Safer Chemical Alternatives Aren't Really Safe?

The AIHA’s Synergist magazine recently (Sept 2013) ran an article titled ‘Whack-a-mole’ by Frank Mirer lamenting the hazards of chemical substitution. Mirer, a professor at CUNY school of public health, pointed out that while the substitution of dangerous chemicals for safer one sounds like a good idea, in practice it often means substituting a chemical with known hazards for one with unknown hazards or advantages in areas other than safety. He cited a New York Times article about furniture workers being debilitated by exposure to n-propyl bromide, a chemical introduced at the behest of the EPA to replace methylene chloride, a compound that damages the ozone layer.

We have seen the same practice in healthcare where new unregulated chemicals are substituted for older hazardous ones; where the main advantage appears to be lack of information rather than a proven safer option. This blog has commented before on the replacement of glutaraldehyde (known irritant, sensitizer and occupational asthmagen) with the new ‘safer’ o-phthalaldehyde (OPA). Evidence is increasing that OPA with its similar dialdehyde chemical structure is also an irritant, a sensitizer and an asthmagen.

We all welcome substitution of hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives, but it is important to ensure that the alternatives really are safer and not simply less studied.