Green Chemistry

John Warner‘s an interesting and innovative chemist, but of all the things he said in a pre-interview, this was the most striking: there’s not a single regular chemistry Ph.D. program in this country that requires a course in toxicology. Think about that for a minute. You’re taught how to use and create lots of dangerous chemicals, but you don’t have to know how to deal with their toxicity. Or even that they are toxic — and not just in the lab, but everywhere out there in the real world.

Warner and Paul Anastas are the daddies of an adolescent discipline called “green chemistry” — based on designing chemical products and manufacturing processes in ways that drastically reduce (or even eliminate) environmental hazards.

In other words, green chemists design things that are made of benign components and that break down, at the end of useful life, into harmless or reusable elements. And they devise manufacturing processes that use nontoxic chemicals and don’t create polluting wastestreams. They invent industrial processes in which waste from the manufacture of one product becomes the raw material for another product (industrial ecology). They also figure out how to make products in energy-efficient ways — because fossil fuels are a major pollutant in their own right.

There are now, for example, companies making plastics out of corn; and pharmaceutical giants making popular drugs with 90% fewer solvents. What’s driving corporations to do this? Green chemistry’s only about 15 years old, but firms are already savoring the financial benefit (to the tune of millions of dollars) of cheaper inputs and negligible cleanup costs.

So, ROS people: this might be your first chance to ask a green chemist a question — what would you like to know?

John Warner

Director of the Center for Green Chemistry, University of Massachusetts Lowell

Buzz Cue

Former VP at Pfizer

Started Pfizer’s internal green chemistry program

Andrea Larson

Professor, Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, University of Virginia

Pam Marrone

Founder and CEO, Marrone Organic Innovations

Extra Credit Reading
Chris Mooney, The Right Chemistry, The American Prospect: Online Edition, April 8, 2006

Stephen Leahy, Scientists Set Sights on ‘Green Chemistry’, Inter Press Service News Agency, September 25, 2006

Robert Gavin, Making it easier to be green, Boston Globe, September 4, 2006

Elizabeth Weise, Green chemistry takes root, USA Today, November 22, 2004

Green chemistry, Wikipedia

Related Content


  • “companies making plastics out of corn”

    It’s not at all obvious why industrial chemicals made from plants are intrinsically “greener” than ones made from any other source. Sure, you can use corn to produce ethanol, but you can just as easily use wood to produce methanol. Does that make corn “greener” than wood?

    Starting with a basic set of organic-chemistry building blocks derived from common plants and adding in other natural ingredients like chlorine or phosphorous it’s relatively easy to make all manners of solvents, neurotoxins, carcinogens, and other nasty stuff. Some of deadliest chemicals known to man occur naturally.

    I’m all for higher safety standards in chemical engineering and industrial chemistry, but I wish people would get this idea out of their heads that just because something comes from nature it’s intrinsically safer.

    Case in point – I’m an “organic” gardener and I use fairly-well-composted cow manure as fertilizer. But as we saw recently with the spinach contamination, if that spinach had been fertilized with fertilizer made in a factory instead of in a cow, there are about 75 people who would not be in the hospital today (some of whom will lose their kidneys) and one person who would not be dead.

  • I would ask chemists who have learned about toxicology, “How do you live with yourself?”

    I am suffering from toxic levels of 4 heavy metals. And the presence of a 5th that exacerbates the symptoms of one of the others. I am not a case of an “acute” poisoning – a large exposure due to ingestion or inhalation. I am a case of chronic exposure, absorbing these toxic materials through my skin over a long period of time.

    My life has been turned upside down as I seek the sources of these toxins. They are everywhere. Particularly in the fibers of all our textiles. I have to replace clothing, bedding, towels, furnishings, rugs, car upholstery. And I own a yarn store. I now can’t touch my own products.

    The hardest part of wrestling with the chemical injury, besides the permanent damage to my health, is that when I try to research products that do not contain these materials – which are toxic to the workers who make them and to the environment that the production waste is deposited into – companies simply can’t tell me if the toxins are present. They don’t bother to know and they don’t try to find out once I’ve asked and made it clear that I have a medical need to know.

    They simply don’t want to know because it might mean they have to make changes. Shameful.

    I echo plnelson’s point about natural, too. Arsenic is natural, but it can kill you. We simply need to be aware of what is toxic and whether it can be used safely and how it can be disposed of safely.

    Though, I’m not sure I agree about the fertilizer. The e-coli outbreak is not a case for synthetic fertiizer. It is a case for more education about safe composting – you have to keep certain temperature throughout your material for a certain period of time to kill pathogens. Synthetic fertilizers may have meant that these people wouldn’t have e-coli, but they and others might have cancer, instead.

    The challenge of our industrialized world and how to keep producing so much stuff is that the topic is complex. There are no simple answers. Usually, groups as large as nations, don’t handle complex topics well.

