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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Aqueous Cleaning Handbook

Question:
Dr. Carole LeBlanc of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Massachusetts indicates in the forward of The Aqueous Cleaning Handbook that Alconox, Inc has a "self-imposed mission to educate the public about aqueous cleaning."

Answer:
Forward to The Aqueous Cleaning Handbook
Most cleaning practitioners are familiar with the story: the scientists who developed chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), first as refrigerants and then as solvents, had struck upon what they thought were safe, inert materials. CFCs would replace petroleum- based chemicals known for their health hazards. CFCs were relatively inexpensive, readily available and most importantly, they worked.

What the researchers did not know was the impact these chlorine-containing substances would have on the ozone layer: that portion of the atmosphere responsible for shielding the earth from some of the solar system's most harmful ultraviolet
(UV) rays.

Chlorine (Cl) atoms participate in the destruction of ozone (O3) as they randomly make their way into the upper atmosphere. The reaction is catalytic with the potential for one (1) Cl atom to destroy thousands of O3 molecules. The introduction of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) as secondary replacement chemicals reduced but did not eliminate this danger.

CFCs and HCFCs also increase global warming by interfering with the atmosphere's natural ability to radiate heat away from the planet. This exacerbates the Greenhouse Effect most noticeably impacted by fossil fuel burning.

The international Montreal Protocol treaty and the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments govern the usage and production of most of these compounds, including VOC (volatile organic compound) emitters. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) identifies acceptable substitutes. These laws purposefully devastated organic and chlorinated solvent markets while fostering research and development. Hundreds of companies specializing in surface preparation, cleaning, rinsing, drying and inspection owe their economic feasibility to regulatory drivers.

In addition, the U.S. EPA's Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) provides a powerful tracking tool for looking at the places and the reasons hazardous chemicals are used. This transpired against a back drop of Right-to-Know legislation and chemical accidents culminating, in no small measure, with the inception of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs). The occurrence of the words "test data unavailable" or "unknown" on many of these documents helped set the stage for other environmental initiatives.
Initiatives in northern Europe have begun to reflect the precautionary principle. This is the EH&S equivalent to the Hippocratic medical oath, "First do no harm." The translation: sell no product whose environmental, health and safety concerns have not yet been elucidated.

The principle represents a radical departure from conventional thinking that may be lost on those not directly involved in the chemical industry Thousands of new chemicals enter the market each year while little is known about the vast majority of existing chemicals. This would no longer be tolerated under a system that demands thorough environmental and health information before exposure (as opposed to after a potential, unknown disaster). Chemical manufacturers would have stronger stewardship responsibilities. Products would take longer to reach the marketplace. And once a substance was deemed safe, who would be liable for any errors that are sure to occur? It remains to be seen whether American society, steeped in litigation, can rise to the occasion.

Testing parameters other than those based on the cancer paradigm need to be determined. The study of chemicals' effects at low concentrations, should be expanded (negative impacts from low-dose exposures include hormone mimickers and endocrine disrupters). The effects of chemical mixtures, individually thought to be benign, bear more investigation. Methods of extrapolating test data as well as gender and age differentials require review.

Other problems remain. Most government policies focus on chemical handling and use. They do not necessarily take into account a chemical's life cycle or environmental fate. Nor do they fully consider the drain that chemical manufacture can place on natural resources and raw materials. Risks may simply be shifting from the site of usage to the chemical's production plant (or power plant) rather than real progress being made. This is especially worrisome in light of environmental justice issues.

It is no wonder, then, that many industries are rediscovering water (H2O) as the ideal cleaning medium, the only universal solvent truly non-toxic to both humans and the environment. Like the CFC and HCFC designers, today's formulators will undoubtedly push aqueous (i.e., water-based) cleaners to the scientific limits of the day. This is no time for intellectual arrogance. Chemical exposures effect workers, consumers and communities. Early partnering with stakeholders may ameliorate
the mistakes historically associated with the discovery process.

The constituents and mechanisms of aqueous cleaners must be understood. Surfactants and emulsifiers, alkaline builders and the dependence on water and energy (increasingly precious resources in an over-populated world), all matter to the concerned scientist. One suspects that not all aqueous cleaners are created equal.

There are challenging opportunities for advancement. It is possible to envision the day when manufacturers will no longer be forced to use hazardous materials for surface cleaning in the production of quality goods and services. Furthermore, toxic-free analytical techniques for surface evaluation will be invented that are superior to those now in use.

Based on the cornerstones of pollution prevention and cleaner production,* pursuit of this vision minimizes or eliminates environmental impacts and health and safety risks linked to many industrial cleaning applications. These objectives support a more sustainable business plan, leading to better job security and overall quality of life.

Alconox, Inc. deserves much credit for its self-imposed mission to educate the public about aqueous cleaning. Readers, prepare to learn well from this Handbook.
Click for more information on The Aqueous Cleaning Handbook.

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