Issue Date: August 7, 2006
The objectives of green chemistry are laudable, and the progress that has been made should be applauded; however, there are disturbing aspects in the guest editorial "Unintended Consequences," which asks, "Why do we have toxic materials in our society?" (C&EN, April 24, page 5). In the editorial, John C. Warner, director of the Center for Green Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, suggests this is because chemists have not created safe substitutes. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We live in a toxic world with some of the most toxic sources provided by Mother Nature. Some materials are beneficial at some concentrations and toxic at others. Hardly a chemical reaction can be cited that does not include a reactant, a catalyst, or a solvent that we'd rather not breathe or swallow.
Warner asks, "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?" Those of us who began our chemical careers in the 1940s and '50s routinely carried out benzene extractions, did qualitative analyses using the hydrogen sulfide generator in the lab, and recovered spilled mercury from broken thermometers by redistilling it. If we'd been told that these hazardous practices would ruin our health and we would die at an early age, we might have chosen another career. However the large number of 50-plus-year ACS members attests to the fact that we have many long-lived chemists.
Studies have shown that as a group, chemists are healthier than the general public, and new students should be apprised of this. Of course, safe practices must be followed in handling toxic materials, as the chemical industry does, but it is an unfair indictment of the chemical industry to suggest that we have toxic materials in our society because chemists haven't been able to synthesize safe replacements.
Santa Rosa, Calif.
Warner's guest editorial asks the question, "Why do we have toxic materials in our society? One possible reason is that chemists do not actually know how to make nontoxic materials." Then, Warner goes on to lament the fact that "despite all this education, it is unlikely that a student will ever have a single course in toxicology." The author's question leads one to wonder whether he has had training in toxicology.
Warner's concern should not have been "Why do we have toxic materials in our society?" but rather, How can we understand and control or minimize the exposure of our population and environment to reduce the occurrence of toxic effects? Yes, some substances may have fewer undesirable effects than others and should be used. Yes, some of our laboratory and industrial processes may use more than necessary amounts of chemicals. But we should not lead our society to think that chemists should be able to develop nontoxic materials. Let us provide training with a proper basis so that "armies of students will rise to the challenge and work to invent a safer future."
Robert O. Bost
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