The Future Is… Toxins

John Warner has been promoting green chemistry since 1990. Here's why we haven't seen a revolution in making our products and manufacturing processes safer.

As I’ve mentioned, my father was an analytical chemist who went into plastics/polymers partly because of one of the infamous lines in The Graduate. He worked for Archer-Daniels and was a manager at Cargill, Bemis and other companies before, later in life, running his own analytical testing lab. I helped him write a few news releases and create a jam-packed business card that listed his skills at gas chromatography and spectroscopy. I was proud of myself for eventually knowing how to correctly spell some of his specialties.

For me personally, high school chemistry was one of my worst subjects.

Decades later, I find that chemistry is still an elusive subject for me, but I’m beginning to realize how deeply important it is that anyone attempting to live and raise a family in a healthy way should learn to understand its impact.

From the products we buy, to the air we breathe and the water we drink, it is chemicals that are the spine that connects everything. And when those chemicals combine in dangerously toxic ways, things are very unhealthy.

John Warner and Green Chemistry

John Warner, Warner BabcockJohn Warner is the co-founder (with Jim Babcock) and president of the Massachusetts-based Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry. He is the winner of the 2014 Perkin Medal, considered the highest honor in American Industrial Chemistry. He is co-author with Paul Anastas, formerly of the EPA, of the textbook Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice (Oxford University Press, 2000) which sets out 12 principles designed to eliminate waste and prevent pollution at the front end, rather than after a product is created or consumed. In it, they created and defined the term green chemistry as “the utilization of a set of principles that reduces or eliminates the use or generation of hazardous substances in the design, manufacture and applications of chemical products.”

In an interview, Warner told me that we’ve had more than 15 years of good story-telling — in documentaries, movies, books — about environmental toxins. Yet, we aren’t changing much about the way we create our products.

As consumers, we are beginning to recognize the dangers of certain pesticides, Teflon manufacturing, and unnecessary lead in products not only in paint and water pipes but imported canned food and toys, certain potteries and crystal, eyeliner and lipstick. Our buying habits are slowly changing as we begin to pay attention to the public health hazards of our insulation, make-up, food, plastics.

But there is still a majority of the public that remains unaware of dangers. Policy is not generally successful at making our world safer. And, importantly, as certain companies convene meetings to discuss how to create a less hazardous environment in manufacturing processes and waste stream, Warner said, there are no green chemists skilled in toxicology in the room to let them know how it can be done.

Thanks partly to Warner’s work — including through his non-profit Beyond Benign program and the Green Chemistry Commitment — there are now an increasing number of universities that have green chemistry programs. Yet, as he told me, “These are elective activities that the students who are so motivated can attend and be part of. My assumption is that these students already ‘get it’ and will be just fine.”

The frustrating problem, he says, is that “the vast majority of students, who don’t ‘get it’ will pass through the chemistry programs, graduate, work at P&G, L’Oreal, Nike, 3M… having no insight in how to design a non-toxic molecule. They won’t even be thinking about it. So when they create the next blue pigment, or shampoo, or lipstick, or polymer for a running shoe, it will be random luck if it is safe – not by design.

“Until the chemistry departments require ALL chemists to see this as a fundamental way of doing chemistry, we will continue to replace toxic materials with alternative toxic materials. The only way to break the cycle, is to provide all chemists — not just the ones who care — the tools to do it right.”

In other words, it is the general whole of academia that is slow to make changes around chemical toxicology — not necessarily the corporate culture itself.

Who Is Green?

As Warner said in an excellent Q&A with Utne Reader in 2011, after he was named one of its 25 Visionaries Who Are Changing the World, India has a mandate to teach green chemistry. China has opened about 15 different national research labs. But in the United States, because a group of scientists convinced Congress about 15 years ago that America needs to invest in nanotechnology in order to compete. “So the federal government puts out a plate of $10 billion, and all of a sudden every scientist on the planet says, ‘oh, I’ve been doing nanotech my whole life. Here’s my grant proposal.'”

