Knowledge of how chemicals behave has grown well beyond that on which our current system of regulating chemicals was based, Goldman explained. To understand what makes a molecule safe or toxic, we now have to take into account endocrine active compounds, how environmental exposure to chemicals can alter how genes behave, and the many ways in which chemicals can interact with the various dynamic parts of living cells. To put this knowledge into practice, Goldman said, will require “new collaborations between clinicians, chemists, engineers and biologists.”
Since it was introduced almost 20 years ago, green chemistry has become firmly established as an approach to designing new chemical products and manufacturing processes in ways that make them less hazardous to human health and the environment.
EPA started a green chemistry program in the 1990s that supports research aimed at developing and promoting pollution prevention through the design and synthesis of nontoxic, resource efficient materials. For the past 16 years the agency has awarded Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards to honor “outstanding examples of green chemistry.” These have included new ways to synthesize ibuprofen, bio-based plastics, nontoxic adhesives, water-based high-performance paint and non-toxic chemical cleaning agents that can neutralize persistent toxics.
EPA’s Design for the Environment Program is using green chemistry to support work to develop nontoxic commercial cleaning products, to assess alternatives to hazardous flame retardants and to find safe replacements for products based on bisphenol A. Green chemistry is also part of numerous individual state policies aimed at preventing exposure to hazardous chemicals, among them efforts in California, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan and Washington. In Europe, chemicals management policies—among them the European Union directive known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemical Substances)—are providing incentives for green chemistry innovation, and green chemistry education is being incorporated into university-level curricula in China and India.
“The concept of sustainable chemistry is a great framework for understanding how to approach things.” — Rich Helling, Dow Chemical associate director of sustainability
In the United States, efforts are underway to improve chemists’ ability to evaluate synthetic chemicals based on the many ways they can interact with living cells. Adelina Voutchkova of the Yale University Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering presented one example of such an evaluation tool at the ACS conference. Also at the conference, Raymond Tice, chief of the U.S. National Toxicology Program’s Biomolecular Screening Branch, presented the new toxicology tools being developed by the NTP and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that will enable scientists in academia and regulatory agencies to evaluate chemicals for the wide range of behaviors green chemistry considerations demand.
Rich Helling, associate director of sustainability/life cycle assessment at Dow Chemical, says his company is training its research and development scientists to do “early screening” of new products and to consider materials from a perspective of “atom and energy efficiency, hazard reduction, and holistic design,” and thus “pick more sustainable projects.”
Green chemistry efforts at Dow have gone into producing a number of industrial chemicals, among them a bio-based plasticizer, explains Helling. They have enabled Dow to meet customers’ requests for products that do not contain “particular chemicals of concern, such as phthalates and lead,” says Helling. They have also gone into Dow’s production of a new compound to replace a flame retardant that has been discovered to be environmentally persistent and environmentally mobile. And in August Dow for the first time publicly presented its new research and development sustainability footprint tool that is being applied throughout the company’s R&D efforts.
“The concept of sustainable chemistry is a great framework for understanding how to approach things,” says Helling. Improving the safety profile of a new process or product is “good process chemistry,” he explains. Any process that is not less hazardous or less complex “slows down your research,” he says.
“The case for green chemistry has been made,” says Amy Cannon, executive director and co-founder with Warner of Beyond Benign, a nonprofit organization devoted to green chemistry education. “What is next? A more systematic approach that’s really going to change the way we educate scientists.”
Teaching future chemists what makes a molecule toxic is essential to advancing green chemistry, agrees Warner. “Without this we can’t accomplish our goals.”
Green chemistry advocates are approaching this at the professional level, fostering working partnerships between environmental health scientists and synthetic chemists through efforts such as the collaborations being facilitated by the nonprofit Advancing Green Chemistry. They’re also pushing for change in education, creating new curricula for students beginning at the K–12 level and extending through and beyond college and university education.