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Safer Chemicals

The Global Expansion of Chemical Production

The global chemical industry output was valued at $4.12 trillion in 2010. However there are seismic shifts in the location of this production. While annual global production of chemicals nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010, the OECD’s share decreased by from 77 to 63 percent while the Asian and Latin American share of production rose. China’s production nearly tripled over this period and, today, China is the largest chemical producing country in the world.

The US Chemical Industry

The United States chemicals industry is a $720 billion enterprise generating some 70,000 products and producing about 12 percent of the nation’s manufacturing revenue.1 There are approximately 13,500 chemical manufacturing facilities in the United States owned by more than 9000 companies and employing over 790,000 employees. While bulk chemical production is largely located in Texas, Louisiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and California, the specialty chemical industry is widely dispersed and composed of small companies with nearly 90 percent employing fewer than 500 employees.2

chemical-data-chart-2012The US Chemicals Market

The US Environmental Protection Agency lists some 86,000 chemicals on its Inventory of Existing Chemicals under the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA),while over 140,000 unique chemical substances were notified to the European Union under its REACH regulation. Not all of these chemicals are in common use. A more realistic estimate of chemicals on the US market today is close to 30,000. Of these, just 10 percent make up the majority of the market. Some 2600 chemicals are manufactured or imported in quantities over 1 million pounds per year. The market share and ranking by volume of these large volume, “bulk”chemicals has changed little in the past 50 years. Much more varied are the specialty chemicals, such as those used in electronics, coatings, surfactants, inks and dyes, advanced polymers, pharmaceuticals and commercial products.

The U.S. EPA’s Chemical Data Reporting system provides some indication of chemical production and use in the United States. In 2012, 1,626 companies representing 4,785 facilities reported on 7.690 chemicals. Table 1 lists the largest production volume chemicals.

A large amount of these chemicals are used in just a few economic sectors. Paper making, mining and primary metal manufacturing consume the largest share of chemicals. Nearly 34 percent of the reported chemicals by volume are used in the paper manufacturing sector.3 The largest volume chemicals used in the production of commercial products include tricalcium silicate, ethanol, propane, dicalcium silicate, sulfuric acid, butane, and toluene.

Chemical Regulation in the US

In the United States both state and national governments regulate these chemicals through a host of laws the focus on chemicals in wastes, in industrial discharges and emissions, in environmental media and in workplaces. The federal Clean Air Act (CAA) regulates chemical air emissions, while the Clean Water Act (CWA) regulates chemical water disharges. The federal Ocupational Safety and Health Act sets standards for worker exposures to hazardous chemicals in workplaces. These laws have been effective at reducing some chemical exposures. Over the past 30 years there have been a steady decline in priority air pollutants, however, all urban areas exceed safe levels for atmospheric ozone at least part of the year and a significant number of areas exceed safe ambient levels of carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. Only 126 priority pollutants are regulated under the CWA, while nearly 20 percent of all public water supplies show some traces of volatile organic compounds. Over 40 years the use of only 4 chemicals have been banned under Toxic Substances Control Act.

There are also federal and state laws that regulate the use and manufacturing of chemicals. Some such as the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA) regulate chemicals used in products, while the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) regulates chemical manufacture and use. The success of these laws varies. While the active ingredients of most pesticides are regulated under FIFRA, inactive ingredients are less well monitored. Large numbers of industrial chemicals were grandfathered in when TSCA was enacted and most of these remain untested and unregulated. Indeed, the EPA has tested less than 200 chemicals under TSCA. There is no comprehensive plan for testing or regulating chemicals in consumer products under the CPSA and restrictions on chemicals has been sporatic and limited.

Building a Safer Chemical Economy

A control strategy for chemicals is costly and never perfect: it leaves open all the points in the life cycle of chemicals where chemicals leak and flow into air sheds, water bodies, and soils and where they persist, accumulate, transform, and reappear in different guises. We could spend the next fifty years trying to build better and better controls around more and more chemicals, or we could reconsider this strategy. 

Today, there is a growing international interest in going beyond a singular focus on toxic and hazardous chemicals and developing broader policies for managing all chemicals. In 2001 the European Union enacted a new law called the Restriction on Hazardous Substances Directive that prohibited the use of several heavy metals and flame retardants in electronic products and in 2006 the Regulation, Evaluation and Aurthorzation of Chemicals Regulation (REACH) was passd dramatically overhauling the chemical management policies of the 26 EU member states. Such chemical policies are comprehensive policies that address a range of chemicals and place a high priority on replacing higher hazard substances with lower hazard substances. Rather than struggling to control human and environmental exposures to dangerous chemicals these laws spur innovation and encourage the developmment and adoption of safer chemicals. If we are going to make big efforts to address the chemicals problem, it would be better if we worked to develop safer chemicals and moved thoughtfully and progressively to convert our economy to safer and more sustainable chemicals. 


Resources for Developing Safer Chemicals Policies

Chemical Hazards

Carl F. Cranor, Legally Poisoned: How the La puts Us at Risk from Toxicants, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Poul Herremoes,, eds, Late Lessons from Early Warnings: Science, Precaution and Innovation, Copenhagen: European Environmental Agency, 2013.

Elizabeth Grossman, Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health and the Promise of Green Chemistry, Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2009.

Global Chemicals Policy

Phillip Wexler, Jan van der Kolk, Asish Mohapatra and Ravi Agarwal, Chemicals, Environment, Health: A Global Management Perspective, New York: CRC Press, 2011.

United Nations , Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), Dubai Declaration on International Chemicals Management, Overarching Policy Statement, Dubai, Global Plan of Action, 2006, see

United Nations Environment Program, Global Chemicals Outlook, Towards the Sound Management of Chemicals, Geneva, 2013, 

Promoting Safer Chemicals

Biz-NGO/Clean Production Action, Guide to Safer Chemicals (version 1.0), 2012, see

National Academy of Science, A Framework to Guide the Selection of Chemical Alternatives, Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2014.

T. Fennelly and Associates, Advancing Green Chemistry: Barriers to Adoption and Ways to Accelerate Green Chemistry in Supply Chains, Green Chemistry and Commerce Council, 2015, see

Green Chemistry

Paul Anastas and John Warner, Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998

Adelina M. Voutchkova, Lori Ferris, Julie Zimmerman and Paul Anastas, "Toward Molecular Design for Hazard Reduction--Fundamental Relationships between Chemical Properties and Toxicity", Tetrahedron, 66:5, 2009, pp. 1031-1039.

Robert Boethling and Adelina Voutchkova, Handbook of Green Chemistry: Volume 9, Designing Safer Chemicals (Paul Anastas, ed.), New York, Wiley-VCH, 2012.

Green Engineering

David Allen and David Shonnard, Green Engineering: Environmentally Conscious Design of Chemical Processes, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.

Center for Chemical Process Safety, Inherently Safer Chemical Processes: A Life Cycle Approach, Second Edition, New York, 2009.

Web Sites

Green Chemistry and Commerce Council, see

Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, see


  1. American Chemistry Council (ACC), 2012 Guide to the Business of Chemistry, Washington, D.C., 2012, p. 5.
  2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2008 Sector Performance Report, Washington, D.C, 2008, see, accessed February 4, 2011.
  3. U.S. EPA, Chemical Data Reporting, Chemicals Snapshot Fact Sheet, Pub. No. 740K13003, see