6.2 Method: Entrepreneurial Innovation, Health, Environment, and Sustainable Business Design

Learning Objectives

  1. Evaluate and explain the conditions under which sustainability strategies succeed.
  2. Discuss health challenges that offer market opportunities.
  3. Analyze factors that favor sustainability innovation processes.

In our first case we have the opportunity to track Method, an entrepreneurial consumer products company, through two stages in its early growth. The first case presents the company and its unique sustainability strategy, highlighting both the scope of its efforts and unanticipated challenges that arose. Technical notes are provided for background on health threats from exposure to toxic materials in everyday life. The second Method case provides a 2010 update on the company’s activities and distinctive focus on innovation process. It is preceded by a discussion of toxicity issues intended to highlight Method’s ongoing innovative efforts to differentiate itself as a company that is about supply-chain solutions to the chemical hazards increasingly on the minds of consumers and scientists.

It was spring 2007, and Method cofounder Adam Lowry was deep in thought over enchiladas at Mercedes, a restaurant a block from his company’s office on Commercial Street in San Francisco. He began to sketch ideas on a piece of paper to sort the issues troubling him. As a company known for environmentally healthy household products with designer brand appeal, Method was eager to develop a biodegradable cleaning cloth. Sourcing polylactic acid (PLA) cloth from China had not been in his plans, but every US PLA manufacturer Lowry had talked to told him it was impossible for them to create the dry floor dusting cloth he wanted. There was also a genetic modification issue. US PLA producers did not screen their corn plant feedstock to determine whether it came from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). However, Lowry wondered, weren’t any bio-based and biodegradable materials a better alternative than oil-based polyester, the material used by the competition? Yet certain major retailers were unwilling to stock products that weren’t certifiably GMO-free. It was hard enough to manage a fast-growing new company, but why did some people seem willing to stop progress while they held out for perfection on the environmental front? The naysayers made Lowry think carefully about what it meant to be true to the environmental philosophy that formed the backbone of his business. He had often said that Method’s business was to change the way business was conducted. But where should the company draw the line?Andrea Larson, Method: Entrepreneurial Innovation, Health, Environment, and Sustainable Business Design, UVA-ENT-0099 (Charlottesville: Darden Business Publishing, University of Virginia, March 26, 2007). All quotations and references in this section, unless otherwise noted, come from this case.

As a hot new company that had received widespread publicity for its dedication to environmental values and healthy, clean production, use, and disposal of all its products, Method had set high standards. In a relatively short time, it had created a model for excellence in integrating health and environmental concerns into corporate strategy. From only a germ of an idea in 1999, Method had experienced explosive growth during the intervening years. The company proved that home cleaning products could evolve from toxic substances that had to be locked away from children and hidden in cupboards to nice-smelling, stylishly packaged, biodegradable, benign products that consumers proudly displayed on their countertops. In 2006, Inc. magazine listed Method at number seven of the five hundred fastest and most successfully growing firms in the United States. Method stood out in many ways from the typical entrepreneurial firm.

Leveraging only $300,000 in start-up capital, twentysomethings Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan caused small-scale “creative destruction” across a $17 billion industry in the United States by emphasizing the health, environmental, and emotional aspects of the most mundane of products: household cleaners. The company’s differentiating characteristic? Lowry and Ryan assumed from the start that incorporating ecological and human health concerns into corporate strategy was simply good business. By 2007, Method was growing rapidly and was profitable with forty-five employees and annual revenues of more than $50 million. Its products were available in well-known distribution channels (drugstores, department stores, supermarkets, and other retail outlets) in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Customers embraced Method’s products, giving the company live feedback on its website, praising the firm and providing tips for the future. They were a loyal crowd and a signal that the time was right for this kind of business model. They even requested T-shirts featuring the Method brand, and the company responded by offering two different shirts: one that said, “Cleans like a mother” and another that simply said, “Method,” both with the company slogan—”People against dirty”—on the back. A baseball cap was also available.

Indeed, “People against dirty” was Method’s stated mission. The company website explains it this way: “Dirty means the toxic chemicals that make up many household products, it means polluting our land with nonrecyclable materials, it means testing products on innocent animals.…These things are dirty and we’re against that.” Under Lowry and Ryan’s leadership, Method shook up the monolithic and staid cleaning-products markets by delivering high-performance products that appealed to consumers from a price, design, health, and ecological perspective—simultaneously. From the original offering of a clear cleaning spray, Method’s product line had expanded by 2007 to a 125-product line of home solutions including dishwashing liquids and hand and body soaps. The “aircare” line, an array of air fresheners housed in innovatively designed dispensers, extended the product offerings in 2006, and the O-mop was added in 2007.

All products were made in alignment with Method’s strategy. They had to be biodegradable; contain no propellants, aerosols, phosphates, or chlorine bleach; and be packaged in minimal and recyclable materials. Method used its product formulation, eye-catching design, and a lean outsourcing network of fifty suppliers to remain nimble and quick to market while building significant brand loyalty.

Method sold its products in the United States through several national and regional groceries, but one of the company’s key relationships was with Target, the nation’s number-two mass retailer in 2007. Through Target’s 1,400 stores in 47 states, Method reached consumers across the United States. International sales were expanding, and the firm was regularly in discussion with new distribution channels.

An Upstart Innovator in an Industry of Giants

The US market for soaps and cleaning products did not seem a likely industry for innovation and environmental consciousness. It was dominated by corporate giants, many of which were integral to its founding. Although the soap and cleaning product industry was fragmented around the edges, with a typical supermarket stocking up to forty brands, market share was dominated by companies such as SC Johnson, Procter & Gamble (P&G), Unilever, and Colgate-Palmolive.

To put Method’s position in perspective, its total annual sales were approximately 10 percent of Procter & Gamble’s sales in dish detergent alone ($317.6 million) (2006). P&G’s total annual sales in the category were more than $1 billion. Furthermore, the market for cleaning products was under steady cost pressure from private-label brands, increasing raw materials prices and consumers’ view of these products as commodities. Companies that reported positive numbers in the segment between 2000 and 2006 did so by cutting costs and consolidating operations. Startups such as Seventh Generation and others attempted to penetrate the mass market with “natural” products, but those products were largely relegated to health food stores and chains such as Whole Foods. For Method to have obtained any foothold in this heavily consolidated segment dominated by market giants seemed improbable at best. But for Method founders Lowry and Ryan, the massive scale and cost focus of their competitors offered an opportunity.

Method to Their Madness

“You have all your domestic experiences in that house or wherever you live,” Ryan explained. And so, “from the furniture you buy to your kitchenware, you put a lot of thought and emotion into what you put in that space. Yet the commodity products that you use to maintain this very important space tend to be uninteresting, ugly, and toxic—and you hide them away.”Andrea Larson, Method: Entrepreneurial Innovation, Health, Environment, and Sustainable Business Design, UVA-ENT-0099 (Charlottesville: Darden Business Publishing, University of Virginia, March 26, 2007). Lowry and Ryan didn’t understand why it had to be that way.

