A report written by a former Rochester Institute of Technology researcher on creating international standards for reporting chemicals in consumer products is slated to become the basis of a United Nations workshop next week and a new program at the University of Rochester’s Simon Graduate School of Business.
The international push to create standards for listing chemicals in products was fueled by a 2007 recall of children’s toys from China that contained lead-based paint, the Brighton researcher said. A survey of stakeholders determined that the safety of products for children was the highest priority.
Monica Becker worked on the report with a Massachusetts-based group, the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production. It followed a U.N. Environmental Program meeting in February that found current capacities insufficient to protect human health and said more international cooperation was needed to avoid a patchwork of information systems and duplication of efforts.
"The problem has been there for a long time, but the recognition or the realization that a lot of toys still do have lead paint really brought this issue to light, and people started looking at the range of products children use," Becker said. "It’s not only toys but cribs and clothing and teethers, things they come into contact with and put in their mouths."
The workshop is scheduled for Dec. 17 and 18 in Geneva, Switzerland. After results of the international survey are presented, participants will see examples of different information systems and work in small groups to develop an agenda for future meetings. The work likely will take a few years to complete, Becker said.
Becker conducted the survey from her home in Brighton, where her firm Monica Becker & Associates Sustainability Consultants is located. She held various positions at RIT from 1998 to 2008, including business manager of the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute and team leader of the green technologies group.
Her work there consisted largely of working with manufacturers to find ways to make their processes more sustainable.
The survey was conducted among stakeholders globally, including governments and representatives of manufacturers, to gauge what they would like to see in an international information system.
Chemical information for so-called wet products, such as spray paint or glue, is available to some degree, Becker said. Products such as computers, where chemicals are less apparent, tend to give less information to consumers.
"Chemical ingredient information and hazard information are the two main types of information people seem to be clamoring for," Becker said. "In the United States we tend to get more information than folks in other countries, especially developing ones. There is much more need in these developing countries, which are often the recipient of the waste electronic products we generate."
Helping companies determine the range of chemicals that could be going into their products will be difficult, especially given that many no longer manufacture their own products, Becker said.
To create a template for studying the supply chain of companies, she has teamed with her husband, Edieal Pinker, a professor at the Simon School. Pinker works with information systems and operations management, developing methods for companies to work more efficiently.
The program would look at the need for chemical information systems from an individual company’s perspective. It will be especially important for larger companies, Becker said.
"These big companies, many aren’t making things, just designing products and sending them to suppliers," she said. "The more that manufacturing is outsourced, especially globally, the less these larger (original equipment manufacturers) have control over the kinds of chemicals that wind up in their products."
Becker said she and her husband are hoping to start the Simon School program in January and have been in talks with a large local business interested in participating. The couple would like to work with three or four companies of varying sizes.
Pinker noted that the program is in its formative stages, but he said it will employ a doctoral student and he hopes to attract corporate funding. The work will help to develop tools that companies can use to report information and comply with national and international standards, he said.
"Talking to a variety of firms will enable us to see what mechanisms work best for what kind of companies, and also figure out how to make these mechanisms themselves work optimally," Pinker said.
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