August 23, 2021

Meet Lauren Zeise, PSX 2021 Closing Keynote Speaker

Lauren Zeise, PhD, has worked in the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) since its inception in 1991, and is currently the director of the organization. Previously she served as deputy director for science at OEHHA and managed the Proposition 65 program. She has been instrumental in developing a system of Proposition 65 implementing regulations as well as the hazard trait regulations for California’s Safe Consumer Products. She has coauthored hundreds of risk assessments and has published widely. Inveterate in her service on advisory committees, she coauthored various seminal National Academy of Sciences reports addressing sustainability, chemical safety and public health, and is an honorary national associate of the NAS. She received the 2008 Outstanding Risk Practitioner Award from the Society of Risk Analysis. She will also be the closing keynote speaker at PSX 2021.

We spoke with Zeise, along with opening PSX keynote speaker Michal Freedhoff, about their experiences and expertise in product stewardship.

How did you get involved in environmental protection?

It started with an early interest in environmental issues. I was a child of the pre-EPA 1960s, when rivers caught fire, photos of the effects of Minamata disease made the cover of Life magazine, and, in my Los Angeles community, you literally could not take a deep breath on certain days in late summer due to the thickness of the smog. I wanted to make a difference.

But while I was drawn to working on environmental problems, there were few academic programs available at the time. Harvard had a graduate program in the environmental sciences and engineering division that had a strong policy element, so I went there. After my masters’, I took a break to work at the US EPA headquarters in the effluent guidelines program.

Back then, the agency was young, less than 10 years old. The work required me to visit about 100 manufacturing facilities throughout the country. Witnessing the crude methods of handling toxic substances that were in use at the time was an eye-opening experience. Significant improvements were made simply by addressing the disposal of industrial wastes into the land or water supply.

I returned to graduate school and worked on developing risk assessment methods for my doctorate and then in my postdoc research. Tired of the long Boston winters, however, I returned to California, first consulting on risk assessment and then working for the state government’s nascent drinking water program and on the implementation of Proposition 65. I found working at the intersection of policy and science fascinating and fulfilling, and I have worked in California state government ever since.

What's the most unexpected—but helpful—piece of advice that you have received as a scientist working in government?

Working in government is a team sport, involving many insightful and supportive colleagues, and—through our public processes—interested parties, affected communities, and the general public. As a young scientist in state government, I did not understand the importance of our public processes, but I have come to appreciate how very important they are in understanding problems and finding solutions.

How do you define product stewardship or product sustainability?

While I hesitate to provide a definition, from my perspective, product stewardship involves responsible actions by manufacturers, distributors, workers, consumers, and governments throughout the manufacture, supply, use, and disposal life cycle. These responsible actions work toward four goals:

  • To minimize the environmental impacts of product manufacture throughout the lifecycle and maximize the environmental benefits of the product
  • To minimize energy use
  • To ensure the public health’s is adequately protected
  • To ensure workers are protected, adequately compensated, and fulfilled in their work

It is important to be broad and comprehensive in the assessment of environmental and public health impacts. An example is the 26 “hazard traits” that my organization, OEHHA, developed to help guide California’s Safer Consumer Products Program in assessing products or chemical combinations and their potential alternatives. The hazard traits cover toxicological, environmental, exposure potential, and physical traits of concern.

In what ways are national and international agencies and organizations making strides in the area of product stewardship? What are you most excited or optimistic about?

There are a number of initiatives by local governments and states here in the US and in the European Union that speak a growing recognition of the importance of product stewardship and sustainable product design. The European Union has articulated a vision of a modern, resource efficient, and competitive economy and a sustainable product initiative and, in March of last year, adopted a circular economy action plan.

While much of the efforts in the sustainability space emphasize the reduction of energy and resource consumption, it is important not to lose sight of the degradation of the environment and the impacts on public health of the use of toxic chemical inputs in manufacturing products and their toxic degradants. California’s Proposition 65 List identifies chemicals known by the state to cause cancer or to have reproductive toxicity. Various organizations have utilized that list in their compilations of chemicals known to be hazardous and best avoided.

As has been widely discussed, many chemicals in use and chemical breakdown products have not been studied toxicologically. Tools are emerging that use supercomputing methods to evaluate potential upstream reactions between biological molecules and industrial chemicals. These are within the sphere of the so-called “New Approach Methods (NAMs)” - alternatives to traditional toxicology testing that generally avoid testing in mammals. They emphasize robotic testing of chemicals in human cell lines and cell components, and other novel systems. Application NAMs can provide insight into chemicals that may be considered to be “safer.” I am very excited and optimistic in the growing interest within product stewardship in developing safer chemicals and the role these methods may potentially play to expedite the process.

What is one future trend you would like to see more focus towards from the product stewardship community?
I wish to see early involvement by product stewards in efforts to develop “safer” chemistries in product manufacturing and to broaden the conversation on what “safer” means. Some early “green chemistry” attempts focus on one facet of the problem, but the concept of product stewardship emphasizes the importance of addressing the full life cycle of a product and its effects in multiple dimensions.

In your position, there are times when you have to make quick, important decisions. Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed how you approach both risk management and the decision-making process?
The pandemic has reinforced the importance of understanding the spectrum of risks and benefits associated with different actions and of considering the scale of risks as well as precautionary action taken in the face of those risks. It has provided us all with real-time lessons regarding following the science and updating our policies as more is learned and situations unfold. Nuanced, circumstance-dependent decision making has been so important in the treatment and care of those affected. It has been interesting to watch the treatment recommendations change as the weight of the scientific evidence informing those recommendations developed.

What are some of the key messages that you hope PSX attendees will take from your session?

I will devote time to the problem of over-warning about Proposition 65 chemicals in products and ways to avoid that. I hope to show how Proposition 65 can inform product stewardship and how, beyond Proposition 65, there are exciting, emerging methods to assist products stewards’ understanding of which chemicals are safer than others and that can inform chemical classification. I am looking forward to having a conversation about moving forward in product stewardship and advancing sustainable products.

Want to learn more about Dr. Zeise and Proposition 65 chemicals? Register today for PSX 2021?


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