ENVIRONMENT: Invasion of the Little Green Molecules

  • by Elizabeth Grossman* - IPS/IFEJ (portland, oregon)
  • Inter Press Service

In the developing countries where so much of the world's manufacturing occurs and which are home to much of the world's worst industrial pollution, a move to green chemistry has the potential to improve working conditions as well as health and safety for communities where industry is located.

As defined by the movement's founders, Paul Anastas, director of Yale University's Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, and John Warner, president of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, the goal of green chemistry is to create new synthetic materials that are 'benign by design'.

The aim is to prevent chemical pollution — and by extension, related adverse health impacts — by eliminating potential chemical hazards of new materials at the design stage.

The fundamental idea is that eliminating chemical hazards at the outset — rather than trying to contain or treat these problems after they've occurred — is the best way to prevent such toxics from being released into the environment and of protecting people from exposure to such substances.

'Green chemistry,' write Anastas and Warner, involves the design of 'chemical products to prevent pollution and thereby solve environmental problems'.

Put simply, if you do not send noxious fumes out a smokestack, you do not have to try to contain that pollution once it's left the chimney. If a new material is designed without compounds and elements hazardous to human health and the environment — lead or mercury for example — you eliminate the need to protect against these exposures, during manufacture, product life, and disposal.

Historically, what is now a three-trillion-dollar global chemical industry that produces over 80,000 different chemicals has focused on performance — what new synthetic chemicals do in their intended applications. This applies to everything from lightweight shatterproof plastics, to waterproofing compounds, flame retardants, and synthetic dyes, to cleaning products and pharmaceuticals.

Such chemicals perform admirably, but many also behave in ways harmful to the environment and human health. Green chemistry ups the ante by asking synthetic chemists to consider environmental and health impacts along with performance.

This seems straightforward, but as Terry Collins, who directs the Institute for Green Science at Carnegie Mellon University, points out, 'We don't have a community well educated in toxicity and ecotoxicity.'

Training in toxicology and environmental health has not been part of a synthetic chemist's education. Despite the high profile of environmental issues, to this day, most chemistry degree programmes do not require courses in environmental health or ecology. Green chemistry aims to change this.

Two countries where green chemistry is being incorporated into university curricula most widely are China and India. There are now over a dozen research institutes in China where green chemistry is being taught at the undergraduate, masters and PhD level.

In India, the University of Delhi, part of the country's largest educational system, now requires every chemistry major to take a full year of green chemistry.

'The Indian government's Department of Science and Technology has set up a task force to promote green chemistry in research and in university curricula from the undergraduate through post-graduate levels,' explains Professor R.K. Sharma, coordinator of the Green Chemistry Network Centre at the University of Delhi.

India has also recently established a green chemistry awards programme to recognise and promote work in the field. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also been doing this through the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge, now in its fourteenth year.

Winners of the Indian award have developed methods of reducing hazardous byproducts — one in the pharmaceutical industry, another in chemical manufacturing — key goals of green chemistry.

'There are a lot of memories of Bhopal,' notes Amy Cannon, executive director of Beyond Benign, an organisation devoted to green chemistry education.

India's experience of the devastating chemical accident is a powerful motivator for improving these processes, she explains. Designing industrial processes to reduce use and creation of toxics is green chemistry's aim.

In addition to eliminating chemical hazards, green chemistry also advocates resource efficiency and the reduction and elimination of waste, attributes that make it attractive to both environmental health advocates and those looking after a business's bottom line. Handling, storing, transporting, protecting workers from and disposing of toxics carries considerable costs. By reducing or eliminating hazardous materials, green chemistry reduces these expenses.

As Nitesh Mehta, director of Newreka Green-Synth Technologies — one of the Indian green chemistry award winners — in Mumbai told the 2009 Industrial Green Chemistry Workshop, one of the goals of the December 2009 meeting was to 'debunk the myth that investments in Green Chemistry exacerbate the industrial cost burden'.

Eliminating the use of toxic solvents and other process chemicals has made green chemistry very attractive to both the pharmaceutical and textile industries — both of which are working on green chemistry efforts in India.

Also prompting research and development of green chemistry products is the growing awareness of the health hazards associated with numerous widely used synthetic chemicals — among them components of common plastics, cleaning products, and flame retardants.

Growing consumer demand for safer products along with increasing restrictions on many long used but ultimately hazardous industrial chemicals — formaldehyde-based wood products are one example — are prompting research and development of green chemistry products.

Innovation in chemistry and engineering is a 'big positive' in the movement towards safer and green chemistry, says Terry Collins. But he, like other observers of green chemistry efforts worldwide, including Kira Matus, who has been studying green chemistry in China at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, caution that there is still much work to be done before green chemistry truly takes hold.

Promising efforts are underway, but much more investment in such research and development as well as education is needed.

As Amy Cannon points out, one of the great challenges is green chemistry's commitment to continual improvement. 'It's like looking to run a zero-minute mile,' she says, only partly in jest.

The goals of zero impact, zero waste and 100 percent renewable, recyclable materials may be impossible to attain, but that's the direction green chemistry wants to go.

Despite the challenges, green chemistry advocates are optimistic.

'I am confident,' Nitesh Mehta told the audience in Mumbai, 'that this event will herald a movement towards efficient, cost-effective and clean manufacturing technologies in chemicals manufacturing.'

'Equally important,' says Prof. Sharma describing his green chemistry courses, 'is the responsibility to introduce these strategies and methods to an even larger group of students who will not become practising chemists, but rather educators, policy makers and concerned citizens participating in addressing complex problems in our modern technological society.'

*Elizabeth Grossman, the author of 'Chasing Molecules' and 'High Tech Trash,' writes about environmental and science issues from Portland, Oregon.

This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ - International Federation of Environmental Journalists­ for Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org).

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service