They decided to take the opposite approach; if they could create products that were harmless to humans and the natural environment and were attractively designed with interesting colors and aromas, they could disrupt an industry populated with dinosaurs. By differentiating themselves from the competition in a significant and meaningful way, Lowry and Ryan hoped to offer an attractive alternative that also reduced the company’s ecological footprint and had a positive environmental impact. “It’s green clean for the mainstream,” said Lowry, “which wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t cool.”Andrea Larson, Method: Entrepreneurial Innovation, Health, Environment, and Sustainable Business Design, UVA-ENT-0099 (Charlottesville: Darden Business Publishing, University of Virginia, March 26, 2007).

To make green cool, Method took a two-pronged approach. First, it formulated new product mixtures that performed as well as leading brands while minimizing environmental and health impacts. Cleaning product manufacturers had been the target of environmental complaints since the 1950s, when the federal government enacted the Federal Water Pollution Control Act in part to address the foaming of streams due to the use of surfactants, chemicals used in soaps and detergents to increase cleaning power. In addition to surfactants, household cleaners often contained phosphates, chemicals used as water softeners and that also acted as plant nutrients, providing an abundant food source for algae. Fast-growing algae resulted in algal blooms, which depleted oxygen levels and starved aquatic life. Water sources contaminated with phosphates were also toxic for animals to drink. Another environmentally problematic compound in cleaning products was chlorine bleach, which when released into the environment could react with other substances to create toxic compounds. According to the Method website, “A major problem with most household cleaners is that they biodegrade slowly, leading to an accumulation of toxins in the environment. The higher the concentration of toxins, the more dangerous they are to humans, animals, and plant life. The key is to create products that biodegrade into their natural components quickly and safely.”Andrea Larson, Method: Entrepreneurial Innovation, Health, Environment, and Sustainable Business Design, UVA-ENT-0099 (Charlottesville: Darden Business Publishing, University of Virginia, March 26, 2007).

With a degree in chemical engineering from Stanford University, experience researching “green” plastics, and a stint at a climate-change think tank, Lowry saw these issues as opportunities.

Method counted on the competition’s seeing environmental and health issues as “problems.” Doing so allowed Method to seize competitive advantage through designing out human health threats and ecological impacts from the start, while their larger competitors struggled to deal with increasing legislative and public image pressures. Method products sold at a slight premium to compensate for the extra effort. “I knew as a chemical engineer that there was no reason we couldn’t design products that were nontoxic and used natural ingredients,” Lowry said. “It would be more expensive to do it that way. But that was okay as long as we created a brand that had a ‘premiumness’ about it, where our margins would support our extra investments in product development and high-quality ingredients.”Andrea Larson, Method: Entrepreneurial Innovation, Health, Environment, and Sustainable Business Design, UVA-ENT-0099 (Charlottesville: Darden Business Publishing, University of Virginia, March 26, 2007).

The second prong of Method’s attack on the entrenched cleaning products industry was to utilize design and brand to appeal to consumers tired of the same old products. In an industry rife with destructive price competition, Method realized it would have to be different. The founders believed that their competition was so focused on price that “they weren’t able to invest in fragrance or interesting packaging or design.” Lowry explained, “Our idea was to turn that reality on its head and come up with products that absolutely could connect with the emotion of the home. We wanted to make these products more like ‘home accessories.’ We believed there was an opportunity to really reinvent, and in the end, change the competitive landscape.”Andrea Larson, Method: Entrepreneurial Innovation, Health, Environment, and Sustainable Business Design, UVA-ENT-0099 (Charlottesville: Darden Business Publishing, University of Virginia, March 26, 2007).

By focusing their marketing and packaging as the solution “against dirty,” they tapped into consumers’ disquiet with the ingredients in their household cleaners. Through packaging that stood out from the rest, they created the opportunity to deliver the environmental and health message of the products’ ingredients.

Design of packaging to deliver that message was integral to Method’s success from its first sale. Method’s home-brewed cleaning formulas for kitchen, shower, bath, and glass surfaces were originally packaged in clear bottles that stood out on a shelf. “The manager of the store just liked the way the packaging looked,” said David Bennett, the co-owner of Mollie Stones, a San Francisco Bay–area grocer that was Method’s first retail customer. “It looked like an upscale product that would meet our consumer demands, so we went with it.”Andrea Larson, Method: Entrepreneurial Innovation, Health, Environment, and Sustainable Business Design, UVA-ENT-0099 (Charlottesville: Darden Business Publishing, University of Virginia, March 26, 2007).

As design continued to be a key element of Method’s appeal, the company recruited Karim Rashid, a renowned industrial designer who had worked with Prada and Armani. Rashid was responsible for bringing a heightened sense of style to Method’s packaging while continuing to focus on environmental impact. This led to the use of easily recycled number one and number two plastics (the types of plastic most commonly accepted by municipal recycling centers). Method’s approach seemed to represent a younger generation’s more holistic mental model. This small firm seemed to provide a window into a future where health, environmental, and what were increasingly called “sustainability issues” would be assumed as part of business strategy and product design.

Wipes, the O-mop, and PLA Material

PLA was an innovative and relatively new plastic material derived from plants such as corn, rice, beets, and other starch-based agricultural crops. PLA biodegraded at the high temperatures and humidity levels found in most composting processes. NatureWorks was the first large-scale plant in the United States to produce PLA in resin (pellet) form, based on milled material made from farm-supplied corn and corn waste. The resin pellets went to a fiber manufacturer who made bales; those bales of PLA material went next to the nonwoven cloth manufacturer, which converted it into giant rolls of nonwoven cloth. Next, a converter took the bulk nonwoven cloth, cut it into shapes, and packaged it according to the specifications of a customer such as Method. When NatureWorks first began operations, demand was limited. That picture changed quickly between 2004 and 2006, and by 2007 the plant could not produce its PLA feedstock resins fast enough to meet worldwide demand. PLA came out of the facility in pellet form and was melted, extruded, spun, and otherwise manipulated by converters at different steps of the supply chain into a virtually endless spectrum of materials for different applications across a wide range of product categories.

As a replacement for ubiquitous oil-based plastic feedstock, PLA promised a departure from the petroleum-based plastic materials that had come to dominate since synthetic plastics were first developed in volume after World War II. PLA had proved itself a particularly high-performing and cost-effective raw material that was well suited as a substitute for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in many applications. PET was the oil-based polymer known generically as polyester and used extensively in packaging, films, and fibers for textiles and clothing.

The competition’s wipes and mop heads were made of petroleum-based nonbiodegradable plastic material, typically polyester or polypropylene. Although microfiber was quickly becoming commonplace, microfiber and the denier unit of measurement were first associated with material in women’s hosiery. Technology advances permitted polyester microfiber production for very fine fiber applications, and just as microfiber had become common in clothing lines, it was also used as a more effective wiping and cleaning product. Microfiber was fiber with strands measured at less than one denier, a unit of weight used to describe extremely fine filaments and equal to a yarn weighing one gram per nine thousand meters. Whether made from corn or oil, microfiber material, used by most companies selling residential cleaning wipes by 2006, made an excellent cleaning cloth. Its structure enabled the fiber surface to more effectively pick up dirt and dust compared with conventional materials and methods. The microfiber wipes could be washed and reused, providing greater durability than alternative products that were typically thrown away immediately after use.

