Developing environmentally safe products benefits from the collaboration of consumers, manufacturers, policy makers, and—it should be no surprise—computers. Over the years many chemical databases, developed by government agencies, academics or private entities, have provided the community with access to data. The tools have been used to store and access chemical information, thus far. However, in a world of chat bots—trained to produce human language—can we anticipate a system trained to predict chemical safety?
"We are trying to harvest, connect, and integrate data so we can bring it all into a much-needed network," says Antony Williams, cheminformatician at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Center for Computational Toxicology and Exposure (CCTE).
Publicly available databases and models, like those described in this story, could provide artificial intelligence with the knowledge to help manufacturers create more consumer safe products. The wealth of data has the potential to provide a greener future for chemical manufacturing.
IDENTIFYING THE SAFE CHOICE
Beginning in the early 1990s, the EPA began working with companies to help them identify safer chemicals and processes. These partnerships lead to resources that would help manufacturers assess product safety and consider alternatives when needed. The work eventually resulted in the development of the Safer Choice Standard (https://www.epa.gov/saferchoice/standard).
The Safer Choice program reviews and analyzes chemicals based on their function as an ingredient within a formulation, such as surfactants, solvents, and chelating agents. For example, data for a novel surfactant compound can be compared to the EPA’s Safer Choice Criteria for Surfactants to evaluate its biodegradability and toxicity. Then, formulators can evaluate if the substitution is safer before they make a swap. This approach allows formulators to use those ingredients with the lowest hazard in their functional class, while still formulating high-performing products.
Products meeting EPA’s criteria are allowed to use the Safer Choice label. Many companies seek this voluntary label to highlight their company’s sustainability commitment to purchasers and retailers. At the same time, customers can look for the label to give them reassurance that the product’s formulation has been reviewed and the ingredients used are deemed safest in their class.
Qualified third parties compile hazard information for every chemical ingredient in a product submitted for Safer Choice certification. The EPA reviews the hazard information and makes the final determination of acceptability. This review is grounded in the cache of information housed in a chemical’s structure which explains how it will behave in the environment and human body. Scientists can evaluate and compare these compounds to those with known toxicology profiles.
The Safer Choice program leverages the expertise and work of EPA scientists to compile a vast amount of data on chemicals of interest to the agency. Now, the EPA has taken the important step of making the information more easily accessible to the general public.
A LIBRARY OF DATA
Formatting such a diverse collection of data can be daunting. To help address this complicated task, the agency developed a series of new software tools that provide fit-for-purpose science applications that range from human hazard to risk characterization. The goal is to deliver empirical and predictive data to chemists to take chemical evaluations for new product formulation beyond today’s capabilities.