The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced new criteria to help companies and other groups, such as states and environmental organizations, identify safer chemicals. The new criteria, part of the agency’sDesign for the Environment (DfE)program’s Alternatives Assessments, are intended to be a tool for identifying safer alternatives to chemicals that pose a threat to human health and the environment.

“This new approach for evaluating and identifying safer chemicals is an important step toward ensuring that that the chemicals used in this country are safe,” said Steve Owens, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, in a recent statement. “Making this information available will not only lead to the manufacture of safer products, it will increase the public’s access to critical chemical information.”

The DfE program works in partnership with industry, environmental groups, and academia to help industry choose safer alternatives to potentially harmful chemicals. Information on chemical hazards from DfE Alternatives Assessments is combined with industry data on performance and cost, to guide the choice of safer alternatives. To distinguish among alternatives, DfE evaluates data for each chemical and assigns hazard levels of high, moderate, or low for human health and environmental concerns.

DfE Alternatives Assessments will be conducted for bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, decabromodiphenyl ether (decaBDE), hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) and nonylphenol and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NP and NPEs). Both the BPA and decaBDE efforts are under way and include the use of BPA and its alternatives in thermal paper, such as cash register receipts, and the review of flame retardant alternatives to decaBDE in products such as textiles, plastic palettes, and electronics. Assessments of phthalates, the flame retardant HBCD, and NPEs will begin in 2011.

The EPA hopes the assessments will lead to the manufacture of safer products and reduced chemical exposures. For example, replacing BPA in thermal paper with safer alternatives will safeguard children, cashiers, and others from BPA in cash register or sales receipts. Similarly, safer alternatives to decaBDE flame retardants used in textiles and electronics will eliminate an important route of human and environmental exposure to this chemical.

EPA will accept comment on the criteria through January 31, 2011.