Consistent with Method’s environmental and sustainability philosophy, Lowry wanted to use bio-based materials, specifically PLA nonwoven cloth, for the dry floor dusting product. Ultimately he wanted PLA to be the basis for all fibers used, both nonwoven disposable cloth and reusable woven microfiber. If customers weren’t grabbed by the marketing message that the mop was sexy and hip (a message consistent with Method’s playful tone), they might be pulled in by the ergonomic O-mop’s more effective, biotech-based, and nontoxic floor cleaning.

Lowry knew most disposable wipes ended up in landfills, not compost piles, even with their extended life. So the company supported municipal recycling and composting infrastructure development in an effort to encourage cradle-to-cradleCradle-to-cradle was an increasingly popular term that referred to a product cycle in which materials could be manufactured, used, then broken down and used again with no loss of quality; for more information on this concept, see William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (New York: North Point Press, 2002). resource use, or at least raise awareness and encourage behavior in that direction. Method estimated that eighty-three thousand tons of “wipe” material made of polyester or polypropylene plastic was ending up in landfills annually, enough to fill nine thousand tractor-trailers. If using PLA could reduce oil feedstock use even a little, he reasoned, it was an improvement. Even if the PLA fiber went to landfills, where temperature and humidity never reached the ideal composting levels that would quickly and thoroughly break it down, it would still decompose safely, perhaps after one to two months, unlike oil-based fibers, which could remain in landfill disposal sites in the same condition for thousands of years.

The market for bio-based plastic materials had taken off by 2007, but Lowry had had no luck finding a US manufacturer to create a PLA-based fabric suitable for the white, nonwoven, dry-floor duster cloth used with the O-mop. He had just talked with the last on his list of PLA manufacturers, and the answer was no. They had all told him it couldn’t be done. The material was too brittle, they couldn’t process it, it wouldn’t run on their machines, and the strands were too weak. In short, PLA nonwoven cloth for this application was technologically impossible.

Lowry picked up the phone and placed a call to a company he knew in China—a departure from business as usual given that 90 percent of Method’s inputs were sourced in the United States. Chinese suppliers often were excellent, but domestic sourcing was preferable to avoid the high transportation costs of moving product long distances. Typically the farther the transport requirement, the greater the fossil fuel use, so the choice seemed inconsistent with the firm’s sustainability approach. But Lowry was sure the dry-floor dusting cloth could be made with PLA resins, and the Chinese manufacturer confirmed it. Lowry placed the order. A Taiwanese fiber manufacturer would make the bales and send them to the Chinese nonwoven cloth manufacturer that would pass on the cloth to a nearby converter that would in turn cut and package it to meet Method’s needs. Lowry knew the suppliers were good and reliable and that the product would arrive promptly. Perhaps all Method’s PLA products would need to come from China. But was sourcing from the other side of the world “sustainable” in the sense that he and Ryan tried to apply sustainability principles to the company’s operations?

The other issue on Lowry’s mind was that Method’s products could be deemed unacceptable in certain distribution channels that would not tolerate any GMOs in their products. PLA was produced from agricultural material (often corn or cornfield waste material) that was brought by farmers to a centrally located milling plant that converted it and separated out the components from which PLA was made. There was no monitoring of the corn coming into the milling facility; thus there was no guarantee that all inputs to the PLA resin-producing process were free of GMOs. If Lowry used PLA, it meant certain large and reputable buyers would refuse to put Method products on their shelves. Even so, to Lowry, it seemed preferable to substitute PLA for petroleum-derived products and compromise on the GMO issue for the time being. After a particularly discouraging conversation with a company that declined to do business with Method until it agreed to stop using GMO agricultural inputs, he decided to write out his thoughts in an essay, both to sort them out for himself and to draft a position paper that he could later post on the Method website.

As our knowledge base grows regarding exposure to toxins, we become more informed and better equipped to find solutions. We are capable of learning and absorbing feedback from the environment and our bodies. Lead was removed from gasoline in the United States and extensive efforts made to remove lead-based paint from older homes, thereby significantly reducing exposure to lead (a neurotoxin), particularly for children. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), known to break down upper atmosphere ozone, were banned enabling recovery of the ozone layer and over time reducing the ozone hole that formed every year over parts of the Southern Hemisphere. As a species, we act, we receive feedback, we adjust and adapt. We are beginning to learn and adapt with respect to toxic chemicals exposure. However, materials toxicity and contamination is just starting to receive attention and still remains secondary in the media’s attention due to the current focus on climate and energy issues (topics that also require attention to materials and toxic inputs/outputs). Nevertheless, materials issues will be acknowledged and addressed. The pattern will be similar to other arenas that challenge human ingenuity: most people will be overwhelmed by the problem scale, while others, the entrepreneurial individuals (and ventures they create), will drive innovation to create benign alternatives.See http://www.warnerbabcock.com for an example of a company committed to change

The next two sections provide additional background information on toxic substances. They are followed by a second case on Method that demonstrates how forward-thinking companies work on an ongoing basis to eliminate questionable chemical compounds from their products through innovative processes that lead to breakthrough designs and safer products in the marketplace.

Toxic Chemicals: Responding to Challenges and Opportunities

In the early 1960s, US scientist and writer Rachel Carson spoke about the risks of toxic chemicals: “We are subjecting whole populations to exposure to chemicals which animal experiments have proved to be extremely poisonous and in many cases cumulative in their effect. These exposures now begin at or before birth and—unless we change our methods—continue through the lifetime of those now living. No one knows what the results will be, because we have no previous experience to guide us.”Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

We have made progress in the face of the abundant evidence that increases in cancer and other disease rates are the result of exposure to chemicals. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in 1970 partly in response to Carson and others who foresaw the dangers of society’s ill-informed experimentation with toxic chemicals. Similar agencies now exist in most countries and the United Nations. Environmental and health nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have become powerful change agents. Federal and state laws and international agreements have been passed banning or severely restricting the manufacture and use of certain exceptionally dangerous and persistent chemicals. However, progress is slow and public awareness insufficient. We remain vulnerable to both existing chemicals and hundreds of new ones that are invented and introduced into commerce daily.Andrea Larson, Darden Business School technical note, Toxic Chemicals: Responding to Challenges and Opportunities, UVA-ENT-0043 (Charlottesville: Darden Business Publishing, University of Virginia, 2004). Information presented in this section comes from this study.

More than thirty years after Carson’s book Silent Spring was published, scientists Theo Colborn and John Peterson Myers and a coauthor renewed the warning about widespread molecular toxins in the book Our Stolen Future (1996):

The 20th century marks a true watershed in the relationship between humans and the earth. The unprecedented and awesome power of science and technology, combined with the sheer number of people living on the planet, has transformed the scale of our impact from local and regional to global. With that transformation, we have been altering the fundamental systems that support life. These alterations amount to a great global experiment—with humanity and all life on earth as the unwitting subjects. Synthetic chemicals have been a major force in these alterations. Through the creation and release of billions of pounds of man-made chemicals over the past half-century, we have been making broad-scale changes to the earth’s atmosphere and even in the chemistry of our own bodies.…The global scale of the experiment makes it extremely difficult to assess the effects. Over the past fifty years, synthetic chemicals have become so pervasive in the environment and in our bodies that it is no longer possible to define a normal, unaltered human physiology. There is no clean, uncontaminated place, nor any human being who hasn’t acquired a considerable load of persistent hormone-disrupting chemicals. In this experiment, we are all guinea pigs and, to make matters worse, we have no controls to help us understand what these chemicals are doing.Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers, Our Stolen Future (New York: Penguin Group, 1996), 239–40.

