TNO’s approach for safe and sustainable chemicals innovation

Safe chemical innovations
28 May 2024

In everyday life, we come into contact with chemicals in the products we use. Many of these chemicals are essential (such as those needed for the energy transition). However, these (new) chemicals often carry potential risks that are frequently unknown. Adverse effects, such as health problems and environmental impacts, are often discovered late in the product development process or even after market introduction.

This is why TNO is developing a Decision Support approach that allows companies to visualise potential risks already in the early stages of their design process and to take measures to avoid reputational damage and high costs.

In a white paper published today, TNO presents an approach to achieve the development of safe and sustainable chemicals, materials, and products.

Safe and Sustainable Innovation

In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that around 2 million people die every year due to exposure to chemicals. To achieve a safer, healthier and more sustainable future, the European Commission introduced the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability within the EU Green Deal.

A crucial element of this strategy is the production of chemicals and materials according to the principles of Safe and Sustainable by Design, SSbD, or Safe and Sustainable Innovation. This proactive approach provides companies a transparent picture early in the production process of the opportunities to improve the safety, health and sustainability of a new product.

As a result, adverse effects are preventively minimised, and the risk of market failure is reduced. The Decision Support approach that TNO is now developing provides insight into the impact of a new chemical substance compared to alternative substances on aspects that can influence our health and environment.

Risks of chemicals often not apparent until (too) late

Currently, the adverse effects of chemicals are often discovered too late. In some cases, adverse effects only become apparent years after these chemicals were put on the market, sometimes with serious consequences for society and the environment (e.g. PFAS), and financial burdens for society and the companies involved.

Current legislation (REACH) does not guarantee safe and sustainable products. For example, some substances are not covered by the law, other chemicals were on the market before the law came into force, and many dossiers are incomplete.

Hedwig Braakhuis, co-author of the white paper, states: “At the moment, we only have a view of the tip of the iceberg of chemicals whose risks have been sufficiently mapped. Most of the iceberg is underwater, so for the majority of substances we do not know the risks sufficiently. An integrated approach to support industry during the early stages of production of safe substances is needed.”

Integrated approach with a Decision Support System

According to TNO, anticipating new legislation, SSbD offers an opportunity to proactively design innovative chemicals and materials that do not pose a risk to humans and the environment. With an integrated approach that considers functionality versus health and environmental impacts early in the development process, adverse effects can be excluded and/or minimised as much as possible.

TNO is therefore developing a Decision Support approach that provides insight into the impact of a new chemical substance on aspects that may affect our health and environment compared to alternative substances.

Wouter Fransman, co-author of the white paper, states: “We would like to further develop this system for and in cooperation with the manufacturing industry, researchers, and governments. This will soon allow the industry to make adjustments earlier in the development process to create less harmful, safer, and more sustainable products. This saves the industry from unnecessary investments and reputational damage and ultimately contributes to a healthy and sustainable society.”

Paper Safe & Sustainable by Design

Discover our approach to achieving the development of safe and sustainable chemicals, materials and products in the paper 'The future of chemicals is Safe & Sustainable by Design.'

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