  • Cave_Blogem

    Of course “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean “safe.” Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter” was killed quite naturally last week. But in many cases natural bio-chemical processes are intrinsically safer because creatures simply cannot generate the same temperatures, pressures and caustic solvents that the petrochemical industry can. So the fact that a spider can create a web that is pound-for-pound stonger than steel should suggest to modern chemists that it is possible to create something really strong and flexible with different, safer industrial processes.

    But plnelson is onto a question, I think, which is: What do you have to do with the corn to make it into plastic? Henry Ford made all sorts of things out of plastic, even going so far as to have a suit made from corn. But wasn’t that just for show? To fool the people who are buffaloed by a perceived difference between natural and manufactured? Or are the benefits real, in terms of lowered energy use, lessened use of toxic intermediaries, lower overall materials usage, etc.? I’d ask Warner that.

  • vigneron

    Any entry college chemistry student will become familar with the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). The student of a PhD program who needs a toxicology course may be in the wrong profession. Or please make the case in greater depth. The ‘Green’ processes are what I find most intriguing.

  • girlsforscience

    Chemists may not be required to learn toxicology, but those who work in environmental cleanup are. HAZMAT crews and Disaster Responders, including those who went to serve in New Orleans, study the health effects and hazards associated with the work. There is a tremendous amount to be familiar with, from how to approach the unknown with Standard Operating Procedures to Personal Protective Equipment and Exposure Symptoms. The Material Safety Data Sheet is a HAZMAT workers best friend, because it gives workers a quite review of chemicals and their properties. There are so many, we can’t possibly memorize them all. I would like to state that Standard Operating Procedures, Rules & Regulations regarding Safety and Health on the clean-up site and Personal Protective Equipment have been responsible for keeping many of us safe from serious consequences. If we educate ourselves, follow the rules and realize that regulations are grounded in common sense more often than not, we would save so much in health care costs, OSHA claims and make our business operations more efficient as well. Designing chemicals has been important, but how do we anticipate all the possible environmental hazards that can affect peoples’ health once they are released for sale? What about waste and storage issues? Toxicology becomes akin to the question of how we handle radioactive waste, in the end. It is costly, somewhat unpredictable and difficult to deal with once it has been applied for its initial purpose. We are good at developing chemicals, but don’t think much about what happens to them after they are sold.

  • girlsforscience

    Please visit sites designed to certify HAZMAT and Asbestos Abatement workers. Cleanup workers, no matter what they address, are required in almost all instances to be certified.

  • but, girlsforscience, that’s bassackwards. It shouldn’t be that we only train people about toxicology because they have to clean up the toxic messes we shouldn’t have created in the first place. You talk about dealing with toxic chemicals after they are sold. How about not making them? Especially if we don’t have a way of disposing of them safely. And I don’t mean storing them. We need to get to a place where we understand that we can’t just store all of our crap. We have design things so that they can be re-introduced into natural systems safely.

  • joel

    I think “girlsforscience” is on your side, allison. It seems she is simply saying, as “vigneron” did, that much has been done to get the needed information out there for sensible behavior in the chemical processing, synthesis, and application fields to achieve the goals of “green chemistry” (though I’m sure there is room for much more to be done) and a big step toward your goals would be for people to be bothered to avail themselves of the known information and then act responsibly.

    Cheers.

    P.S. Acting responsibly even without the information, or course, given one’s awareness of one’s ignorance, would, obviously, help greatly as well.

  • Hi Joel, thanks for the bridge building. I can see that perspective.

    I also realize that my initial question of “How can you live with yourself?” is not appropriate for this guest, as he is clearly not living with the status quo approach to chemistry.

    I would love to know if there are any models to turn to in Europe, or elsewhere. I know that Germany has set higher standards for ecological sustainability than anywhere. But I think Finland and the other northern countries are pretty on top of this as well. Though, I don’t know how it applies to the work of their chemists.

    My comment to girlsforscience, could probably be more succinctly framed as, “perhaps we could all adopt the tenet ‘do no harm’ in all of our professions. This would then require that we find out if our work would do harm.”

  • Katherine

    girlsforscience: You’re surely right about the HAZMAT crews, but the point here — which you make in your last sentence — is that the people who are creating the chemicals and products aren’t necessarily thinking about their toxicity. If the chemicals/products were created so as to be nontoxic from the beginning, there would be less need for the HAZMAT expertise.

  • joel

    allison: A local (on the beach head of the U.S.A.) model you might enjoy checking out might be Bill McDonough, one of whose pursuits is the “Cradle to Grave” (a name, I think, of a paper of his) concept of responsibility for manufactured goods. Akin to the already in place practice of returning drain oil from your vehicles to the vendor for proper recycling/disposal, Bill applies the concept to most if not all appliances and such things. He would preclude the need to own things, for which the responsibility of proper disposal would be a burden if one were not a specialist in the field, by requiring most items to be leased rather than bought. The manufacturer/owner would then be responsible for proper maintenance (enhancing the probability of less polution and greater longevity through the item’s working life) and, being liable for its retirement, being more interested in using and, in time, retrieving more components and/or material usable in new products.