Synthetic chemicals are everywhere—in the plastics used in packaging, cars, toys, clothing, and electronics and in glues, coatings, fertilizers, lubricants, fuels, and pesticides. We make or “synthesize” chemicals from elements present in nature. Many “organic”“Organic” chemicals are chemicals that have a carbon backbone. Some occur naturally and some are synthetic. There is no connection between the term organic as it is used in chemistry and the use of the word in phrases such as organic food or organic farming. or carbon-based chemicals are derived from petroleum. We use synthetics to serve many purposes that natural materials cannot serve as well, and industry and consumers often save money in the process. Without synthetics, we wouldn’t have computers, television, and most drugs and medical equipment. Synthetic chemicals, however, have dangers as well as benefits. Those dangers are often unknown or even unsuspected when a chemical is first introduced. They may become evident only after thousands or even millions of pounds of that chemical have been released into the environment through industrial and agricultural processes and energy generation, or as products, emissions, or other wastes.

Synthetic chemicals’ detrimental environmental and health consequences are unintentional. The pesticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), for example, was never intended to kill bald eagles or robins.Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962), 118–22. The chlorine bleaching process used in paper mills wasn’t meant to disrupt the endocrine systems of fish downstream.Ann Platt McGinn, Why Poison Ourselves? A Precautionary Approach to Synthetic Chemicals, Worldwatch Paper #153 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, November 2000), 22. Polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs) and pesticide residues weren’t supposed to end up in human breast milk, nor were they supposed to affect the immune and endocrine systems or possibly cause sperm decline and even infertility in men.Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers, Our Stolen Future (New York: Penguin Group, 1996), 178.


Synthetic chemicals were first produced in laboratories during the nineteenth century. DDT was invented in 1874 in Germany and began its infamous career as pesticide in the 1930s. Before World War II, pesticides consisted mainly of metals such as arsenic, copper, lead, manganese, and zinc and compounds found in plants such as rotenone, nicotine sulfate, and pyrethrum. Plastics from cellulose were first created in the 1890s. Beginning in about 1900, synthetic plastics produced from oil began to find their way into industry. Polyvinyl chloride (a.k.a. “vinyl” or PVC) was discovered in the 1920s. PCBs were introduced in the 1920s. Steady progress through the early twentieth century led to rapid breakthroughs during the World War II years and the creation of thousands of new chemicals every year since. Some toxic chemicals are not created intentionally. Dioxins, for example, are by-products from chlorine-product manufacturing, combustion (especially of plastics), and paper bleaching.Ann Platt McGinn, Why Poison Ourselves? A Precautionary Approach to Synthetic Chemicals, Worldwatch Paper #153 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, November 2000), 9.

For most people, it would be hard to deny the benefits of the chemical era. Pharmaceuticals, plastics, semiconductors, disinfectants, and food preservatives are just a few of the many synthetic chemical–based conveniences on which we have come to depend. However, rather like the famous story of the sorcerer’s apprentice, the junior-level alchemist who knows enough to unleash the forces of magic but not enough to control them, we have the capacity to create a vast array of products with synthetic chemicals but are politically and technologically constrained in our ability to cope with the pollution and wastes we create along the way.

The chemists, physicists, engineers, and corporations who brought us the “green revolution” in agriculture, plastics, fuel for our vehicles, microchips, and myriad other useful products have also given us many unintended consequences. Even if you eat organic foods, prefer natural wood and leather furniture, and wear only organic cotton and wool clothing, the house you live in, the car you drive, and nearly everything else that you consume is dependent on synthetic chemicals at some point in its life cycle.


Hazards associated with toxic ingredients in pesticides, solvents, lubricants, plastics, fuels, exhaust gases, cleaning fluids, and hundreds of other consumer and industrial substances are generally thought of in terms of impacts on human health, wildlife, and ecosystems. Human health impacts from toxic synthetic chemicals range from minor skin irritations and sinus conditions to chronic asthma, severe nervous system disorders, respiratory illnesses, cancers, and immune system dysfunction. Table 6.1 "Chemical Carcinogens in the Workplace" shows some classes of chemicals known to cause cancer in the workplace.Peter H. Raven and George B. Johnson, Biology, 5th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1999), 342, table 17.3.

Table 6.1 Chemical Carcinogens in the Workplace

Chemical Cancer Workers at Risk for Exposure
Common Exposure Benzene Myelogenous leukemia Painters, dye users, furniture finishers
Diesel exhaust Lung Railroad and bus-garage workers
Mineral oils Skin Metal machining
Pesticides Lung Sprayers
Cigarette tar Lung Smokers
Uncommon Exposure Asbestos Mesothelioma, lung Brake-lining and insulation workers
Synthetic mineral fibers Lung Wall and pipe insulation installers; duct-wrapping workers
Hair dyes Bladder Hairdressers and barbers
Paint Lung Painters
PCBs Liver, skin Hydraulic fluids and lubricants workers
Soot Skin Chimney sweeps, bricklayers, firefighters
Rare Exposure Arsenic Lung, skin Insecticide/herbicide sprayers; tanners; oil refiners
Formaldehyde Nose Hospital and lab workers; wood, paper mill workers

Ecological Impacts

Wildlife and ecosystems are often impaired by toxic chemical exposure long before we are aware that any damage has been done. In the mid-1980s, scientists found that the alligators in central Florida’s Lake Apopka were born with faulty reproductive systems following an accidental spill from the Tower Chemical Company more than ten years earlier. In 1998, farmland near the lake was allowed to flood as part of a wetland restoration project. Years of pesticide-intensive farming had taken its toll. Vast numbers of fish-eating birds such as herons and egrets died in as toxic chemicals from flooded agricultural fields moved up the food chain from algae and small aquatic animals to the amphibians and fish species the birds ate. By the time the birds consumed the chemicals, they had bioaccumulated to concentrations that caused acute poisoning.Ted Williams, “Lessons from Lake Apopka,” Audubon, July–August 1999, 64–72.

Polar bears also are suffering from bioaccumulationThe concentration of a substance in living organisms that are exposed by breathing air, eating plants that have taken up the chemical from the soil, or drinking water that is contaminated with the substance. of toxins, but their pollutants come from thousands of miles away, carried by ocean and air currents. The toxins are concentrated through the food chain until prey species such as seals have millions of times the amount of heavy metal or persistent organic chemical that is found in the water.Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers, Our Stolen Future (New York: Penguin Group, 1996), 88–91.

