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A hazardous dependency

Chemists are hindered in creating safer ingredients for products

September 19, 2008|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer
  • Michael Wilson, a scientist at UC Berkeley?s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, supports the development of green chemistry to produce nontoxic chemicals for consumer products. "We're talking about transforming a trillion-dollar industry from the molecules up," Wilson said.
Michael Wilson, a scientist at UC Berkeley?s Center for Occupational and… (Dave Getzschman / For The…)

To a chemist, chlorine is the perfect compound.

Easily combining with other elements and molecules, chlorine is transformed into new classes of chemicals with an endless array of uses. It disinfects water, cleans clothes, kills bugs, degreases metals, bleaches paper. It has long been vital to the synthesis of plastics, drugs, microchips and many other products around the globe.

But to environmental scientists, chlorine is a perfect nightmare.

Fumes seeping from a tanker could kill thousands. Some formulations are linked to cancer. And several notorious chlorinated compounds, including DDT, chlorofluorocarbons and PCBs, have saddled society with many of its costliest environmental problems.

Though great strides have been made in reinventing some chemicals and products, most industries remain dependent on thousands of hazardous substances such as chlorine. Many obstacles, including insufficient investment and lack of training, keep chemists from embracing green chemistry and designing safer substitutes for the vast majority of compounds in use today.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 21, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
"Green" chemistry: An article in the A Section on Friday's about the limitations of more environmentally friendly "green chemistry" said chlorine was a compound; it is an element.

Of the estimated 83,000 chemicals in commerce, only a few hundred are "green." Hundreds of others accumulate in human bodies, build up in nature or are linked to diseases such as cancer. For many of the rest, the risks are unknown or uncertain.

"Today, chemists can make virtually any molecule, no matter how structurally complex, using the synthetic methods available to them. On the other hand, only a very small percentage of the chemical products are made following the principles of green chemistry," says a 2005 National Academy of Sciences report called "Sustainability in the Chemical Industry."

The industry -- which had $637 billion in global sales in 2006 and employs 7 million people -- has begun to focus more of its efforts on environmental health and safety, but the transformation is occurring slowly.

"I believe 100% that it will happen, but what terrorizes me is how long will it take? A decade? A generation? A century?" said John Warner, a former University of Massachusetts chemistry professor who is now president of a research company, Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry. "Right now, it's not nearly the pace it should be."

In 2006, 12 of the largest chemical companies, including BASF, Dow, DuPont and Rohm and Haas, hired consultants to explore ways to make their industry more environmentally friendly. After nearly a year of research, the consultants concluded the industry was "fiercely defensive" with a "bunker mentality" that was impeding progress.

Its environmental initiatives are "reactive, not proactive," and "disconnected with company and stakeholder priorities,'" said the consultants' report, published by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

"The industry has a very short-term focus and discounts long-term issues," the report said. "There is a lack of product responsibility in the industry, with most product stewardship efforts seen as minimal and ineffective."

Many chemical companies still take a stance of "let's just let this green thing blow over," said Yale chemistry professor Paul Anastas, known as the father of green chemistry.

Others do what amounts to corporate "greenwashing," taking a few steps that involve a fraction of their products. Some look for safer substitutes only when forced to by lawsuits or laws.

"The chemical industry doesn't have the most wonderful reputation in the industrialized world," said Alan Barton, executive vice president of Rohm and Haas Co., a Philadelphia-based chemical manufacturer that was acquired in July by Dow Chemical Co. "It does suffer a credibility gap."

Fierce competition

Chemical company executives say pursuit of green chemicals is vital for creating new markets in their fiercely competitive industry. But they stress that the goal can't be just to save the planet, but also to make substances that work at a reasonable cost. Consumers, they say, aren't going to stop demanding high performance and low cost from an array of goods traditionally made from cheap petrochemicals.

"You probably don't need any of the products of the chemical industry if you don't mind living in the year 1400," said William Carroll, past president of the American Chemical Society and a vice president at Occidental Chemical Corp.

Despite recent advances, such as detergents derived from coconut and plastic polymers made of corn or soybeans, the industrial world's dependence on hazardous compounds hasn't changed much since World War II.

"One of the things we're fighting against is [that] green chemistry is relatively new and you have decades, even centuries, of chemistry that is off the shelf right now," said Richard Engler, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's green chemistry program.

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