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Toxic Chemicals All Around Us: Is Green Chemistry the Answer?

Photo: Queens University
Photo: Queens University

Soon our computers may be running on computer chips made from chicken feathers that are twice as fast as today’s circuit boards. Instead of using pesticides and herbicides to protect plants, we will apply a naturally occurring protein from genetically modified bacteria to a plant’s leaves to trigger its own self-defense mechanisms. Our clothing could be made of a new kind of spandex, 70 percent of which is made from glucose derived from corn.

These are all examples of green chemistry, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines as “the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances.” It is arguably the most promising solution to the problem of our increasingly chemical-laden environment.

We live in a world filled with synthetic chemicals yet are often oblivious to them. For example, perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are used in clothing, cookware, food containers and carpet. Bisphenol A (BPA) is found in baby bottles, receipt paper, food can linings, CDs and DVDs. Phthalates are in paper, air freshener, vinyl tile and wood varnish. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) used as flame retardants are found in furniture and electronics.

Rendering of a Bisphenol A molecule
The chemical structure of bisphenol A

Today there are more than 80,000 chemicals on the market, many with known or suspected health effects. When the Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted in 1976, empowering the EPA to regulate commercial chemicals, the law presumed that those already on the market were safe, so 62,000 chemicals were exempted. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the EPA has required testing for only about 200 of these chemicals.

Since 1976, 20,000 new chemicals have been introduced and only five have been removed from market. Manufacturers must notify the EPA when introducing a new chemical to market, but are not required to prove its safety beforehand. And in order for a chemical to be regulated or removed from the market, the EPA must prove that it poses a “reasonable risk” to public health or the environment. In other words, there is no standard to prove a product is safe; it only needs to have not been demonstrated to be unsafe.

Earlier this year, Elliott Negin, senior writer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a memo to Congress, “Manufacturers are supposed to supply the Environmental Protection Agency with information about production volume, intended uses, and toxicity 90 days before they begin commercial-scale production. But 85 percent of the manufacturers’ notifications have contained no health data, according to the EPA’s own figures.” We are living amongst “suspected neurotoxins, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, and thousands of other chemicals for which there is little or no information.”

While the EPA is responsible for overseeing chemicals used in industry and agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates chemicals that are ingested or applied to skin. The Pew Charitable Trust’s analysis of food additives, however, found that half of direct additives that should have had studies done, did not.

Chemicals, released into the environment in the manufacture and use of many products, enter our bodies through air, water, food and skin. And since most wastewater treatment does not remove pharmaceuticals, the medications we consume are excreted through urine and can end up in our water supply and pollute rivers, harming aquatic life. Drugs also make their way into soil and have been found to affect plant growth, which may have implications for crop growth. And new research has found that the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing can have impacts on human reproductive and developmental health.

Photo: DES Daughter
Photo: DES Daughter

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, BPA, an endocrine disrupter, is now found in 9 out of 10 Americans. PFCs, PBDEs and phthalates, which are associated with fertility problems, are in 99 percent of pregnant women. And 287 chemicals (many of which can cause cancer, brain and nervous system effects, birth defects and developmental problems) were discovered in the umbilical cord blood of 10 newborns chosen at random.

Even at very low doses, chemicals can affect human health by disrupting cell communication that directs growth, development and normal function; they can contribute to cancer and other diseases. The timing of the exposure and the extent of the dose determine how health is affected. In utero or early childhood exposure is especially critical.

In March 2014, Dr. Philip Landrigan, dean for global health at the Mt. Sinai Hospital medical school, testified to the House Subcommittee on the Environment and the Economy that “clinical and epidemiologic studies have linked organophosphate pesticides, arsenic, manganese, brominated flame retardants, phthalates and bisphenol A to learning disabilities, loss of IQ, and problems of behavior in children.” He reported that chronic diseases, such as asthma, cancer, autism and ADHD are on the rise in American children and may be linked to toxic chemicals.

Landrigan also quoted pediatrician Dr. Herbert Needleman of the University of Pittsburgh, who said, “What we are doing in this country is we are conducting a vast toxicological experiment, and we are using our children and our children’s children as the unwitting, unconsenting subjects.”

Gradually, the public is becoming more aware of the toxins in our midst. For example, several European countries and 12 states and the District of Columbia in the U.S. have restricted BPA use in baby bottles and sippy cups. The European Union, Canada and the U.S. have banned six types of phthalates in children’s toys and childcare products. But even with the restrictions, these chemicals are used in many other everyday products.

These items all contained elevated levels of phthalates. Photo: CHEJ
These items all contained elevated levels of phthalates. Photo: CHEJ

With the passing of the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, pollution prevention rather than control became the preferred strategy to deal with environmental pollution. The EPA Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxins coined the term “green chemistry” and began encouraging collaboration between government, industry and academia.