Virtually no place on earth is free from contamination by synthetic chemicals. They have been found in water, air, and human beings all over the globe. Some of the highest concentrations have been found near the Arctic Circle in the breast milk of indigenous people.Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers, Our Stolen Future (New York: Penguin Group, 1996), 107. Some lakes in Norway, Sweden, and northern Canada are essentially dead from acid rain caused by power plants hundreds of miles away.G. Tyler Miller, Living in the Environment, 10th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1998), 481. Populations of amphibians, long considered an indicator species for pollution, are declining all over the world, even in remote Amazonian forests, in part because of pesticides and other pollutants.Ashley Mattoon, “Deciphering Amphibian Declines,” in State of the World 2001 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, 2001), 63–82, accessed January 11, 2011, http://www.globalchange.umich.edu/gctext/Inquiries/Module%20Activities/State%20of%20the%20World/Amphibian%20Declines.pdf.

Tests for synthetic chemicals consistently find them in humans. For example, plastic additives providing flexibility, such as phthalates, are known for their endocrine-disrupting potential; they pass from tubing and bags used in intravenous medical preparations into the patients attached to them.Our Stolen Future, “About Phthalates,” accessed January 30, 2011, http://www.ourstolenfuture.org/newscience/oncompounds/phthalates/phthalates.htm. The same chemicals may end up in babies’ mouths when they chew on a soft plastic toy.Our Stolen Future, “About Phthalates,” accessed January 30, 2011, http://www.ourstolenfuture.org/newscience/oncompounds/phthalates/phthalates.htm. Window blinds and other hard plastic products sometimes contain lead. Wells and municipal water supplies contain varying concentrations of chemical contaminants. It may be indicative of the complexity of testing for, and guarding against, hazardous pollutants in water supplies that the US EPA sets drinking water standards for only thirty-three of the hundreds of pesticides in current use.Payal Sampat, Deep Trouble: The Hidden Threat of Groundwater Pollution, Worldwatch Paper #154 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, 2000), 27.

How Chemicals Cause Damage

Between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand synthetic chemicals are in commercial use, with more entering commerce every day.Ann Platt McGinn, Why Poison Ourselves? A Precautionary Approach to Synthetic Chemicals, Worldwatch Paper #153 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, November 2000), 7. The problem is that some of those chemicals cause illness or death to people, animals, and plants. Some, such as chemicals used in warfare and pesticides, were intended to kill or impair specific organisms, but the bulk of the harm from synthetic chemicals is unintended. Many of the consequences of our great experiment in chemical production and use have come as surprises to the scientists who created them.


Traces of persistent synthetic chemicals are found in animals—in especially high concentration—at the top of the food chain. In a process known as bioaccumulation, persistent toxic wastes like PCBs, present in water and sediments, are eaten by phytoplankton and zooplankton that store them at about 250 and 500 times their ambient concentration. Those tiny creatures are in turn eaten by slightly larger animals such as microscopic shrimp, building PCB levels to tens of thousands of times that of the surrounding water. The shrimp are consumed by animals such as small fish, in whose tissues PCB concentrations may reach hundreds of thousands of times ambient levels. A larger fish eats the smaller fish and stores PCBs in concentrations millions of times higher. A top predator, such as a gull or a fish-eating eagle, eats the fish, accumulating up to twenty-five million times the original PCB concentration level. Finally, the chemical reaches a concentration where toxicity becomes manifest, and the gull can no longer produce viable offspring.Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers, Our Stolen Future (New York: Penguin Group, 1996), 27. Human beings are not exempt from chemical bioaccumulation. Chemical pollutants are found in virtually all humans in our blood, fat tissues, and breast milk. The US Centers for Disease Control reports on pollutants present in human bodies, describing the “body burden” of accumulated chemicals.

Unfortunately, the old adage that “the dose makes the poison” doesn’t always apply. That belief assumes that the lower the dose, the lower the adverse effect. We now find that very low and high exposure levels stimulate cellular change; however, little influence is discernable with midrange exposures. Some chemicals, including tetraethyl lead, many pesticides, and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are known to cause reproductive problems and developmental problems before birth and during the first few years of life. Those impacts may occur even with concentrations so small that they are measured in parts per trillion. For that reason, the EPA works under the assumption that there is no safe exposure level for chemicals classed as probable human carcinogens.

Impacts on Children and Pregnant Women

The study of chemical threats to children’s health is still in an early stage. The EPA created the Office of Children’s Health Protection in 1997 in recognition of the need to address risks to children that are potentially different from risks to adults.

EPA’s traditional method of setting human health protection standards has relied almost exclusively on the assessment of risks to adults. That kind of broad focus is understandable, given how little was understood about environmental risk before 1970. It was assumed that people were comparable in terms of their response to exposures to pollution. As we learned more about the effects of environmental contaminants on human health, the differences among subsets of the population, particularly differences among children and adults, began to emerge.

A child’s nervous system, reproductive organs, and immune system grow and develop rapidly during the first months and years of life. As organ structures develop, vital connections between cells are established. Those delicate developmental processes in children may easily and irreversibly be disrupted by toxic environmental substances such as lead.

Neurotoxins that may have only a temporary ill effect on an adult brain can cause enduring damage to a child’s developing brain. The immaturity of children’s internal systems, especially in the first few months of life, affects their ability to neutralize and rid their bodies of certain toxics. If cells in the developing brain are destroyed by lead, mercury, or other neurotoxic chemicals, or if vital connections between nerve cells fail to form, the damage is likely to be permanent and irreversible.

Increasing Regulations

Rapidly expanding scientific understanding of chemicals and their impacts has resulted in closer regulatory oversight.

The EPA has faced an embarrassing backlog of chemical risk assessments for many years. In 1998, the agency developed a system for high production volume (HPV) chemicals. The program was intended to move testing forward through voluntary cooperation from industry in assessing approximately three thousand chemicals produced in volumes of one million pounds per year or more. The EPA-sponsored national computerized database known as the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) tracks toxic chemicals that are being used, manufactured, treated, transported, or released into the environment. Section 313 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986 specifically requires manufacturers to report releases of six hundred designated toxic chemicals into the environment. The reports are submitted to the EPA and state governments. EPA compiles this data in the online, publicly accessible TRI.US Environmental Protection Agency, “Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program,” accessed January 31, 2011, http://www.epa.gov/tri.

There are five end points for the screening tests: acute toxicity, chronic toxicity, mutagenicity, ecotoxicity, and environmental fate. Of chemicals required for testing under the TRI requirements, only 55 percent or about 680 have been tested.US Environmental Protection Agency, “Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program, TRI Chemical List,” accessed January 30, 2011, http://www.epa.gov/tri/trichemicals. Seven percent of all other chemicals have complete test data. Only 25 percent of 491 chemicals examined by the EPA due to their use in consumer products brought into the home and used by children and families have data. Of the three thousand HPV chemicals imported or produced at over one million pounds annually by the United States, 43 percent have no basic toxicity testing data available. The government depends on companies to report; however, no testing data have been submitted by 148 of 830 companies producing chemicals in the high-volume range. A total of 459 companies sell products for which half or fewer chemicals used have been reported under the required testing protocols. Only twenty-one companies have submitted complete screening data for all chemicals they produce. The EPA observes that filling in the screening data gaps would cost about $427 million, or about 0.2 percent of annual sales for the top one hundred US chemical companies.US Environmental Protection Agency, “HPV Chemical Hazard Data Availability Study: High Production Volume (HPV) Chemicals and SIDS Testing,” accessed January 29, 2011, http://www.epa.gov/hpv/pubs/general/hazchem.htm.

