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GC&E Conference Preview: Dr. Colleen McLoughlin on Advancing Alternatives Assessment

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By Ashley Baker, Scientific Content Manager (Contractor) at the ACS Green Chemistry Institute

We interviewed Enhesa's Director of Toxicology on the intersection of green chemistry and alternatives assessment. In this Q&A, Dr. Colleen McLoughlin shares her expertise and her excitement for the upcoming GC&E session she's helped organize on the same theme.

By Ashley Baker, Scientific Content Manager (Contractor) at the ACS Green Chemistry Institute

Leading up to the GC&E Conference, we interviewed Dr. Colleen McLoughlin, Director of Toxicology at Enhesa, a company providing software-based solutions for choosing and implementing safer and more sustainable chemistries. Colleen brings a unique perspective as part of the organizing team for the GC&E session “Bridging the Gap between Green Chemistry & Engineering and Alternatives Assessment.”

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 Read on to learn more about the exciting technical programming you can look forward to at this year’s conference!

Q. Can you start by sharing a little bit about yourself and your work as a toxicologist?

A. My background is in both engineering and toxicology. I have a bachelor’s and a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Virginia Commonwealth University. In my graduate work, I did immunotoxicology and engineering research, I was looking at the immunotoxicity of engineered nanomaterials. At the end of my dissertation, I did a little bit of work in drug delivery system development. I then went to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and I worked with their engineers on inhalation systems and did toxicology research on occupationally relevant chemicals.

From there, I joined a very small startup called Scivera, which provided a software tool for chemical hazard and risk assessment. It came out of the need for people to be able to compare hazard profiles and look for alternatives. This work was primarily in consumer products, which was really different for me. I love it because we work across so many different product types and look at so many different chemistries. Every day there is something different, I get to learn something new, and I always get to be challenged, too. That’s really fun.

About three years ago, Scivera was acquired by Enhesa. Enhesa is a global company so there’s this amazing diversity with offices and employees around the world and the expertise that everyone brings. We have scientists, an editorial team, and lawyers who deal with regulations and look at laws, and I’ve been here for almost eight years now.

Q. Why is alternatives assessment an important part of green chemistry and sustainability?

A. I really like the analogy we came up with in the session abstract, that chemists and engineers are like athletes learning to swing a golf club or hit a ball. Athletes learn techniques, just like scientists learn the principles of green chemistry and engineering. Learning the rules, objectives, and various strategies to play the sport complements these techniques, and that’s the role of alternatives assessment. It allows chemists and engineers to go beyond the techniques to optimize their designs in response to parameters.

There are always tradeoffs in choosing different chemistries, so there is a need for alternatives assessment to do deep dives and additional analysis on specific aspects to find truly safer alternatives. It comes back to ensuring safer chemistries and not having regrettable substitutions.

Q. How does alternatives assessment work at Enhesa to guide decision-making?

A. We have different pieces of software, including a research tool called ToxPlanet that pulls all the toxicological literature together through one search. Then, we have what came out of Scivera, which we now call Chemical Assess and Supply Chain Connect. My team of toxicologists looks at the hazard profiles of chemicals across 23 different endpoints. We look at human health, environmental health and fate, physical endpoints, and environmental transformation products.

We present the information in a way that anyone can use it. A toxicologist can dive in and they can get to all the details, all the studies, all of our conclusions. But we also provide everything with a stoplight system. Red is bad, green is good. We provide that information for each of the 23 endpoints, but we also summarize that into an overall score for a chemical. So, we have chemicals of high concern where you can immediately see that it’s a red and that’s a chemical you want to avoid. An overall “safer” chemical might be a yellow or a yellow/green, and we also have a gray which means there are a lot of data gaps for that chemical.

We were working with a company in the electronics sector and reviewing a product formulation for them, and we found one of those “red” category chemicals of high concern. So, they decided to replace that chemical, and the replacement material they chose the first time actually ended containing a PFAS chemistry. We went through another round to help them find a new raw material, and it was overall a much safer product profile and they didn’t have any chemicals of high concern.

Within our Supply Chain Connect software, anyone can send a request to their suppliers to get chemical information. The actual names and CAS RNs can be redacted so suppliers can protect their confidential business information (CBI), but the brand or whoever they’re selling to can still see that hazard profile and start to make decisions on the chemistries they use.

One other piece we do that combines all of this is certification work, mainly in textiles. We do a program called Screened Chemistry, and we work with Jeanologia on their program “Environmental Impact Monitoring” (EIM). Within Screened Chemistry, we combine hazard profiles with the supply chain connections, we rate products overall, and we have a registry of safer and more sustainable products. We’ve worked with a lot of companies to find safer products and safer, locally available raw materials. Through our partnership on EIM, the participating companies can also determine other sustainability metrics, like water usage and energy.

Q. How has the use of alternatives assessment in industry changed, how is it being used now, and what would help increase its uptake?

A. It has grown, but it varies with different product sectors. Earlier on there was a lot more adoption within textiles and electronics. But now we’re talking to a much broader range of companies, and we’ve started to engage more with large retailers.

For example, we’ve been working with Nike for a long time. We work with their innovation team so that they can screen all of their new materials, and that’s been a really great partnership. We’ve been able to go to the Nike offices a few times and provide trainings. They use our tools to look at their supply chain as well.

Most companies engage with both their chemistries and their supply chains. It depends on the company, so we keep the options open. But in the end, one of our key messages is that those are two very important things to know. You need to know what is in your products, and you need to know what their profiles are. Regulations would certainly help to increase adoption, as can consumer pressure, but making the link for companies between safer chemistry and broader sustainability goals often helps them to prioritize safer alternatives.

Q. For the GC&E session, there are a lot of topics that are going to be covered, running the gamut from metrics to emerging environmental justice considerations. What intersections are you the most excited about?

A. I’m really excited about all of it! The idea for this session came about between the Association for the Advancement of Alternatives Assessment (A4) and Change Chemistry. We’re always looking to see how we can work with other organizations and bring quality alternatives assessment content to the community. We put this session together with a mix of invited talks and great submissions from the community.

I’m excited for the first two talks by Catherine Rudisill, Founder and Principal at Safer Chemistry Advisory, that will give an overview of alternatives assessment. Then, Saskia van Bergen from the Washington State Department of Ecology is going to give examples and set the stage to tie the fields of green chemistry, green engineering, and alternatives assessment together. David Laviska’s (ACS GCI) talk will be great for students, and Jenny MacKellar from Change Chemistry, one of the other organizers, will speak on cross-value-chain collaboration.

I think the whole session, the flow, makes a lot of sense. The talks will start at a higher level, then we’ll get to dig into specific topics and tools which will be really interesting. With alternatives assessment being a matured field, there are examples, there are toolkits, there are established practices that people can use to find safer chemistries. People who walk away from this session will know what the tools are, how to use them, and reduce the likelihood of regrettable substitutions.


There’s still time to register for the 28th Annual GC&E, taking place June 2-5 in Atlanta, GA! Visit the conference website to explore the full technical program, Keynote speakers, and special events like workshops and networking receptions.