“The only reason to deeply understand a problem is to inform and empower its solutions,” said Paul Anastas, who left his job in 2012 as head of research at the EPA to return to his position as director of the Yale Center for Green Chemistry. “The EPA has a long history of understanding how toxic certain chemicals are. There’s this realization now that we can actually design chemicals and design manufacturing so they are less toxic and less polluting.”

Green chemistry reduces pollution at the source by reducing the hazardous chemicals used in chemical processes and in products themselves. Products are designed using renewable materials; manufacturing processes utilize less toxic substances and generate less waste; and materials can go back into the environment at the end of their use and degrade safely.

Twelve principles of green chemistry were developed by Paul Anastas and John C. Warner and include these key objectives:

  • Prevent waste rather than clean it up afterwards.
  • Incorporate as much of the materials used in the process into the final product (called atom economy).
  • Design safer chemicals, products and processes.
  • Increase energy efficiency.
  • Use renewable raw materials.
  • Design products to break down safely at the end of their function.
  • Choose substances that minimize the potential for accidents.

Justin Notestein, associate professor in the department of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University who researches atom efficiency, explained that when there is an identifiable set of physical properties you are looking to find greener substitutes for, reformulating products can be relatively predictable—for example, making products that are chemically identical but that are from a biomass source instead of a petroleum one.

Photo: Tschoppi
Photo: Tschoppi

But in cases where there is qualitative perception involved, such as how something tastes or feels on the skin, results are harder to predict. In these cases, finding the right green chemicals can require hours of trial and error to give consumers the experience they expect. And if there are tight specifications for the materials that go into products, reformulations of existing products can be very expensive or even impossible.

The EPA has developed computer software called T.E.S.T. that allows chemists around the world to draw the structure of the molecule they are thinking of making before doing research in the lab. The software program can predict the toxicity from the physical characteristics of the chemical structure, saving time and money.

A 2011 report by Pike Research predicts that the green chemistry market will continue to grow over the next decade, saving money through lowering costs and avoiding liability for harmful environmental and social effects. The savings could reach $65.5 billion by 2020.

Chemical engineer Alissa Park, Lenfest Chair in Applied Climate Science and interim director of the Lenfest Center at The Earth Institute, works on carbon capture, utilization and storage, as well as extraction of materials from electronic waste. Park explained that if industry did not use green chemistry in the past, it’s because it was neither effective nor cheap enough. But as regulations tighten up to protect the environment, industry’s costs to deal with their waste and environmental impacts go up.

“Industry will only optimize what they have to,” said Park. “In the past, it was cost and efficiency, but now they have to consider environmental impacts as well… There’s a lot more pressure on companies—they have to pay fines for polluting and they want a good public image. If they are ethical and want to contribute to society, they will actively seek to improve their products without reducing their profit margin too much.”

The consumer also has an important role to play in pressuring companies. Notestein said that if consumer products haven’t been reformulated to be greener, it’s usually because there is not enough consumer demand for them or there is some misguided consumer perception that greener products are less effective.

“It is important for consumers to realize that consumer pressure is the most effective way to produce change,” said Notestein. “Consumers need to remember that ultimately it’s their desires that the companies are responding to. If price and immediate function are the only concerns consumers have, the company will be less interested in reformulating its products…”

“There’s been a sea change in consumer perception in the last few years,” he added, “so I don’t think it will be long before we see more classes of products explicitly marketed as good for long-term health and the environment rather than just their function.”

Here are some examples of green chemistry in action.

Photo: Ibuprofen tablets
Ibuprofen tablets
  • In the 1960s, ibuprofen, the key ingredient in anti-inflammatory drugs such as Advil and Motrin, was produced in a six-step process with an atom economy of 40 percent. Put another way, less than half the weight of all the atoms in the ingredients was integrated into the final product; 60 percent went to waste as undesirable by-products. In the 1990s, a three-step process was developed with an atom economy of 77 to 99 percent, vastly cutting down on waste, and reducing the time and energy needed to produce the ibuprofen.
  • Beginning in the 1940s, formaldehyde, a human carcinogen, was routinely used in glue to make wood composites such as plywood and particleboard. In 2003, a wood science researcher used the amino acids in soy protein to develop a glue substitute, inspired by the natural adhesive mussels use to stick to rocks. The formaldehyde-free glue greatly reduces hazardous air pollution emissions from wood furniture.
  • Biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, have certain drawbacks, such as how much can be blended with regular gasoline and performance issues in cold weather. Amyris engineered yeast to convert sugars into farnesene instead of ethanol. Farnesene is a hydrocarbon that can be converted into a renewable substitute for petroleum diesel. Amyris’s renewable diesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 82 percent compared to petroleum diesel, contains no sulfur or particulates, and performs better in low temperatures.