A significant step toward international restrictions on some on the most hazardous chemicals is evident in the sequence of conventions on POPs. POPs are widely considered the least acceptable hazardous chemicals. They persist in the environment for decades without degrading into harmless substances, they are organic, and they are highly toxic pollutants. Some other chemicals that are themselves relatively harmless create persistent toxic by-products, such as dioxins, as they are combusted or degrade.

On May 22, 2001, delegates from 127 countries, including the United States, formally signed the international treaty on POPs in Stockholm, Sweden. The signatories pledged to phase out the production and use of the twelve chemicals listed in Table 6.2 "The United Nations’ Top Twelve Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)". These twelve POPs are the first targets for an international convention restricting the trading and use of POPs.

Table 6.2 The United Nations’ Top Twelve Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)

Pollutant Date Introduced Uses, Pests, and Crops
Aldrin 1949 Insecticide—termites—corn, cotton, and potatoes
Chlordane 1945 Insecticide—termites
DDT 1942 Insecticide—mosquitoes
Dieldrin 1948 Insecticide—soil insects—fruit, corn, and cotton
Eldrin 1951 Rodenticide and insecticide—cotton, rice, and corn
Heptachlor 1948 Insecticide—soil insects, termites, ants, and mosquitoes
Hexachlorobenzine 1945 Fungicide and pesticide by-product and contaminant
Mirex 1959 Insecticide—ants and termites—also used as a fire retardant (unusually stable and persistent)
Toxaphene 1948 Insecticide—ticks and mites (a mixture of up to 670 chemicals)
PCBs 1929 Used primarily in capacitors and transformers and in hydraulic and heat transfer systems. Also used in weatherproofing, carbonless copy paper, paint, adhesives, and plasticizers in synthetic resins
Dioxins 1920s By-products of combustion (especially of plastics) and of chlorine product manufacturing and paper bleaching
Furans 1920s By-products, especially of PCB manufacturing, often with dioxins

Acceptable Risk?

How much risk to our health and environment are we willing to accept and pass on to future generations in return for the benefits we expect from a new chemical? Many people would immediately answer, “None; it’s unacceptable to pass on any risk!” Chemical industry advocates recommend applying cost-benefit analysis to hazardous chemicals. They point out that it may be reasonable to eliminate 80 percent of the risk of a substance, but it costs a great deal to eliminate the last 20 percent. They would prefer that we accept the remaining risk and spend the savings on other pressing concerns.

Chemical risks are associated with four main variables for human health: exposure to a chemical, toxicity of the chemical, dosage received, and response (acute or chronic illness). Multiple exposures to several different chemicals and possible synergistic effects are sometimes accounted for as well. Ecological impacts are an added concern reviewed in some risk assessments. The reality is that the US regulatory system for monitoring chemicals is insufficient for the scope of the task. Reform of the key legislation, the Toxic Substances Control Act, may not be possible under the current political polarization in the United States. Some people have concluded that while targeting more benign, or fully benign, chemical components for products in the private sector is to be commended, nothing will take the place of dramatic chemical regulatory reform at the federal level.

The challenges are significant. It is hard to know exactly the risk to which we are exposed. Whose responsibility is it to assess risks from chemicals and communicate them to end users and others who may share the impacts? Limits to environmental regulatory budgets, industry resistance to regulatory constraints, public debt and sentiment that larger government is not the right choice, and increasing complexity of toxicology science combine to make it difficult for government to provide reassuring answers.

Alternative Approaches

Should those who benefit from the sale and use of toxic chemicals be held accountable for damages they cause if they knew or suspected harmful impacts? What if they were unaware that they were doing harm?

What are the opportunities for firms in this arena? It is important to learn from our mistakes. Cleaning up a Superfund siteSuperfund sites are highly polluted areas registered with the US Environmental Protection Agency. A multibillion-dollar fund for cleaning up those sites is financed by the companies that caused the pollution in accordance with the “polluter pays” principle. or settling lawsuits with survivors of chemical experiments such as those involving asbestos and diethylstylbestrol (DES) can bankrupt a company. Many women who took the fertility drug DES on the advice of their physicians gave birth to children with malformed reproductive organs and unusual reproductive system cancers. Worker exposure in asbestos insulation factories led to a signature form of deadly cancer known as mesothelioma, yet asbestos is still not banned.

The Precautionary Principle

In the future, given the right mix of politics, economics, public pressure, and tragic consequences, industry may find itself forced to change from a status quo of “make it now and find out what harm it does later” to something resembling the “precautionary principle” espoused by many governments and environmental groups and today the dominant paradigmatic approach in the European Union. The precautionary principleA principle that asserts chemicals should be tested for toxicity and approved before use, rather than being deployed and then checked for toxicity afterward. states that “even in the face of scientific uncertainty, the prudent stance is to restrict or even prohibit an activity that may cause long-term or irreversible harm.”Ann Platt McGinn, Why Poison Ourselves? A Precautionary Approach to Synthetic Chemicals, Worldwatch Paper #153 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, November 2000), 17–18. That concept places the burden of proof on those who would create a potential risk rather than on those who would face its impacts. Currently, most environmental disputes follow an opposite pattern. Those who are concerned about a potentially hazardous activity must prove that unreasonably high risk exists before the advocates of the activity can be expected to change. Applied to synthetic chemicals, the precautionary principle might lead us to look for alternatives to certain classes of chemicals, such as organohalogens (organic compounds that contain chlorine, fluorine, bromine, iodine, or astatine), which have proven exceptionally dangerous.

You Make It, You Own It

An economy is posited where consumers lease products. Instead of owning the product, they buy only the services it provides. For example, many copier companies lease their machines, selling document reproduction services rather than copiers. A system has been proposed that tags chemicals (as “technical nutrients”) with molecular markers. The materials remain the property of the manufacturer, which will own not only the product but also the waste, toxicity, and liability it may cause. Cradle-to-cradle product management would keep unavoidable toxins in closed-loop systems of cyclical use and reuse. Ideally companies would make either “biological nutrients” that return safely to the earth or “technical nutrients” that stay in technical cycles managed by the companies that use them.Robert A. Frosch and Nicholas E. Gallopoulos, “Strategies for Manufacturing,” Scientific American 261, no. 3 (September 1989): 144–52; Robert U. Ayres, “Industrial Metabolism,” in Technology and Environment, ed. Jesse H. Ausubel and Hedy E. Sladovich (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1989).

The Next Problem

If industry fails to reach such a level of self-regulation, mankind will undoubtedly face new surprises from our production and use of chemicals. The early pioneers of the internal combustion engine saw it as a cure for streets covered with horse manure, the pollutant of their day. They never dreamed that their innovation would produce the air pollution that now kills thousands of people every year. Without a more prudent approach, we may find that our new inventions create unforeseen dangers as well. A few of the many candidates for the next revolutions in chemical use include GMOs, nanoscale molecular machines, and exotic molecules such as buckyballs. Some of those will probably never do any harm and may prove valuable. Others may harm our bodies and the natural systems that we depend on in ways that we cannot foresee. Foresight requires considering an innovation’s risk of doing harm at least as carefully as we explore its potential benefits.

