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The Louisville Charter for Safer Chemicals

Members of Rubbertown Emergency ACTion, Louisville, Kentucky

In the “Rubbertown” area of Louisville, Kentucky, 11 industrial facilities release millions of pounds of toxic air emissions each year. Nearby residents suffer asthma, cancers, and other related health problems. Adding insult to injury, they are frequently ordered to “shelter in place” because of life-threatening accidental gas releases—or may even be blown off the map by a catastrophic explosion at one of these nearby chemical facilities or refineries.

It isn't surprising to many people when they learn that the surrounding community is predominantly African-American and low-income. Although it isn't surprising, it is totally unacceptable. Too often, the most disenfranchised communities become the target locations for toxic waste dumps, hazardous chemical facilities, and chemical plants which emit toxic air and water pollution. Politically disempowered communities often have no choice but to accept a disproportionate share of the harms our energy and chemical industries create. On top of all this, the dynamics of gentrification, poverty, and racism push disenfranchised communities into more dangerous and polluted neighborhoods.  

In May 2004, Louisville grassroots environmental justice groups fought back. Pulling together grassroots organizations and environmental justice leaders from across the nation—representing different communities but sharing common problems—they met to define what truly just government policies to protect human health and the environment from exposure to unnecessary harmful chemicals should look like. The Louisville Charter for Safer Chemicals was named to honor this city and all the communities across the nation committed to ending harm from toxic chemical contamination—starting with the people who are harmed first and worst.

In the past, environmental health policies often failed to meet the actual needs of impacted communities or were designed in a way that is unfair to people living on the fenceline of chemical facilities and their pollution. At Coming Clean, we believe in environmental health and justice for all—such that no community is left behind. For these reasons, we’re proud to host the Louisville Charter for Safer Chemicals, and we work to promote its guidelines for just chemical policies:

  • Require Safer Substitutes and Solutions—Eliminate the use and emission of hazardous chemicals by adopting cleaner production processes, substituting safer chemicals, redesigning products and systems, rewarding innovation, and re-examining product function.
  • Phase Out Persistent, Bioaccumulative, or Highly Toxic Chemicals—Dangerous chemicals that are slow to degrade and accumulate in our bodies or the environment should be eliminated and not exported to other countries.
  • Give the Public and Workers the Full Right-to-Know and Participate—As we are being exposed to these substances, we all deserve the right to know what chemicals are being manufactured and used in our food or products, and we deserve meaningful involvement in all decisions about these substances.
  • Act on Early Warnings—When credible evidence of harm exists, even when some uncertainty remains, we should act immediately to prevent any further harm from new or existing chemicals. No individuals should serve as unwilling or unwitting guinea-pigs.
  • Require Comprehensive Safety Data for All Chemicals—Manufacturers should provide to the public sufficient information for a reasonable evaluation of the safety of any chemical before it is allowed on the market.
  • Take Immediate Action to Protect Communities and Workers—People are currently facing ongoing adverse chemical exposures, and immediate action should be taken to stop these exposures—especially where a population is disproportionately burdened by harms related to toxic chemicals.  

How to Use the Louisville Charter

We encourage you to use the Charter for Safer Chemicals and endorse its principles. The following are some practical applications of the Charter. These activities show how broadly the document can be applied—and the need for continued input from environmental justice and health groups.

Federal, State, and Local Legislative Policies

We must ensure that the principles of the Louisville Charter are at the forefront of efforts to reform chemical policy and that new laws and regulations protect everyone—including the most vulnerable communities and populations.

Key principles of the Charter have already had great success in certain states. For example, in Massachusetts, the Toxic Use Reduction Act requires that companies assess their options to reduce or eliminate certain toxic chemicals, through measures including material substitution and product reformulation (key tenets in the Charter). In 10 years, these companies reduced their use of toxic chemicals by 40%, by-product waste by 58% and toxic emissions by 80%. A cost-benefit analysis shows these companies saved $14 million over the same period.

Market Campaigns

In conjunction with our work to pass strong chemical policies, many groups are working to educate businesses and consumers about how to choose safer chemicals and products. They are also advocating for companies to implement health-protective chemical policies, like those outlined in the Charter for Safer Chemicals. For more information about these market campaigns, see our companion website,

Corporate Engagement

The Charter for Safer Chemicals provides a common set of principles that manufacturers can endorse to make decisions about which chemicals they use and release, and how they interact with workers and the public—particularly their immediate neighbors. Leading brands in the electronics industry, the healthcare sector, and others are phasing out toxic chemicals and implementing principles from the Charter. They are collaborating with NGOs and leaders in government and sustainability through groups like the BizNGO Working Group and the American Sustainable Business Council.