  • Firefighting foams have traditionally used fluorinated surfactants that are toxic, bioaccumulate and persist, leading to environmental and health concerns. The Solberg Company developed a firefighting foam from a blend of hydrocarbon surfactants, water, solvent, sugars, a preservative and a corrosion inhibitor that has far fewer environmental impacts; it degrades completely in 42 days. (In 2014, Amyris and Solberg were both winners of the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge sponsored annually by the EPA to promote technologies using green chemistry.)
  • Oil-based paint gives off hazardous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as it dries, which can cause health problems. Proctor & Gamble along with Cook Composites and Polymers replaced petroleum based paints and solvents with a mixture derived from soya oil and sugar that cuts VOCs by 50 percent and produces much less toxic waste.

William G. Russell, a faculty member at Columbia University’s Master of Science in Sustainability Management Program and Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he teaches sustainability metrics and finance, is optimistic that hazardous materials will eventually be phased out of products as more industries embrace green chemistry and view it as critical to the future of their products.

“I believe these chemists and product designers, as they understand the needs of the environment, are finding the innovations necessary to make better products,” said Russell. ”I am optimistic that better products will become the ones people want or must buy because other products won’t be available anymore.

In his corporate sustainability consulting work, Russell has clients look at the material flows of their businesses, to examine manufacturing processes to see where and why waste is being created, and to determine how they can reduce it.

“Everyone is trying to reformulate their products as they look at what the economics of the future will be,” said Russell. “They are more aware of the risks associated with materials used in operations and products, and want to become more efficient, because that immediately increases profitability… these aspects of green chemistry are completely consistent with the sustainability objectives of a company.”

For example, Russell’s client BASF, a chemical company, has completed an entire lifecycle and social impact analysis on every one of its 150,000 products. If products have harmful impacts, the company is developing plans to replace or redesign them. For products that are positive and sustainable, it has ambitious sales plans to educate customers about them and encourage their use.

In September 2013, Walmart announced a new policy for its suppliers to expand disclosure of chemical ingredients and replace 10 chemicals of concern with safer ingredients. The Environmental Defense Fund is working with the retailer to monitor and verify the reduction of hazardous ingredients. The policy, which is expected to affect 20 percent of Walmart’s consumable products, will have an impact all along Walmart’s global supply chain.

The European Union’s REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals) regulation, established in 2007, is also having an impact on global products. It applies the precautionary principle to chemicals, requiring manufacturers to prove a chemical safe before it’s allowed on the market.  According to a 2013 European Commission report, more information about chemical substances is now available, risks have decreased, and industry is working hard to find substitutes for the most hazardous chemicals. Today 61 percent of Europeans feel chemicals are safer than they were 10 years ago.

It is clear that the Toxic Substances Control Act in the U.S, which has not been updated since its creation, is in serious need of reform. The EPA has put forth principles to revise and strengthen the act.

  • The EPA should have the authority to establish safety standards based on scientific risk assessments.
  • Manufacturers should be required to provide the data necessary to conclude that new and existing chemicals will not harm human health or the environment.
  • When chemicals do not meet safety standards, the EPA should be able to consider sensitive populations, children’s health, economic costs, the availability of substitutes and other relevant concerns to take action.
  • The EPA should have the authority to establish priorities for safety testing on existing and new chemicals.
  • Green chemistry should be encouraged and supported through research and education.
  • The EPA should be given a sustained source of funding to implement these principles.

The chemical industry is confident that the Toxic Substances Control Act will be updated in 2015. A chemical safety reform package that had been crafted earlier this year was too easy on the chemical industry and polluters, according to environmentalists and some Democrats. Now that Republicans have gained control of Congress, it has a good chance to pass.

In the meantime, if you want to know what chemicals are in your food and consumer products, check out the Environmental Working Group’s consumer guides to food, cosmetics, cleaning products, produce and much more.

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Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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Shawn McNeill
Shawn McNeill
8 years ago

I really enjoyed this article and how it brings the best out in green chemistry and how it is the way to go!

Ed Kane
6 years ago

We at ChemFree DeFoam LLC are working with many food processors in eliminating defoamer chemistries they use when they process vegetables and fruit. We utilize a water spray system that controls and eliminates foam that is normally controlled with silicone or non silicone defoamer chemistries. The water is used as a part of the process and if re-cycled fresh water is available, we use that too. Consumers do not realize there are lots of chemicals used in food manufacturing from the farm to manufacturing (processing) in the plant.