    I was dissappointed not hearing more inclusions of Bill’s ideas of “green” architecture and communities, etc. when ROS was talking about the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast about a year ago. I thought I got a good whiff of ambulance chasers and sharks from most of those consulted on the programs back then.

    Cheers.

  • I think I read about the Cradle to Grave idea in “The Ecology of Commerce” in the early nineties. I think it’s a great concept. Manufacturers own what they make and if they can’t recycle it or it isn’t biodegradable, they have to pay in perpetuity to store it. Now, there’s an incentive for some Triple Loop Learning. http://www.generativedialogue.org/about/more.html

  • moz

    The FDA – and Industry Oversight

    When I hear about the revolving door between the top of the FDA and industry … and I hear about the lack of funds available to the FDA to actually do verification on the products they are supposedly monitoring … I wonder what the real-world effectiveness of the FDA is … and as a result, I wonder if any real effective “objective” oversight really exists over industry …

  • teepeejay

    Why is Green Chemistry not being taught in high schools, in Colleges, in Grad Schools. Are we turning out Green Chemists from our institutions? There is almost no mention of this field except at Lowell, CMU, Yale and a few other schools. At University of Vermont they have yet to offer anything. This is supposed to be a “cutting edge” environmental University.

  • joel
  • The article “Pollution Within” in the October 2006 issue of National Geographic speak to the need for green chemistry.

    http://www3.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0610/feature4/index.html

  • khandro

    I echo teepeejay’s question…where is the educational component? As we already know, education is the all important key to moving forward with any progressive, intelligent, sustainable alternatives to business as usual, whether the sector is housing, transportation, industry, food, etc. And with education comes (I hope) market demand. Without an informed, educated public, all the best policy intentions will be moot. Part of that education comes from enlightened media (ROS for example), part from public outreach, and part from academia. But I suggest that the media could and should take a much larger, broader role in making such issues as ‘green chemistry’ more widely discussed and understood. ROS is fabulous, yer preachin to this choir, folks! But I’m a scientifically literate person, I teach college earth & space science, and tonight’s show was the first I’d heard the term! I want to see this stuff splashed on the front pages of the dailies, Time Mag, Rolling Stone, Playboy, you get the idea. Writers, we need you! Bone up on your basic chemistry and get out there where these potentials for real shifts in thinking and doing are happening! Thanks again ROS. Now I’d like to hear what Paul Hawken has to say about GC.

  • jboylan

    Nice show, nice discussion thread. Thanks to all.

  • katemcshane

    I don’t understand enough science to intelligently follow this thread, and I guess I wasn’t expecting the discussion to include the pharmaceutical industry, so I didn’t pay that much attention to the thread before the show. My health was seriously damaged almost 10 years ago from prescription drugs that I took legally and within prescribed guidelines. My guess is that the doctors who prescribed them knew very little about them, because after the fact, more than once, I read that certain drugs shouldn’t have been prescribed together. I used to think the effects would be temporary and I would recover, but that didn’t happen, and when Allison said that the damage to her health had been permanent, I felt so sad – for her, for myself, for all of us.

    I have met many, many women who have shared terrible stories with me about these drugs, but all of us had the same experiences with doctors when we tried to get help. I used to read about people who were treated as if they were crazy when they had symptoms that baffled doctors, but once I experienced it, I was overcome by the way I internalized the blame and, essentially, was beaten down by it. My impression is that women have more trouble with a lot of these chemicals. I say that, because when I’ve talked about it with men, either they had no trouble or told me about women they knew who had become ill from them.

    Buzz Cue sounded like every corporate PR person I’ve ever heard. It was so painful to listen to him. If what he said is true, then it’s probably the only time anyone from Pfizer has been able to make an honest statement about Zoloft.

    I wasn’t going to write this, because I feel too vulnerable. I’m picturing people saying, Well if she’s talking about drugs like Zoloft, she’s probably crazy. I’ll just say that I have PTSD, something I got, obviously, through no fault of my own, something millions of people in this country have, due to child abuse, battering, rape and other violent crimes, and WAR — things in our lives that we do not protest ENOUGH. And I’ve spoken to so many bright, talented women who will probably never recover from the damage that these so-called green drugs did to them.

  • joel

    Regarding “katemcshane’s” experience, tell your pharmacist everything that you are taking. They are probably the best qualified to know what products should not be taken given what you already are taking. This is their business! Ask for the most recent information regarding your regimen. About 30 years ago I had need of an antibiotic and, upon asking, the druggist looked up the latest info in their trade magazines and photocopied it for me.

    Cheers.

  • katemcshane

    To Joel: I very much appreciate your concern, I really do, but this happened many years ago. Before that, I never took more than an aspirin. And now, because of the damage done, I can’t take even Tylenol without adverse effects. Thanks, anyway.

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