Benign by Design

Solutions / by Elizabeth Grossman /

With toxic compounds turning up in animals, food, and people all over the world, scientists are calling for green chemistry: a sustainable ethos of product design.

More than 40 years ago, Rachel Carson warned of a “silent spring.” Twenty years later, Bill McKibben wrote of the human alteration of every aspect of the natural world. Nature has not ended, but signs of severe and subtle disturbance are everywhere. Scientists are now watching natural systems that have evolved over millennia begin to falter in response to chemical wrenches we’ve introduced into the global environment. The manufactured materials we’ve used for the past century have served us well in many ways. But it is now clear we can no longer afford—if we ever could—to proceed with designs that serve but one generation.

There are now tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals—materials that exist nowhere in nature—that are manufactured commercially and go into products that range from electronics to cosmetics, clothing, cookware, and building materials. They now permeate every aspect of our lives. These chemicals were created to perform specific tasks and are intended to make our lives easier, more convenient, and often safer.

But many of these manufactured materials can also behave in ways that produce adverse health impacts. Chemicals that make up lightweight, shatterproof, and bendable flexible plastics; nonstick, waterproof, stain- and grease-resistant surfaces; and flame retardants are being released into the environment. This contamination stems not only from industrial plants and waste sites but also from finished products as we use them. Many of these chemicals are turning up far—even continents—away from where these products are made, used, or disposed of.

Such chemicals are being found in animals, in food, and in people all over the world. Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control have found dozens of such chemicals in the majority of Americans they’ve tested over the past 10 years. Babies are now born in the U\S with synthetic chemicals already in their bloodstreams.

The acute adverse impacts of exposure to large amounts of highly toxic chemicals have long been known. What’s been discovered more recently is that many synthetic chemicals can interact at very low levels of exposure—levels present in the environment —with the biological mechanisms that maintain reproductive, metabolic, immune system, neurological, and even cardiac health. These effects can lead to chronic conditions that include diabetes, obesity, learning difficulties, and reproductive system disorders.

There are new reports almost daily documenting such synthetic chemicals’ prevalence in places we do not want them—in food, for example. And evidence of adverse health impacts continues to accumulate. Just this month studies have shown an endocrine-disrupting chemical in all the canned food samples tested by Consumer Reports, reproductive problems in workers exposed to the same chemical, and evidence of an array of endocrine-disrupting and other hazardous chemicals throughout the Potomac River system The preponderance of such findings and concern over potential health effects has prompted the American Medical Association to call for measures that would reduce exposure to these chemicals.

Yet as John Warner, one of the leading proponents of green chemistry, says, there is no reason a molecule must be hazardous to perform a particular task. For example, there are nontoxic alternatives to the chemicals that make products lightweight, shatterproof, and moldable. And as Paul Anastas—who with Warner is considered a founder of green chemistry—says, hazard adds nothing to performance and ultimately adds unwanted production costs.

What green chemistry advocates is the creation of materials that are “benign by design”—safe at every stage of a product’s life from the blend of chemicals that comprise it to how it ultimately gets disposed. Its fundamental principle is that the best way to prevent chemical pollution is to eliminate hazard at the design stage. Such products are beginning to make their way into the marketplace: nontoxic cleaning products, building materials, personal care products, and textiles.

But thus far our efforts to alter our overall material landscape have been incremental. We deal with problem chemicals and their effects one by one, a strategy that has proven costly, inefficient, and ultimately ineffective. To solve these problems effectively for the long term, we need to think more holistically about the full environmental footprint of everything we make and use. We will need to consider toxicity on the basis of molecular design and in an ecological context in terms of human health and product life cycle.

To accomplish this we’ll need innovative new policies to help push green chemistry to where its products become the norm rather than the remarkable exception. Central to this challenge will be safety standards that reflect current science on endocrine disruptors along with real transparency in chemical information that can protect proprietary interests without sacrificing the vital public interest of long-term environmental and human health protection.

Replacing hazardous materials with safe alternatives has obvious benefits for environmental health, but the benefits to a business’s bottom line can be considerable as well. It is expensive to use hazardous materials. The costs and liabilities of storing, handling, transporting, and disposing of toxics are high. In addition to advocating for reduction and elimination of hazardous chemicals, green chemistry calls for resource efficiency and for overall reduction of by-products and waste—all measures that cut manufacturing costs. Industries that make products ranging from pharmaceuticals and cosmetics to cleaning products, carpets, and building materials are now working with green chemistry in response to increasing consumer—and corporate—demand for environmentally friendly, safe, and resource-efficient products.

To meet this demand, however, green chemistry faces a significant challenge on the educational front. Surprising as it may be to non-scientists, toxicology, environmental health, and ecological science are not part of traditional chemistry curricula. Few professional scientists, therefore, are trained to understand what makes a molecule toxic or hazardous.

But this is starting to change. Green chemistry is now gaining strength with programs at the Center for Green Chemistry & Engineering at Yale University, Carnegie Mellon’s Institute for Green Science, UC Berkeley’s new Center for Green Chemistry, and programs for safer, greener nanotechnology at the University of Oregon and Rice University, to name but a few.

Better education, rigorous safety standards, and real transparency between industry and the public will go a long way, I believe, toward altering our repeated history of developing new materials with hazards comparable to those we’re trying to replace. If environmental and human health protection is truly the goal, a new design ethic must be put to work.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous, Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry; High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health; and Watershed: The Undamming of America. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Originally published November 24, 2009

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