars, we’ll be looking at how our regulatory decision-making processes affect our ability to protect health and the environment.
Stay tuned for my first blog on this topic next week, coauthored with Swati Rayasam of the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment. We’ll be discussing the gaps in exposure assessment and what can be done about them. We’ll also touch on the well-documented limitations of risk assessment, including too often overlooking the disproportionate impacts of chemicals in communities of color.
In future blogs I may address other themes related to risk assessment, cost benefit analysis, and other methodologies that — for better or for worse — underlie our regulatory frameworks.
I'll also be sharing thoughts on research gaps. Within the environmental health community, are we looking closely at certain hazards, while overlooking others? What are the topics we should be discussing, that we’re not? Are there missing pieces in the environmental health research agenda?
We can’t single-handedly fill those gaps, but it’s always important to consider what they are.
Safer athletic fields & playgrounds
Along with my colleagues at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production and in response to many questions received from community organizations, municipalities, and schools, I’m engaged in ongoing work related to hazards of artificial turf, opportunities for safer alternatives, and issues related to toxic chemicals in playground surfacing.
In future webinars and blog posts I’ll share our latest work on this topic, including issues that come up frequently in queries from community organizations and schools — such as emerging science on chemicals in waste tires, how to test for PFAS in artificial turf, disposal problems, and communities’ experiences with sustainable management of natural grass fields.
Knowledge supports prevention
A small exposure to a toxic chemical — perhaps found in a consumer product — can alter fetal, infant or childhood development, with life-long consequences. A workplace exposure can cause lifelong disability for a worker, or for that worker’s family.
It’s essential to identify, address and prevent these exposures however and wherever we can. That may be through municipal, state, or federal regulation, through adoption of an international treaty, or through efforts within individual small or large businesses or industry associations.
While all those efforts are moving along — often very slowly — it’s important to provide individuals with the tools to protect themselves when possible. So I’ll also be addressing the importance of transparency, both in business supply chains and for individual workers and consumers.
Thanks for joining us in this work, and please feel free to reach out if there are particular topics you’d like to see us explore.
Dr. Rachel Massey is Senior Science and Policy Advisor at the Collaborative for Health and Environment. She has worked at the intersection of public interest science and policy making in state, national and international arenas. Prior to joining CHE she served as Senior Associate Director at the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute.