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A hazardous dependency

Chemists are hindered in creating safer ingredients for products

September 19, 2008|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer

The premise of green chemistry is that it's better to prevent environmental problems than to clean them up later. That means knowing the dangers of a chemical before it is manufactured or used, and designing safer compounds to replace hazardous ones.

But the National Academy of Sciences report says funding for research and development at the top 50 chemical companies has been declining since 2000.

"Green chemistry is currently a small band of dedicated champions, and it needs to be a massive scientific revolution backed by serious funding and support," said Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

The failure to identify hazards of a chemical before it is mass-produced has created some of the world's worst environmental crises -- asbestos causing deadly lung disease, DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls building up in food chains, and ozone-eating chlorofluorocarbons.

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.

Even newer chemicals can be problematic. Brominated flame retardants, for instance, have rapidly accumulated in people and wildlife, and have harmed the reproductive systems and brains of lab animals.

"Unfortunately, we often do not find out about a chemical's real toxic impacts until after it is commercialized and some intrepid scientist somewhere figures out that nature is telling us there is a problem, or discovers a new toxicity in the lab," said Terry Collins, a chemistry professor who directs Carnegie Mellon University's Institute for Green Science.

Even after the dangers are known, Collins said, chemical companies "tend to want to protect cash flows and expansion plans of established chemicals."

Anastas said the industry is playing a risky game of whack-a-mole: It handles one problem, only to have another one pop up. "If you ban chemical X, everyone runs to chemical Y," he said.

Under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA can ban or restrict a substance if it "presents an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment." But the last industrial chemical outlawed was asbestos in 1989, and a court reversed that decision. The EPA takes decades to analyze threats of individual chemicals. It has taken 20 years to review dioxins, carcinogens created by chemical factories, paper mills and other manufacturers using some chlorine compounds.

The first step toward solving "this 83,000-piece jigsaw puzzle" is to ensure that complete data is available on potential hazards of every chemical, said Michael Wilson, a scientist at UC Berkeley's Center for Occupational and Environmental Health who wrote a report on toxics policies commissioned by the state Legislature.

"This is a fundamental piece, that if we don't get right, green chemistry will continue to operate just at the margins," Wilson said. "Companies are becoming aware of the liabilities of hazardous substances in their supply chains, but they need enough information about them to make a proper decision."

Essential chlorine

The European Union two years ago adopted the world's most rigorous chemicals law, which requires companies to submit health and safety data on about 30,000 substances. Those posing the most danger could be phased out.

California is mounting its own effort to propel green chemistry from a niche to the mainstream. After nearly 18 months of soliciting and analyzing ideas, state officials are expected to send their recommendations to the governor later this month.

As a first step, the Legislature and governor are considering a new law to require state scientists to evaluate chemicals in consumer products and determine how to minimize their hazards.

Environmental groups are urging California to insist on safer substitutes. The chemical industry, which opposed Europe's law, is urging the state to offer funding, education and incentives rather than imposing bans.

"We never will be able to eliminate the use of toxics and maintain the same quality of living and health in this country," said Michael Walls, vice president of the American Chemistry Council, the industry's trade group. "We must understand the risks and costs and benefits of eliminating a substance. Hazard alone shouldn't drive decisions."

Chlorine, for example, can be extremely hazardous. Not only is it deadly if inhaled, but various formulations have harmed the ozone layer, triggered multibillion-dollar excavations of rivers and nearly wiped out some birds of prey.

It also is perhaps the most essential chemical in use today.

"I'm hard-pressed to find another chemical with the breadth of use," said Rob Simon, managing director of the American Chemistry Council's chlorine division.

Though there are alternatives for some uses of chlorine, there are few viable substitutes for others, such as water disinfection. About 93% of drugs are manufactured with it.

The pharmaceutical industry lags behind many industries in finding greener technologies.

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