Substituting a problematic substance with one that is equally as bad is a common mistake within the world of chemicals. Hazardous chemicals are many times used because of their performance – like giving your textile fiber a water repellent quality – so naturally you want to achieve the same function using a different and safer chemical. Problem is that chemicals that share the same performance quality often share the same origin. They are created from the same raw material and therefor also often share the same problematic properties.
That’s one of the reasons why ChemSec created the SINimilarity tool, which can be used to screen an unknown chemical and compare its structural similarity to well-known toxic substances. And since this structural similarity is very common many chemical experts, including ChemSec, advocates that you should assess chemicals in groups rather than looking at them individually.
Our friends at the Green Science Policy Institute in California are doing exactly this and they have also produced six great videos detailing some of the worst groups of chemicals found in many consumer products.
Looking at groups of chemicals rather than separately also creates a new way of thinking when producing new chemicals. Rather then simply make the smallest possible molecular change of a chemical and call it “new”, you would instead need to focus on developing safer kinds of chemicals altogether. Some chemists have already adopted this way of approaching chemicals under the banner of “Green Chemistry” (and here is a recent piece worth reading about this in the New York Times).