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What's the resistance? I'm sure chemical companies view regulations as a problem.
Warner: Absolutely. Chemical companies actually have embraced this for the most part. You see companies that have vice presidents of green chemistry. They would love to embrace it but the people haven't been trained. So you find them sponsoring workshops, bringing training to employees. Of course they would rather see academia start requiring courses. But changing academia is one of the most difficult things to do.
Some environmentalists say that after global warming the next big environmental concern is toxics within our own bodies. What's your feeling?
Warner: It's terrifying. Obviously my personal history (Warner lost an infant son to a birth defect, and a rock band mate in his twenties to leukemia), I have some questions about how all that pulls together. The new learning about environmental hormones and endocrine disruptors is scary as hell. I'm not in a position to know how much of that is valid, how much of that is not valid. Certainly some of it is valid and if some of it is valid, that's scary as hell.
We have carcinogens. Just look at the rates of childhood asthma and things like that. Now there are links to certain psychological illnesses. Things are happening out there that we need to learn about. But rather than look at it and panic and say, "Oh my God we must stop, stop, stop," I choose to look at it and say, "Let's get a factor of 10 more chemists onboard and get more people inventing safer things." And be proactive about changing the future.
How hard is this, even if you took into account design principles as you were talking about earlier?
Warner: I'm talking into this recorder here. Imagine all the inventions that went into doing this. All the different things--you got the LED light shining, the recording mechanisms, miniaturization of the electronics. Adding "let's make it nontoxic," although it's huge, is no larger of a problem than anything else. It's just that we haven't focused on it. It's always been abdicated to somebody else to do it. The inventors invent and the toxicologist comes in after the fact.
What I'm saying is: Look at that as a design flaw. You want this to work, you want the LED light, you want a clear recording. You also want the components to be nontoxic. And there is going to be a day in the future when that's going to be an acceptable requirement. But right now we don't have the building blocks to get there.
Is this an interdisciplinary problem?
Warner: Absolutely. The whole thing, in my opinion, is that if chemistry was more interdisciplinary and there was a diversity of the eyes, ears and ideas in the process, we'd be much better at what we're doing. The problem is that we're not. The academic structure is such that there is chemistry, there is biology, there is physics. And although the language has become "let's be more interdisciplinary," if you should go under the surface and actually look at how universities are still run today, there's very little successful interdisciplinary (work).
What about nanotechnology?
Warner: Nanotechnology--there's a whole lot of questions. There are two big areas in nanotechnology. One is obviously the potential hazards. True enough, that's scary and we need to do a lot as we develop product materials to make sure of that.
But I actually have a different take on that and that is, many companies will say, "We've been making such and such product for 40 years. You might have a new way of making it. But what are we going to do--tear down a manufacturing plant and fire all the people?" The expense of tearing down an existing thing and creating something new--are they going to go to another country where it's cheaper? There are all kinds of complications of replacing existing technology.
Nanotechnology isn't in the manufacturing phase, so when companies start doing that, they already have a lot of things to choose from that are environmentally-responsible, green chemistry technologies. If they choose to set up a manufacturing plant using the same traditional hazardous materials in spite of the fact that these other technologies exist, now that's a big problem.
The toxicity of this business card (in my hand) is one thing. But when you consider that probably for every gram of business card there's probably 100 to 1,000 grams of waste generated--the solvents for ink, the solvents used for paper, the energy for transportation.
The toxicity of this card is important, but it's only the tip of the iceberg. Where did this card come from? Where does it come from? The things that consumers never ever see can oftentimes have an even more profound impact on the environment than the actual product itself.