Almost all materials and products in today’s society contain chemicals. The chemicals are generally well tested for risks to human health and the environment. They are used only if, according to the state of the art, they are safe for human health and for the environment, insofar as used for the intended purposes. Nevertheless, there may still be chemicals that in practice pose risks, for example because they are used for an unforeseen purpose or because the risks were not yet known when they came on to the market. We then try to reduce the use of such chemicals and replace them with safe alternatives. However, this is inefficient and often expensive. A Safe-by-Design approach prevents the need for these measures further down the road.
Rules to limit the use of hazardous chemicals usually lead to "simple substitution", i.e. the replacement of a chemical by a comparable chemical (like the replacement of PFOA by GenX). Safe-by-Design goes a step further by focusing on more fundamental innovation: the design of non-toxic or perhaps non-chemical alternatives to certain toxic substances. This is in line with the goal of a "non-toxic environment". Safe-by-Design concentrates on the safety of the chemicals themselves and also on the materials and products formed with them. Focusing primarily on the function of the chemicals broadens the horizon for safer alternatives.
Safe Chemicals Innovation Agenda
Much of the knowledge needed to design those alternatives, and thus promote Safe-by-Design, is still missing. The Netherlands has therefore drawn up the Safe Chemicals Innovation Agenda (SCIA), a research agenda that proposes seven themes for further research into safer alternatives. They include groups of substances such as solvents, fire retardants and preservatives. The research agenda was prepared in consultation with numerous national/international parties and will serve as a launching pad for a European research programme.
Together with supply chain partners, we are currently working on a pilot under the umbrella of SCIA and Safe-by-Design. These are private and public sector parties with responsibilities in the supply chain all the way from designing a material or product through to the waste and recycling phase. In this pilot project, we are looking for alternatives to anti-fouling agents for pleasure craft. The agents currently used are harmful to the environment. In particular, we are examining non-chemical solutions, such as adjusting the design of the skin or the coating of vessels.
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