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Chemical Reaction: Green Chemistry—Safer from the Start

By: Steve Herman
Posted: October 3, 2008, from the March 2006 issue of GCI Magazine.

“Not all chemicals are bad. Without chemicals such as hydrogen and oxygen, for example, there would be no way to make water, a vital ingredient in beer.” —Dave Barry

Chemical. The mere word triggers fear and hostility in many people. Images of the Exxon Valdez and Chernobyl merge into a generalized, and irrational, view of the value of technology in the world. Fortunately, a countermovement is underway to make scientific activity safer, and to communicate to the public the innumerable ways that science makes the world better.

Many SCC chapters have enjoyed presentations by John Warner, Ph.D., on green chemistry. Warner, a professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell, has been a dedicated advocate of a new type of environmentally informed chemistry, coauthoring the classic text—Green Chemistry (Oxford Press, 1998), advocating programs in Washington, D.C., gently prodding the American Chemical Society (ACS) into embracing the new way of doing science, and reaching out to the general public. This column summarizes the history and principles of green chemistry, and shows how extensive this approach to science has become in a relatively short time with the government, academia and industry.

Warner has an especially interesting Web site, www.greenchemistry.uml.edu, with a 45-minute video outlining his career. He had a long and successful stint in industry before commencing his equally notable time in academia. He is on the board of the ACS, has recently won a presidential teaching award (complete with a visit to the Oval Office), and his advocacy has resulted in green chemistry legislation passing Congress. With many demands on his time and enough accomplishments for any scientist, Warner makes time to appear at as many technical meetings as possible, realizing the importance of spreading the word to enable the new chemistry to take hold as broadly and deeply as possible.

The Greening of Chemistry

The heart of green chemistry is almost self-evident once it is described (see sidebar on p.54). A lot of resources are dedicated to regulatory, environmental and safety concerns. Warner realized that some major chemical companies spend as much money on regulatory and safety concerns as they spend in R&D—sums in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The fundamental concept of green chemistry is simplicity itself: Why not make products safe from the beginning? Then the safety, environmental and regulatory issues, with their attendant expense in time and money, would melt away. In the process, as a possible halo effect, the general public might no longer view the industry as insensitive purveyors of toxic materials.