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A Green Chemistry Primer: "Benign by Design"
Amanda Reed, 2 Jun 10

Scientific American has an update on what chemists are doing to save the world. In her article, "Green Chemistry: Scientists Devise New "Benign by Design" Drugs, Paints, Pesticides and More," Emily Laber-Warren reports on the origins of the green chemistry movement, the innovations of the last 15 years, the need for more 'benign design' and the major hurdles in the way of increased green chemistry in the United States. Her overall exploration centers around the question: "Will it take regulations to enforce the approach broadly?" Here are a few excerpts:

On the origins of green chemistry:

...in the early 1990s a small group of scientists began to think differently. Why, they asked, do we rely on hazardous substances for so many manufacturing processes? After all, chemical reactions happen continuously in nature, thousands of them within our own bodies, without any nasty by-products. Maybe, these scientists concluded, the problem was that chemists are not trained to think about the impacts of their inventions. Perhaps chemistry was toxic simply because no one had tried to make it otherwise. They called this new philosophy "green chemistry."

Green chemists use all the tools and training of traditional chemistry, but instead of ending up with toxins that must be treated and contained after the fact, they aim to create industrial processes that avert hazard problems altogether. The catch phrase is "benign by design".

On the successes and limited gains of green chemistry so far:

Over the past 15 years, green chemistry inventions have reduced hazardous chemical use by more than 500 million kilograms. Which sounds great, until you consider that every day the U.S. produces or imports about 33.5 billion kilograms of chemicals.

On expanding the green chemistry industry in the United States:

What will it take for green chemistry to be more than the proverbial drop in the bucket, a bucket full of toxic sludge? Some experts believe that the answer is government intervention—not only laws that ban harmful chemicals, but laws that simply require chemical manufacturers to reveal safety data and let the market do the rest...That question—to regulate or not to regulate—has split the community of green chemistry advocates.

[...]

Now is a critical time: After decades of inaction, the U.S. government is finally examining more aggressively the health effects of common chemicals. The ambitious Safe Chemicals Act, unveiled last month in the U.S. Senate, would require all industrial chemicals to be proved safe, creating a strong incentive for the development of less harmful alternatives. And the President's Cancer Panel released a landmark report earlier this month decrying the "grievous harm" done by cancer-causing chemicals such as bisphenol A in food and household products.

The stakes are high, higher than most people realize. The companies that make the 80,000 chemicals that circulate in our world are rarely required to do safety testing, and government agencies are relatively powerless.

As part of her exploration of whether to regulate or not, Waber-Warren profiles John Warner, a co-founder of green chemistry, assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Research and Development, author of Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, and founder of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, an "an ingenuity factory" for green chemistry. According to Waber-Warren, Warner is concerned

that if green chemistry becomes mandatory, industrial chemists will misunderstand it, writing it off as a policy-wonk proposal when in fact it is solid science, built on the core principles of traditional chemistry. Warner favors the "build a better mousetrap" philosophy: Do green chemistry by making alternatives that are not only safer but effective and economical, and chemical companies will eagerly adopt them.

Other academics, chemists, and activists disagree and think more regulation is needed. For example, Waber-Warren quotes Edward Woodhouse, a political scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.: "a lot of important things that need doing won't be done voluntarily...It does require stick as well as carrot." There are compelling arguments on both sides of the debate and I encourage you to read Waber-Warren's full article for a more detailed account of the many sides to the issue.

Also, don't miss the end of the article where Waber-Warren concludes with a list of three promising new technologies destined for the green-chemistry toolbox!

Explore other articles on green chemistry in the Worldchanging archives:


Image of test tubes with plants courtesy of Flickr photographer CIAT - International Center for Tropical Agricultu under the Creative Commons License. Picture by Neil Palmer.

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