Thoughts for Commercial Enterprises

Some of our past experiments with chemicals provide opportunities for future technology. For example, devices that “sniff out” explosives may be used to detect and destroy abandoned land mines. Nontoxic substitutes for innumerable cleaners, solvents, lubricants, adhesives, medicinal supplies, bleaches, disinfectants, and hundreds of other products are waiting to be discovered. Agriculture needs cleaner, cheaper, safer substitutes for its pesticides and chemical fertilizers.


There already are safer alternatives for many of the processes and products that involve toxic chemicals, and companies are working diligently to discover more. Clean energy generation, such as fuel cells, solar cells, and wind power, had become a hot topic on Wall Street by 2005. Yet all these energy technologies need assessment from a component toxicity perspective and life-cycle view as well. Integrated pest management and organic farming are gaining popularity as the local food movement accelerates. Scientists are looking to nature for solutions to industrial as well as agricultural problems. The budding field of biomimicry explores and seeks to mimic the processes in nature that create materials and energy at ambient temperatures without using toxic chemicals. For example, spiders make waterproof webs that are twice as strong as Kevlar without toxicity. Abalones create shatterproof ceramics using seawater as their raw material. Leaves create food and useful chemical energy from sunlight, water, and soil.Janine Benyus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (New York: William Morrow, 1997). Some bacteria even digest toxic organic chemicals and excrete harmless substances in the process.

Challenges and Opportunities

Both challenges and opportunities lie in learning to assess risks and to develop a clear vision of the short- and long-term benefits and the legal, financial, and social risks associated with new chemicals and the technologies they enable. Many options exist to help businesses design environmental and social responsibility into their products and services. Proven techniques include pollution prevention (P2), design for environment (DfE), The Natural Step (TNS) framework, and cradle-to-cradle thinking. In some cases, those options include efficiency improvements that have short-term payback periods. Other techniques inspire valuable innovations with long-term financial benefits, improved public image, and employee morale—a stakeholder approach. P2 can save money by eliminating waste in industrial processes and avoiding costly regulatory requirements and toxic waste disposal costs. The DfE school of thought recommends adding design criteria that insist on processes and products that are free from toxic chemicals throughout the product life cycle. Dr. Karl-Henrick Robèrt, father of TNS, suggested asking six questions about a persistent toxin such as dioxin before continuing to use it: “Is the material natural? Is it stable? Does it degrade into harmless substances? Does it accumulate in bodily tissues? Is it possible to predict the acceptable tolerances? Can we continue to place this material safely in the environment”Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce (New York: Harper Business, 1993), 53.

Exposure to Toxins Presents New Health Issues

With consumers increasingly concerned about toxins in products after reports of lead in toys and endocrine-disrupting synthetic chemicals in plastics used (and chewed on) by teething small children or used in plastic containers (BPA [bisphenol A]), “clean” products are of major concern to parents today. Toxic chemicals designed into products will receive more attention going forward as scientific knowledge advances on how living organisms, including humans, absorb such chemical compounds. The next sections on chemicals in breast milk helps inform the reader from an often overlooked vantage point why these issues are becoming more visible and what opportunities are associated with the search for solutions.

A Reason for Environmental Health Concerns: Chemicals in Breast Milk

Breast-feeding advocates often refer to breast milk as “liquid gold.” Besides its direct benefit of feeding a growing baby, breast milk contains antibodies to protect infants from disease, nutrients to support organ development, and enzymes to aid digestion. Research has shown that the unique composition of human milk enhances brain development and lowers the risk and severity of a variety of serious childhood illnesses and chronic diseases, including diarrhea, lower respiratory infection, bacterial meningitis, urinary tract infections, lymphoma, and digestive diseases.Andrea Larson, Darden Business School technical note, Environmental Health: Chemicals in Breast Milk, UVA-ENT-0078 (Charlottesville: Darden Business Publishing, University of Virginia, 2004). All information in this section by author. There are also significant benefits to women who breast-feed, such as reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer and osteoporosis.US Department of Health and Human Services, “The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding, 2011,” accessed January 30, 2011, http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/topics/breastfeeding/calltoactiontosupport breastfeeding.pdf.

Although breast milk is recognized by doctors, public health officials, and scientists as the best first food for an infant, it is not pure. Many synthetic chemicals released into the environment, intentionally or not, can be found in breast milk. Chemicals such as famous “bad actors” like DDT and PCBs, as well as less well-known substances such as flame retardants (polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs), have been detected in human breast milk around the world. Many of those synthetic chemicals are known or suspected causes of cancer, and they have been linked to other health problems such as diabetes, reproductive disorders, and impaired brain development. The health benefits of breast-feeding far outweigh the possible negative effects of chemical contaminants in breast milk, but the presence of those chemicals remains a cause for concern.

Many of the synthetic chemicals that have been found in breast milk have some general properties in common. They can be described as bioaccumulative and persistent. A substance that bioaccumulates is one that, once introduced into the environment, collects in living organisms that are exposed by breathing air, eating plants that have taken up the chemical from the soil, or drinking water that is contaminated with the substance. Thus bioaccumulating chemicals find their way into and up the food chain. Many such chemicals are not soluble in water but rather are soluble in fat. That means that instead of being expelled, they bind to fatty tissue and remain in the body. A chemical that is termed “persistent” is just that: it stays around. Chemicals that are persistent take a long time to be broken down and expelled, if they ever are. Many such synthetic chemicals resemble natural hormones and chemicals in the human body, which is why they are not easily broken down and expelled by the body.

Breast milk has a high fat content, which means it draws certain synthetic chemicals to it. To produce milk, a mother’s body utilizes stored fat, thus some of the synthetic chemicals that have accumulated in body fat over a woman’s lifetime are released in the production of breast milk and passed on to nursing infants. In many cases, human milk contains chemical residues in excess of limits established for commercially marketed food.Sandra Steingraber, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1997), 168.

Few countries regularly track contaminants in breast milk, but recent studies from around the world show that synthetic chemicals can be found in breast milk in both industrialized and developing countries. From the Artic to Africa, in Europe, in the Americas, and in Asia, those chemicals have taken up residence in the environment and in human bodies.

The chemicals found in breast milk are of concern not simply because they demonstrate the global dispersal and persistence of some chemicals but also because exposure to them has been linked to negative health effects. It may be true that no study has ever shown that a child exposed to a specific chemical from breast milk will develop a specific disease, but a growing body of science tells us that there are links between human health and exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment.

The primary chemicals of concern that scientists have found in breast milk include dioxin, furans, and PCBs, as well as pesticide residues such as DDT, chlordane, aldrin, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzine, mirex, and toxaphene. Those chemicals, nine of which are pesticides, are recognized as highly toxic by the international health community and are scheduled for phaseout worldwide as part of the International Treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Other chemicals found in breast milk include PBDEs, brominated flame retardants, solvents such as tetrachloroethylene, and metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium.Natural Resources Defense Council, “Healthy Milk, Healthy Baby: Chemical Pollution and Mother’s Milk,” accessed January 30, 2011, http://www.nrdc.org/breastmilk/chems.asp. Metals and solvents do not bind to fat, so they are not stored in the body for long; however, they do pass from the mother’s blood into her breast milk and to her baby. Exposure to heavy metals and solvents, like exposure to POPs, has been linked to health effects.