A bill in Congress called the Green Chemistry Research and Development Act of 2005 was asking for about $700 million of funding and it didn’t pass. [See history here.] It passed the House, then failed in the Senate a couple of times. [A similar bill was proposed in 2014 and hasn’t moved.]

“If you want a federal grant, you better say ‘nano’ in your proposal. In China, you’ve got to say ‘green.’ The federal government of China is funding research to do that. All we need to do in the United States is to start doing something like that, and maybe we can make a big change.”

Warner also has interesting insights about the simplistic notion that it is the corporate windmill that needs to be attacked.

“You would be shocked to find out that most big industrial companies — the Dows, Duponts, 3Ms — have internal green chemistry programs. They’re training their chemists to learn green chemistry. I would argue that industry is ahead of academia in adopting green chemistry. That might shock you, but that’s the reality, because they know that to be competitive, and to be cost effective, they’ve got to do green chemistry, and they know that the universities aren’t training their scientists, so they’re doing it themselves.”

It’s Not a Question of Ethics

Warner lost his two-year-old son to a birth defect. As with many cases of toxicology, there is not a simplistic line that can be drawn from A to Z — cause to effect — in his personal tragedy. We live in a nuanced and interconnected ecosystem.

As John Muir famously said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Molecules are the building blocks of our personal and universal ecosystem. We know very little about how one tug here affects things there. When Warner’s son was affected, he told me, despite being a noted chemist he could not answer the question of whether there was something he brought home from the lab that impacted the environment of his child’s health.

“Finding the answer is less relevant,” he said. “That we have no mechanism to answer that is. Doctors, lawyers, architects, electricians all have to maintain a license that indicates they can do their job safely. There is no such thing in chemistry.”

We have biomimicry and other specialized tools developing in the sciences, and a gradually smarter public trying to understand the impact of chemicals. Since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came out in 1962, Warner indicated, toxicologists have developed a deep understanding of what is happening at the molecular level, “where the real change happens.” But chemists inventing future products are not learning from their work.

“We tend to understand that we need to make things safer,” he said. “It’s not a matter of good and evil. It’s not a question of ethics. The question is — how? Our barrier is in invention. We can insist that every chemist must only synthesize non-toxic elements, but we haven’t changed our chemistry textbooks in 40 years.”

The Toxic Culture of Admitting Problems

Another important comment Warner made in the Utne Reader interview was about the litigious society we live in, and how it potentially slows down the process of getting healthier products on the shelf.

“If some vice president at a company says, ‘I’m looking at this product that we sold last year, and you know what? It is toxic. We’ve got to invent a new one.’ I would hope they would immediately take it off the shelf.” But the moment they announce that they need to invent an alternative, which can be a time-consuming process, “that becomes the smoking gun, and some class-action suit comes and says, ‘Aha, Vice President So-and-So says they’ve started a program to replace it, therefore he’s acknowledging that it must be toxic.’

“We need an environment that celebrates that [intention to make change happen]. And right now, in some weird and twisted way, the moment the company acknowledges that something might be toxic, we actually kind of pounce on them and punish them for it. We don’t reward them. So it’s when we recognize that this is less of an epic battle of good and evil — and more of a battle of ignorance and silliness in the way we train scientists — that is when I think that aspect goes away.”

In other words (and this is the mission of my “Sustainable We” conversations), we must be willing as a community to lift up businesses and policymakers who are attempting to make changes — to lead the way toward an improved marketplace and buying public — and spend a little less energy simply shouting at the ones who aren’t doing the right thing.

As a culture — look at the 2016 Presidential campaign process thus far as an example — our sustainability is well served by getting the right people in front of us.

Many of us now believe that, in the process of growing more food for a growing population, Monsanto produces chemicals that do dangerous things to our crops, soil, air, water.

How many of us know of the leaders who are creating alternatives?