Glossary of chemical terms
Talking the talk: frequently used chemical terms
Clicking on any word will take you to the definition
Adverse Health Effect
A change in body or cellular function that might lead to a harmful outcome such as disease or health problems.
A chemical or substance that can cause an allergic reaction.
The OECD defines this as a “process for identifying and comparing potential chemical and non-chemical alternatives that can be used as substitutes to replace chemicals or technologies of high concern” in a product or process. Alternatives Assessment helps you select safer chemicals or alter manufacturing processes to limit impacts of your product on human and environmental health while considering product performance and cost. Read more about Alternatives Assessment here.
Bioaccumulation occurs when a chemical, present in an organism, increases in concentration faster than it is broken down. Bioaccumulation can occur in people or animals if a chemical is absorbed, through skin, ingestion, or inhalation, and then builds up in fat, blood, muscle, or other tissue faster than it is metabolized or excreted by the body. High concentrations of a chemical of concern can result in toxicity.
A substance (naturally occurring or synthetic) or radiation that causes cancer. Carcinogens act by altering normal cell function, causing the cell or cells to grow out of control, leading to the development of tumor or tumors.
A unique numerical identifier assigned to a chemical by the Chemical Abstract Service (CAS), a division of the American Chemical Society. In order for a chemical to receive a CAS number, information on that chemical must be available in the open, scientific literature. A CAS number is formatted into 3 sections separated by hyphens and can contain up to 10 digits (e.g., 7439-89-6 is the CAS number for Iron).
A CAS number can also be called Chemical Abstract Service Registry Number, or CASRN.
As defined by the Chemical Footprint Project a chemical footprint is “the total mass of chemicals of high concern in products sold by a company, used in its manufacturing operations and by its suppliers, and contained in packaging.” Knowing its chemical footprint can help a company take action to reduce the impact of chemicals of concern in its business.
Reducing human health and environmental impacts of chemicals through responsible supply chain management and product design to minimize use of toxic chemicals.
Refers to hazards presented by chemicals to humans, animals, ecosystems, or the environment.
Chemicals alternatives assessment
Another term for Alternatives Assessment (defined above).
Chemicals of concern
Chemicals known or suspected to have potential negative health impacts on humans, animals, or the environment.
A substance that is carcinogenic, mutagenic, or toxic for reproduction.
Chemicals that appear in products (e.g. food, detergent) but are not naturally present in the raw material and/or were not intentionally added as ingredients. They may arise from product packaging, transportation, manufacturing processing equipment, farm cultivation, or raw material extraction. Trace contaminants are contaminants that are present at very low levels.
De minimis risk
A level of risk that the scientific and regulatory community asserts is too insignificant to regulate.
A chemical that interferes with the body’s endocrine system, which produces and regulates hormones. Disruptions in the endocrine system can lead to a number of adverse health effects including developmental effects, reproductive effects, neurological effects, and cancer in both humans and animals.
The process of determining the level of exposure to a chemical. Methodologies involve evaluating all pathways of exposure (i.e., inhalation, ingestion, and dermal absorption) as well as uncertainties in the assessment.
Ingredients in food, food contact substances, and chemicals used in food processing.
Food contact substances (FCS)
Chemicals added to packaging, either raw material and final product, and food handling equipment that may contaminate food. FDA regulates these as ‘food additives’ or GRAS.
Generally recognized as safe (GRAS)
Ingredients or food contact substances that are not FDA approved ‘food additives.’ FDA allows companies to self-certify these chemical uses as safe without informing the agency or the public.
A chemical that damages genetic material, DNA and/or RNA. Damage to genetic material can lead to mutations, or coding errors, in the genetic code, which can cause cell death, cancer, and other health effects.
The design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the generation or use of substances that are hazardous to humans and the environment.
GreenScreen® for Safer Chemicals
Greenscreen® is a “method for chemical hazard assessment designed to identify chemicals of high concern and safer alternatives” developed by Clean Production Action. The methodology is publicly available. Benchmark scores are applied to chemicals following hazard assessment.
Marketing and advertising, including slogans and claims on packaging and advertisements, that falsely present a product or company as environmentally friendly, or “green”. See the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, which provide guidance for companies to avoid making misleading environmental claims.
The process of evaluating the intrinsic hazard(s), or harm, that a chemical or substance may cause to human health and/or the environment.
Home care products
Formulated products meant for cleaning purposes (e.g. surface cleaning, dish detergent, laundry detergent, air care). Also known as household cleaning products.
A chemical or chemical mixture intentionally added to a product to provide a certain function, such as to prevent microbial growth or to help materials bind together.
The presence or inclusion of harmful microorganisms in an item, such as food or a personal care product, making it unfit for use or consumption.
A chemical that alters DNA or chromosome number or structure irreversibly in a manner that can be passed to subsequent cell generations through cell division (if they are not lethal to the cell in which they occur).
A toxic substance (natural or artificial) that causes reversible or irreversible damage to the function or state of the central and/or peripheral nervous systems.
The ability of a chemical to exist in the environment without degrading or breaking down. Persistent chemicals can bioaccumulate in ecosystems over time.
A substance that is persistent in the environment, bioaccumulates in the food chain, and is toxic to humans and/or the environment.
Personal care products
Formulated products intended to be used on or around the body (e.g. lotion, cosmetics, sunscreen, and hair care products). There is no legal definition of personal care products, though some personal care products fall under regulatory categories such as “cosmetics” and “drugs” (e.g., antiperspirants).
Reducing the risk of human or environmental health impacts through responsible product design by minimizing generation of pollution and waste as well as use of toxic chemicals, energy, and water.
Substituting use of a toxic chemical in a product or process with another toxic chemical. Regrettable substitutions occur when decision-making is based on an insufficient amount of data on, or minimal attention paid to, the safety of the chemical substitute.
A chemical that causes harm to the reproductive system of a human or animal, such as changes to fertility, interference with sexual functioning, or changes to onset of puberty.
The process of assessing the extent to which exposure to a chemical or chemical mixture will cause negative effects to human health or the environment. Risk assessment proceeds through four steps: hazard identification, dose-response assessment, exposure assessment, and risk characterization.
A chemical or substance that causes people or animals to develop an allergic reaction after repeated exposure.
The design, manufacture and use of efficient, effective, safe and more environmentally benign chemical products and processes. Green chemistry (defined above) is an essential part of sustainable chemistry.
A chemical that causes negative, developmental effects on an embryo or fetus, leading to spontaneous abortion, death of the fetus, or birth defects.