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Chemicals get the safe treatment

Once seen as fringe, products derived from nontoxic ingredients are going mainstream.

September 14, 2008|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer

At first, the experimental shampoo looked like a putrid salad dressing. Its oil and its water just couldn't get along. They separated in the bottle and, over time, the shampoo took on an ugly brown hue.

The team at Avalon Organics, based in Petaluma, was trying to make a line of hair, skin and bath products without toxic chemicals, using ingredients derived from plants, such as lavender and coconut.

"It was a disaster," said Morris Shriftman, the company's vice president at the time. "We thought we had failed."

In any recipe, whether for cake or shower gel, swapping out one ingredient for another can result in a complete flop. But the chemists working for Avalon Organics refused to give up. After years of tweaking recipes, at a cost exceeding $1 million, the company reinvented more than 150 products and came to lead a growing movement dubbed "consciousness in cosmetics."

"We accepted this stuff blindly for so long. Now we're asking questions, seeking information. The awareness that we're living in a chemical environment is finally taking hold," Shriftman said.

Innovations in designing green chemicals are emerging in nearly every U.S. industry, from plastics and pesticides to toys and nail polish. Some manufacturers of cosmetics, household cleaners and other consumer products are leading the charge, while others are lagging behind.

For decades, many manufacturers used the most powerful weapons in their chemical arsenals, with scant attention to where they wound up or what they might have been doing to people or the planet.

Now, in a fresh take on the pre-World War II slogan, "Better Living Through Chemistry," small chemical companies and giant corporations, including BASF and Rohm and Haas, are implementing the tenets of green chemistry, creating safer substances that won't seep into our bloodstream, endanger wildlife or pollute resources.

Once viewed as part of a fringe lifestyle, rooted in the hippie movement, natural and nontoxic are going mainstream. Driven by regulations, consumer demand, an eco-friendly business philosophy and fear of future lawsuits, large corporations, retailers and manufacturers are eliminating some chemicals, pulling products off shelves and redesigning others. The names are familiar: Wal-Mart, the Walt Disney Co., Ikea, Home Depot, Nalgene, Kaiser Permanente, Baxter HealthCare, Gerber, Clorox and Origins.

Yale University chemistry professor Paul Anastas, known as the father of green chemistry, said the movement is "not simply choosing the next, less-bad thing off the shelf. It's about designing something that is genuinely good.

"Green chemistry is not a theory," he said. "It's being demonstrated by companies over and over again."

With a little ingenuity, every substance in the world "can be reinvented and made safe," said John Warner, former director of University of Massachusetts' green chemistry doctorate program and now president of a research company creating sustainable chemicals.

But the greening of chemistry is a slow shift, not a revolution. Most chemists lack basic training in understanding environmental hazards and seeking safer solutions, and many businesses resist changing familiar chemicals and manufacturing techniques.

Even companies like Avalon Organics are learning that manufacturing a shampoo or shower gel without toxic substances isn't easy. Synthetic chemicals called phthalates add fragrance, parabens kill germs, and sulfuric acid and petrochemicals create a thick lather. Such substances have long been considered key ingredients in cosmetics and bath products. But they have been linked with cancer, skewed hormones and other threats to people and the environment.

"We heard from everyone that what we were doing was risky, that it was unnecessary, that all the major cosmetics companies use these chemicals so they couldn't be dangerous," Avalon's Shriftman said. "But we decided to subscribe to the precautionary principle. We wanted to do the right thing. We rebuilt our products from scratch. It took a long time. It took a lot of experimentation. And it took a lot of money."

Though toilet bowl cleaners and body lotions may not save the planet, they are the first step toward weaning its human inhabitants from their toxic chemical dependency.

"We believe that the small act of scouring the sink," said Shaklee Corp. Chief Executive Roger Barnett, "can be part of the giant act of changing the world."


Early exposure

Chemical contamination starts in the womb. Even before a baby takes a breath, her body contains chemicals passed on by her mother.

Tests of umbilical cords show that a newborn's body contains nearly 300 compounds -- among them mercury from fish, flame retardants from household dust, pesticides from backyards, hydrocarbons from fossil fuels.

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