On a drizzly afternoon in early March, Adam Andrewjeski, an 18-year-old college freshman from Las Vegas, walks out of his dormitory room and, in his slippers, pads down a flight of stairs to a common laundry room on the University of California, Berkeley campus. But he’s not looking to do his laundry. He just wants to score some lint.
Andrewjeski leans into a dryer and pulls out a dark clump of fuzz. Thinking he may need a little more, he opens the next dryer and sweeps its lint catcher clean too. As he balls the two together in his pocket, he explains that he’s hunting for traces of PBDEs, chemical flame retardants. PBDEs were designed to be persistent; even after many washes, fabrics treated with the chemicals may still be shedding them. With that, he turns and heads up the stairs. He’ll collect the rest of his samples -- dust, bits of foam from dorm room furniture -- another day.
Andrewjeski is one of a growing number of students learning to think differently about the safety and sustainability of the molecules that make up our lives. Over the past decade, colleges and universities across the country have begun to offer courses in green chemistry, some even awarding Ph.D.’s in the field. But whereas other schools focus on teaching the principles of green chemistry exclusively to chemists, Berkeley intends to do something more. The idea here is that the best way to make chemistry sustainable is to bring together the chemists who will invent new molecules with the biologists who will unravel their toxicological effects, the future business leaders who will sell the products made from those molecules, and the policy makers who will regulate them. And because all this is happening in what is generally regarded as the nation’s most prestigious school of chemistry, where more than a thousand Ph.D. and undergraduate students grind away in classrooms and laboratories every day, there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic that green chemistry is on track to become the field of chemistry itself.
Chemistry is you and everything around you. Trillions of chemical reactions take place in your body at any given moment, allowing you to read the words on this page, to know you’re thirsty and get up for a glass of water, to sense that the room is a bit stuffy and open a window. And of all the goods bought and sold in the United States, some 97 percent incorporate manufactured chemicals of one kind or another. Many of them make life better: they are used to purify water, fight cancerous tumors, and keep the lights on. The problem is that of the 82,000 synthetic chemicals that have come into production to date, nobody is quite sure which ones simply make life better and which ones are harmful. That is because for the past 200 years, since the advent of modern chemistry, nobody ever asked chemists to consider that question.
John Warner is an industrial chemist-turned-entrepreneur who now runs a research and development center called the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry in Wilmington, Massachusetts. Over the course of his career, Warner has filed more than 200 molecular patents and founded the first Ph.D. program in green chemistry, at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, in 2001. His childhood friend Paul Anastas, who grew up with him in blue-collar Quincy, south of Boston, is now head of the office of research and development at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where he oversees the latest science on chemicals assessment, including which methods toxicologists use to determine whether a substance is toxic. Together, Warner and Anastas pioneered the field of green chemistry in the 1990s, writing the first book for chemists seeking to design compounds sustainably, Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice.
At last year’s Bioneers conference, an annual gathering of thousands of business leaders, environmental advocates, and academics with a common interest in sustainability, Warner told the story of his father, an electrician, who "couldn’t come into your house and change a lightbulb without a document that said he could do it safely." Teachers, architects, doctors -- all need to prove that they have met a set of requirements for practicing their profession responsibly. But chemists, he lamented -- the people who design products we eat, breathe, and absorb through our skin -- have no such responsibility. "Imagine you want to be a chemist," he said. "Think of any university you can imagine. Go online and find the courses you have to take to get a job as an industrial chemist. You will find that not one university will have you take a course in toxicology."
Figuring out the effects on human health and the environment of the reagents, solvents, and final products used and produced by chemists simply hasn’t been the chemist’s job. In the lab, goggles, gloves, and gale-force fume hoods protected chemists from whatever dangers lurked, so it didn’t much matter what they mixed up as long as the end result was something new and wonderful that worked as it was meant to. But over the years we began to learn that molecules that were supposed to be locked away forever inside our TV sets and plastic toys found ways of escaping. By the close of the twentieth century, scientists were discovering that some of these molecules were making their way not only into the air, soil, and water, but also into fish and mammals -- including us. Today the Centers for Disease Control routinely tests Americans’ blood for the presence of 219 classes of chemicals as part of its annual National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Other studies have detected as many as 493 in our blood. The effect of that chemical cocktail on the human body remains largely unknown, though a growing body of research is revealing that many of its components can wreak havoc on the delicate balance of hormones, proteins, and other molecules that make us tick.
Public health experts agree that the law that was meant to protect us from potentially dangerous chemicals -- the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) -- is broken. The burden of proving that a substance is toxic falls to the government; industry has no obligation to prove that a chemical it has synthesized is safe. The law, passed in 1976, stipulates that when a company invents a new compound, it is required to give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just 90 days’ notice before the product is introduced into the marketplace. If the agency doesn’t raise any safety concerns within this period, no further barriers stand in the way of full-scale manufacturing. Although the law says that a company should submit any available safety data, it’s also okay not to if no data exist. To date, about 85 percent of all new chemical notices have been submitted without any safety data at all.
When the law went into effect, some 60,000 chemicals were already in production, and they got a free pass -- no safety data required. Among these were some nasty chemicals that in a few cases are now being voluntarily phased out or restricted. These include some members of the PBDE family of flame retardants as well as BPA, which was removed from some baby products and other plastics (though only in some states) after concerns about its role as an endocrine disruptor emerged in the 1990s. But the vast majority of chemicals have been subject to no restriction. The law places an enormous burden on the government to prove not only that a chemical is causing irrefutable harm but that any regulations imposed will lead to no increase in costs over doing business as usual. Translated, that means that only five chemicals have ever been regulated under TSCA: PCBs, CFCs, dioxins, hexavalent chromium, and asbestos.
This article was made possible by the Jonathan And Maxine Marshall Fund for Environmental Journalism.