Volume 84 Issue 17 | p. 5 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: April 24, 2006

Unintended Consequences

By John C. Warner
Department: Editor's Page

This guest editorial is by John C. Warner, director of the Center for Green Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

Society has traditionally dealt with hazardous materials in manufacturing by creating legislation limiting the use of certain materials. An adversarial relationship exists between industry and environmental activism: one side arguing for more regulation to protect the environment and the other side arguing to relax environmental legislation to promote economic viability. While I am sure there have been misdeeds on both sides, it is unequivocal that our environment is better off because of the regulation of hazardous chemicals. The question that really needs to be explored is: Why do we have toxic materials in our society?

For economic reasons alone, manufacturers will seek out devices and processes that comply with the law. When hazardous materials are found to be necessary in a process, manufacturers are required to incorporate technologies that will limit or eliminate exposure to workers or consumers, which adds cost. The people involved in applied R&D do their best to create products that are free from hazardous materials, but the sad reality is that sometimes there are no nontoxic alternatives: Engineers don't have the skill set to invent the basic building blocks. They can only choose from what the chemists and basic researchers give them.

Why do we have toxic materials in our society? One possible reason is that chemists do not actually know how to make nontoxic materials. This might seem shocking to someone outside the field. Four years of undergraduate education, followed by at least four more years of graduate school, is required for a person to obtain a doctorate in chemistry. Yet despite all this education, it is unlikely that a student will ever have a single course in toxicology. Mechanisms of environmental fate and transport are unlikely to be covered in any class. And except for mandated laboratory safety lectures, environmental laws and policies remain absent from most chemists' educations. How can we ask chemists to create safe materials if they are never taught how?

This is not a condemnation of the chemical education system. The quantity of knowledge that a chemist must master is enormous, and the system works extremely well. Our economy is based on its successes. The wonderful developments in medicine, energy, transportation, and agriculture are all direct consequences of the rigorous training we give to our scientists. Just because a system is already excellent, however, does not mean that it cannot be better.

I titled this piece "Unintended Consequences" for a few reasons. I do not believe any chemist intentionally creates a hazardous material. But the level of the science today does not provide enough options to avoid unintended consequences.

Green chemistry seeks to fill the knowledge gaps. Green chemistry asks basic researchers to consider at the very beginning of a design process the toxicological and environmental impacts of their various choices. We have a lot of work to do. It is going to take years, perhaps generations, to fully integrate the principles of green chemistry into our educational systems. It is happening, however. The 12 principles of green chemistry are being discussed in industry and academia more and more frequently.

But there is perhaps another, even graver potential unintended consequence. Now more than ever, we need new sets of eyes and ideas on the invention process. Yet with all the information available about hazardous materials and their effects on human health and the environment, who would ever want to be a synthetic chemist? If all ethically minded students in chemistry choose careers in monitoring and measuring the effects of materials in our society, who will invent the much needed replacements? We must be careful not to scare away our next generation: We need synthetic chemists to invent safer products.

If green chemistry is allowed to grow throughout our curriculum, I believe that armies of students will rise to the challenge and work to invent a safer future. There will be more and more people pursuing careers in chemistry for this sole purpose. But if we are not careful, if we drive students away from these pursuits, then we will have no one left to solve these problems, and that could be the worst unintended consequence of all.

Chemical & Engineering News
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