Elizabeth Grossman was here in Seattle on December 2nd promoting her new book "Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry" She spoke at Town Hall Seattle on the green chemistry movement. Her enthusiasm filled the room as she discussed her interest in the subject, the need for a green shift in the chemistry industry and innovative people who are working to make it happen.
Toxic chemicals are seemingly ubiquitous. Since everything on Earth is connected, chemicals intended for one use, in one product, can easily find their way into other things, like soil, air, water and bodies. Scientists have been trying to determine where toxic chemicals are ending up, and the results are shocking: Dangerous chemicals are even being found in the blood of newborn babies.
These alarming facts are what investigative journalist Elizabeth Grossman came across while researching her latest book "Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry." While writing her previous book on the afterlife of electronics, Grossman said she became increasingly disturbed by the the amount of chemicals that were being found in our consumer products. It all began when she wanted to know why the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was finding the exact same chemicals in polar bears, newborn babies and our food. After asking why, she began wondering if it was possible to do any better. Could products and the chemicals they are created from be made environmentally "benign by design"?
She decided to literally chase these dangerous molecules around the world in order to find out. Her research took her from the Arctic to the Great Lakes, to numerous waste sites and the Pearl River Delta. It should be surprising that harmful chemicals were present at every site she visited, but it's not. What is unexpected though, is her hope. Grossman believes that there is a solution: green chemistry. Green chemists, writes Grossman, are redesigning the future and learning from nature to create new, non-harming chemicals and products.
Without green chemistry Grossman fears that we will be entering into a very dangerous world. Many of the chemicals she was chasing are endocrine disruptors, which have the ability to change our genetic makeup. They can mess with reproduction and lead to an increase in fat cells, which leads to higher rates of diabetes and slower metabolism. They have been shown to reduce sperm count and also mess with neurological function. Grossman quotes Theo Colborn, saying that endocrine disrupting chemicals are going to make us "fat, stupid and impotent."
It seems reasonable that we should be able to look to the government to help keep us safe. But in the United States, this is not the case. Green chemistry is subject to the same political games we see in other industries.
In her talk, Grossman brought up U.S. President Obama's appointment of green chemist Paul Anastas to head the EPA's Research & Development division as an example of green chemistry in the government sector. While doing some independent research, I found it interesting that while Anastas is the undisputed best man for the job, his nomination is being held up by Senator Vitter of Louisiana. The Senator has nothing against the appointment of Anastas -- the move is just a shrewd political bargaining tactic. Vitter's ties to the Formaldehyde Council have encouraged him to block the nomination, in an attempt to force the EPA to not release their new report on the negative impacts of formaldehyde.
Another given example of politics hindering the U.S. green chemistry movement is the state of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA was passed in the U.S. Congress in 1976 and hasn't been seriously reformed since. The act keeps an inventory of chemicals produced and used commercially in the U.S, but doesn't separate the list into toxic and non-toxic chemicals. So, if a certain chemical is deemed dangerous, the substance itself won't be banned or called toxic.
In order for a chemical to be banned outright, the TSCA must be able to prove "an unreasonable risk" to public health. With such a high bar, even asbestos has not been outlawed. Representative Bobby Rush (D-Illinois) is leading the charge to update the TSCA, lowering the burden of proof needed to ban a chemical. As the law currently stands, we are allowing the government to decide how much poison is acceptable in our products. Grossman pointed out, however, that government involvement here isn't the issue. The blame can be placed on "our prolonged debates about acceptable levels of exposure to hazardous chemicals that has resulted in ongoing use of such toxic substances." She says "that we need a better way of getting such chemicals out of commercial use and consumer products."
While progress in the green chemistry movement is being held up in some arenas, Grossman still believes there is hope. While conducting her research, Grossman found that the movement is beginning to take hold within the industry, as many companies realize the cost saving benefits of "going green." By making products free of dangerous chemicals, companies no longer have to deal with the cost of hazardous waste disposal or the medical bills from injured or exposed employees, and are able to make products that are just plain cheaper than their dangerous alternatives. Pharmaceutical companies are also starting to realize that by dedicating themselves to green chemistry they are able to become more resource efficient.
Interestingly, the plastics industry is currently seeing a big shift towards green chemistry, as many bio-based plastics (originally targeted at 'green' consumers) are becoming more prevalent. This is the kind of shift we need in all aspects of industry in order for a future redesign to take place.
Grossman includes a couple of great examples of how companies are stepping up to do their part to change the future for the better.
The first is Columbia Forest Products, a manufacturer of hardwood plywood and hardwood veneer. Working with Dr. Kaichang Li, they created a formaldehyde-free adhesive for plywood. Dr. Li got the idea for the product while observing mussels clinging to a rock. After some inquiry, he found that the creatures secrete proteins called byssal threads which are extremely flexible and strong. In biomimicry research, he found that soy proteins can be modified to act like these threads. In addition to increased strength they also offered water resistance. These proteins were used to replace Columbia Forest Products' traditional epoxies in plywood for a formaldehyde-free product, PureBond, which works better than the original and is cheaper to produce.
Another hopeful company that Grossman mentions is The Interface Carpet Company, which has been a leader in sustainable design since the early 90s. The most exciting part of their venture is that they have never been satisfied with their innovations. They have continued to push - redesigning their products, making them more sustainable over time and greening their operation at every chance. She mentions that their latest project involves exploring the possibility of using light and reflection to create colored carpet without dye. Just think of the possibilities!
But, it's not so easy to convince some industries to become green, as many of the harmful chemicals that are being used have been on the market since the 1930s. The research has been done and the products made. Many companies, too entrenched in the old way, do not see the benefit of redesigning their entire line.
Without strong political will and support to discontinue dangerous chemical use, some companies will continue to produce hazardous chemicals, and they will continue to find their way into every aspect of our ecosystem.
For those who are new to the toxic chemical debate, Chasing Molecules provides a strong argument for the implementation of green chemistry. For those who are aware and motivated, it provides a hopeful look at the benign design revolution already taking place.