Nor were these chemicals designed with any thought to whether they might accumulate in human blood and tissues — a now common occurrence. In her book, Grossman delivers an engaging and detailed history of the use and effects of chemicals as we most often encounter them: in the form of pollution that has spread to a wide variety of places, from mother’s milk in most countries to the farthest reaches of the Arctic.
“If you are getting a Ph.D. in chemistry and you are going to make a life creating new products, you are never required to take a class in environmental science or toxicology,” Grossman told me recently. Even as scientists continue to document the many adverse effects of common chemicals, the American Chemical Society, which accredits academic chemistry programs in the United States, has no requirement that chemists be educated regarding chemicals’ environmental and health effects.
The green chemistry movement is out to change that. As Grossman relates it, green chemistry got its start when John Warner, a chemist at Polaroid, became interested in the possible dangers of chemical contaminants after his second child was born with a fatal birth defect. He realized that he had synthesized more than 2,500 chemicals yet had never had a class in toxicology. We have been like “monkeys typing Shakespeare,” he said.
With a colleague from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Paul Anastas, Warner set out with a mission: Chemicals should be safe when they are designed; no waiting until they are in products and landfills to discover their dangers. He went on to found the nation’s first doctoral program in green chemistry at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
Many chemicals persist in nature even though their usefulness — as sealants, waterproofers, flame retardants, and so on — is over. One of the goals of green chemistry is to create molecules that break apart easily and then recombine, like the most common molecules in nature. In other words, green chemists seek to create molecules that do not endure beyond their intended use.
As Warner told Grossman, “In nature, weak molecular bonds — bonds that come together and apart again, that assemble and reassemble, and are reversible — dominate…. If we can learn what they do in nature, we should be able to make better, less toxic products.”
In searching for a better alternative, scientists and businesspeople are looking to nature — a concept called biomimicry. Biomimicry was introduced to the broader reading audience in a seminal book of the same name published in 1997 by Janine Benyus. (See “The Thought Leader Interview: Janine Benyus,” by Amy Bernstein, s+b, Autumn 2006.) But the book that most businesspeople will remember is Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins (Little, Brown and Co., 1999). One of the most relevant ideas in the book is simple to state, but extremely difficult to execute: Make things the way nature does, in closed-loop systems that minimize or eliminate waste and toxicity.
As Grossman so convincingly explains in Chasing Molecules, green chemistry involves changing the established mind-set in many companies so that what goes into products won’t have to be scooped out of lakes and landfills later. It involves avoiding potentially dangerous chemicals so they don’t ever get into products in the first place. For example, Grossman tells the story of the winner of the 2007 Presidential Green Chemistry Award, Kaichang Li, a research scientist at Oregon State University, who developed a soy-based adhesive that is replacing the potentially hazardous formaldehyde-based adhesive used in plywood and veneer products. The new safer alternative, called PureBond, was developed to mimic the workings of the liquid protein that mussels use to attach themselves to rocks. It costs less to make than formaldehyde-based adhesive.