Most of the 80,000 chemicals on the market have not been adequately tested or evaluated to ensure that they can be used safely in everyday products. Given the pace of scientific discovery and efforts by some sectors to slow or stop regulatory response, it can be difficult for regulators to effectively limit use of harmful or potentially harmful chemicals. Indeed, under US law, even asbestos, which kills thousands of people each year, cannot be banned by the EPA because the standard of proof to show that a chemical is harmful is so high.

When a harmful chemical is removed from use, the replacement is often a “chemical cousin” with similar properties and potentially similar effects. This can lead to a “whack-a-mole” cycle where the replacement chemical is eventually also found to be problematic (a “regrettable substitute”) and must be replaced. By considering classes of chemicals that are similar in structure, use, or properties to chemicals known to be toxic, we can help prevent the cycle of regrettable substitutes.

The many thousands of chemicals on the market can be grouped or classified in different ways. One way is by their chemical composition or structure. Another is by uses and applications. A third is by their intrinsic hazardous properties, such as being cancer-causing or bioaccumulative. The Six Classes approach uses all three.

The Six Classes highlighted in our approach contain many of the known chemicals of concern that are or have been commonly used in consumer and building products.  Many can migrate out of products into air and dust, and end up in humans, animals, and the environment.

Twenty-two leaders in science, business, and the non-profit community came together during the summer of 2013 at the Blue Mountain Center in New York to develop innovative new solutions to reduce the use of harmful chemicals in consumer products. During four days of lectures and discussions, participants brainstormed alternative strategies for reducing toxics in consumer and building products. The result was the “Six Classes Approach” to accelerate adoption of safer chemicals and prevent regrettable substitutes in consumer products and building materials.

Chemicals used in foods, drugs, and pesticides are not a focus of this approach because a number of federal and state laws do regulate these to some extent.

Through thoughtful purchasing, both businesses and consumers can accelerate the use of safer chemicals in products. Some innovative businesses such as IKEA, Kaiser Permanente, Levi Strauss and Co., and Crate & Barrel are already using the Six Classes approach to phase out entire classes of chemicals of concern. Manufacturers can also apply this approach and use green chemistry to replace harmful chemical products and processes with chemicals and processes that have been designed with the health of humans and ecosystems in mind. When possible, consumers, purchasers, and designers should consider whether a product contains a chemical from the Six Classes. In some cases, the chemical may not be necessary, or safer alternatives may be available.

Please see individual pages on each class of chemicals for tips on how you can reduce your and your family’s exposures.

The Six Classes project is a program of the Green Science Policy Institute and is supported by grants from the JBP Foundation, the New York Community trust, the Fred Gellert Foundation, the Tides Foundation, and the Wallace Genetics Foundation.

No. While the Six Classes cover many of the most common toxic chemicals in consumer products, there are other chemicals of concern that are either already being addressed via existing policies or do not fit neatly into one of these classes. These include pesticides, formaldehyde, PVC, asbestos, and parabens.

Additional Resources

Websites Books
Biomonitoring California is a multi-agency program that determines levels of environmental chemicals in a representative sample of Californians, establishes trends in the levels of these chemicals over time, and help assess the effectiveness of public health efforts and regulatory programs to decrease exposures to specific chemicals.

Clean Production Action designs and delivers solutions for green chemicals, sustainable materials and environmentally preferable products.

Collaborative on Health and the Environment is an international partnership committed to strengthening the scientific and public dialogue on environmental factors linked to chronic disease and disability.

Healthy Building Network aims to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals in building products as a means of improving human health and the environment.

Health Care Without Harm works to transform health care worldwide so that it reduces its environmental footprint, becomes a community anchor for sustainability and a leader in the global movement for environmental health and justice.

Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie

Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children by Philip Shabecoff and Alice Shabecoff

The Poisoning of Michigan by Joyce Egginton

Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? – A Detective Story by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peter Meyers

Materials Matter: Towards a Sustainable Materials Policy by Ken Geiser

A Small Dose of Toxicology edited by Steven Gilbert

Making Better Environmental Decisions: An Alternative to Risk Assessment by Mary O’Brien

Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry by Elizabeth Grossman