Here’s a classic example of what my colleagues in the chemicals policy reform world and I call a “regrettable substitution”: diacetyl, a chemical that is a component of the butter flavor in your microwavable popcorn, was found to cause a nasty form of bronchitis in workers who prepared the product. Diacetyl was duly replaced with 2,3-pentanedione. A new study shows that this replacement chemical is also a respiratory hazard for workers, and may also affect gene expression in the brain of rats.
Examples like this and many others emphasize that we must look at multiple health and environmental criteria throughout a product’s life cycle when attempting to find a safer alternative to a chemical of concern. Otherwise we’ll just keep repeating our mistakes: lead in children’s jewelry replaced by the more potently neurotoxic heavy metal cadmium, CFCs in aerosol cans of brake cleaner replaced by n-hexane, leading to numbness in the hands and feet of auto repair mechanics, and many, many other similar stories. Workers frequently get the short end of the stick in these substitutions, which is why we created ChemHAT, a tool for workers to quickly assess the hazards of the chemicals in their workplace and look for safer alternatives.