How can one person make the world less toxic?
The last story in a series about innovative environmental ideas features a woman who has spent 10 years building an inventory of the toxic products at her workplace and advocating for less toxic alternatives.
Lisa Heigh is a senior solid waste planner at Metro. For years, she organized household hazardous waste collections for toxic materials and educated the public about toxins in everyday products.
About decade ago, she decided she wanted to check the toxicity of her own workplace.
"I’m a very strong believer in walking your talk," she said. "I didn’t feel at the time we were doing what we could about toxics."
It wasn't easy to track down the toxic products throughout Metro's sprawling facilities, but last year Heigh completed a "boots on the ground, room to room" physical inventory – from the cleaning agents for animal cages at the Oregon Zoo to paints and glues for building sets at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. Now, she has a list of the riskiest toxics that the agency can target for replacement.
One of the big hurdles to reducing toxic pollutants in the environment and in our own bodies is removing them from everyday products.
There's a long-running effort to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act to regulate more toxic chemicals and require full disclosure of ingredient lists to incentivize green chemistry. But changing the federal law has proven to be a monumental task.
While Heigh's agrees the law should be changed, she also supports an alternative: Creating a market for green chemistry. By changing agency purchasing policies to favor non-toxic products, Heigh said, “we think government can drive markets."
She started the Metro detox in her own building, asking fellow employees for documentation of potentially harmful products. Documents called "material safety data sheets" are required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but it was hard to find them, and many were 20 years old and needed to be updated.
"It was a slow process," Heigh said. "In many ways, it was my very own little project. It's hard to make things go to an organizational level when you don't have the authority."
"My biggest challenge was how to make it an important project. Everybody thinks it's a great idea and wants to do it, but fitting it into their schedule was hard." -- Lisa HeighIn order to get the data sheets to inventory toxic ingredients, Heigh said, you need to have the manufacturer's name and the product name.
"You'd be surprised how difficult that is to find," she said. "My biggest challenge was how to make it an important project. Everybody thinks it's a great idea and wants to do it, but fitting it into their schedule was hard."
The job got easier in 2010 when Metro hired a sustainability director and wrote the toxics inventory into its sustainability plan.
Last year, Heigh teamed up with a Metro safety manager to do a physical inventory of around 3,000 chemical products in use or in storage at the agency's facilities.
"I knew my desire to green the products isn’t nearly as compelling as the fact that the law says you have to have (material safety data sheets)," she said.
The product data sheets were loaded into a database, and an assessment tool developed by Oregon Health and Science University ranked the products for environmental and health hazards on a scale of 1 to 3.
"The goal is to get rid of all the threes – to not have them if there's an alternative," said Heigh. "We don’t want carcinogens. We don’t want developmental toxicants."
The inventory revealed 60 chemicals that are confirmed or probable carcinogens, including quartz, cristobalite and carbon black, as well as eight chemicals that are developmental toxicants, including ethylbenzene and hydrogen chloride.
“The biggest hot spots were in cleaning products," Heigh said. "Also in glues, epoxies, paints, and some lawn care products."
The next task is finding alternatives to the most toxic products, and training employees to change the way they buy products. Heigh said finding replacement products is a tall order because even green products aren't necessarily green for toxics (She recommends checking for the Green Seal label).
But she maintains doing the inventory, though it was challenging and time consuming, will be worthwhile.
“I think this will always help," she said. "Whether (the Toxic Substances Control Act) is reformed or not, there will still be more nasty products and better alternatives."