To further explore the issue of synthetic chemicals in breast milk, let’s look at three examples: dioxins, PBDEs, and dieldrin.


Dioxins are chemical by-products and comprise a number of chemicals with similar molecular structure, seventeen of which are considered to be highly toxic and cancer causing. They are not produced intentionally and are created in a range of manufacturing and combustion processes, including the following:

  • Production of certain pesticides (the best-known dioxin is Agent Orange)
  • Paper pulp bleaching
  • Municipal waste incineration
  • Hospital waste incineration
  • Production and incineration of PVC
  • Diesel engine exhaust

Humans are primarily exposed to dioxins and furans through the food they eat. Dioxins are released into the air, and then rain, snow, and other natural processes deposit them onto soil and water, where they combine with sediments and contaminate crops and animals. Dioxin binds tightly to fat and therefore quickly bioaccumulates and persists for a long time in the body. Because it is initially airborne, dioxin has been detected in breast milk around the world, even in places with little or no industrial activity, such as the native Inuit villages in northern Canada.

Dioxin is one chemical that has been the subject of many studies. Exposure to low levels of dioxin, levels as low as those detected in breast milk, have been linked to impaired immune systems, leading to a higher prevalence of certain childhood conditions such as chest congestion. Scientists have found a correlation between high levels of dioxin in body fat and thyroid dysfunction. The thyroid hormone is important to proper brain development, especially early in life. Other studies have associated dioxin exposure to more feminized play behavior in boys and girls. Researchers have discovered that dioxin exposure may also increase the risk of diseases such as endometriosis and diabetes. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and cancers of the liver and stomach have also been connected to dioxin.Lois Marie Gibbs, Dying from Dioxin (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1995), 138.

Dioxin continues to be released into the environment from industrial processes, but efforts are being made to reduce levels released. The World Health Organization conducted two breast milk studies in Europe in 1986 and 1993. Comparing the two revealed a decrease in dioxin levels.Gina M. Solomon and Pilar M. Weiss, “Chemical Contaminants in Breast Milk: Time Trends and Regional Variability,” Environmental Health Perspectives 110, no. 6 (June 2002): 343. That result demonstrates that efforts to reduce the creation and release of dioxin do lessen the amount of the chemical accumulated in breast milk.


Unlike dioxin, little is known about the possible health effects of PBDEs. PBDEs are synthetic chemical fire retardants that are added to plastics, electronics, furniture, and many other home and office products. They are not actually bound to those products, so they are slowly released into the environment over time.

What is known about PBDEs is that they are “rapidly building up in the bodies of people and wildlife around the world.”Marla Cone, “Cause for Alarm over Chemicals,” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2003, accessed January 11, 2011, http://articles.latimes.com/2003/apr/20/local/me-chemicals20. In 2003, the European Union banned two PBDEs that were shown to be accumulating in human bodies; other countries outside Europe have yet to place any restrictions on PBDEs and their use continues to increase.

A study in Sweden demonstrated that there has been a steep increase in the levels of PBDEs measured in women’s breast milk.Natural Resources Defense Council, “Healthy Milk, Healthy Baby: Chemical Pollution and Mother’s Milk,” accessed January 11, 2011, http://www.nrdc.org/breastmilk/chems.asp. Sweden and other Scandinavian countries have been especially concerned with contaminants deposited by rain and snow by inevitable weather patterns that bring pollution from the countries to their south.

Very little is known about the specific ways PBDEs may contribute to human disease. PBDEs, however, demonstrate many properties that are very similar to dioxin and to PCBs. They persist a very long time in the environment and in the body. They are suspected of impairing thyroid function and brain development. Like dioxin, they are also suspected to cause cancer and have been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.K. Hooper and T. A. McDonald, “The PBDEs: An Emerging Environmental Challenge and Another Reason for Breast-Milk Monitoring Programs,” Environmental Health Perspectives 110, no. 6 (June 2002): A339–47, quoted in Gina M. Solomon, “Flame Retardant Chemical Detections Rising in Breast Milk,” Quarterly Review, Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment 2, no. 2 (2000), accessed January 30, 2011, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1240888.

As scientists uncover more information about how PBDEs are absorbed by the body and how such exposures might affect human health, the chemicals, like other POPs, may be subject to bans in many countries. Many European manufacturers are already scaling back use of some PBDEs based on what is already known about their health effects.Marla Cone, “Cause for Alarm over Chemicals,” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2003, accessed January 11, 2011, http://articles.latimes.com/2003/apr/20/local/me-chemicals20.


Dieldrin is an example of the many pesticides that have been banned or severely restricted worldwide. Dieldrin and its sister pesticides aldrin and endrin are banned from use in the United States. In some countries, they are permitted for specific uses under severe restriction. Dieldrin has been used in agriculture for soil and seed treatment as well as for control of mosquitoes and tsetse flies. Other uses for dieldrin include veterinary treatments for sheep, wood treatment against termites, and mothproofing of woolen products.

Dieldrin binds to soil and sediments. It is introduced to the human body primarily through eating contaminated fish, meat, and dairy products and through eating crops grown on soil treated with dieldrin. Dieldrin has been detected in 99 percent of breast milk samples tested for its presence.Natural Resources Defense Council, “Healthy Milk, Healthy Baby: Chemical Pollution and Mother’s Milk,” accessed January 11, 2011, http://www.nrdc.org/breastmilk/chems.asp. Studies done over time show that levels of dieldrin have been decreasing since the chemical was banned. Dieldrin is in the same family of pesticides as DDT. Like DDT, dieldrin is a carcinogen and can interfere with the body’s natural hormone system. Dieldrin is more toxic than DDT but does not persist as long in the environment.Natural Resources Defense Council, “Healthy Milk, Healthy Baby: Chemical Pollution and Mother’s Milk,” accessed January 11, 2011, http://www.nrdc.org/breastmilk/chems.asp.


Even though it contains synthetic chemical contaminants, breast milk is still the best food for babies, according to research. Infant formulas are not a more healthful substitute; after all, most formulas have to be mixed with water or milk and therefore are not free of contaminants. Moreover, formulas lack many of the other nutrients, antibodies, and fats found in breast milk.

The presence of chemicals in breast milk shows that these chemicals are found in most people, particularly people in industrialized countries. Breast milk, then, is both a measure of what environmental exposures give cause for concern and a measure of the effectiveness of efforts to reduce the prevalence of these synthetic chemicals in the environment. As the body of science connecting childhood exposures to these toxic chemicals to human health effects grows, it appears that breast milk contamination will be a growing cause for concern.

Key Takeaways

  • By applying a sustainability approach, one can find opportunities even in mature industries dominated by global giants.
  • Markets exist and are likely to grow for products that reduce exposure to toxic chemicals.
  • Application of sustainability principles presents both opportunities and unique dilemmas.


  1. What is Method’s strategy?
  2. What role does sustainability innovation play in the company’s strategy?
  3. Why was Adam Lowry confronted with the PLA dilemma?
  4. What should he do about PLA? Why?
  5. How is the model of chemical development and deployment changing? How could that change be accelerated?