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Yet even as technologists design new materials, little is understood about the potentially harmful effects of these inventions on people and the environment.
John Warner is out to change that.
Warner is director of the Center for Green Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. He also recently co-founded the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, where he is chief technology officer.
He is one of a growing number of academics and professional chemists promoting environmentally benign approaches to chemistry and materials development.
Formulating safer substances is within grasp, Warner argues. But toxicology isn't sufficiently considered during the design stage. And there's a large gap in the knowledge needed to make environmentally benign goods.
Warner spoke at last week's Ideas Boston conference, where he described his life journey and current mission. Coming from a working-class family outside Boston, he got into graduate work in chemistry by chance. Once an employee at Polaroid, he discovered how little he or his fellow chemists known about toxicity.
After his talk, Warner spoke with CNET News.com.
Q: What is green chemistry and why do we need it?
Warner: Green chemistry is just a correction of the fact that right now in our education of chemistry and materials science, we don't teach toxicology or (chemistry) as a mechanism for environmental harm. So as society demands technology, the problem is that the people who are inventing it are unaware of the mechanisms that cause toxicity and environmental harm. If you can put in their hands the tools to understand that, then they may invent new products and processes that...look at toxicity and environmental harm as a design flaw. So green chemistry, succinctly, is making materials in an environmentally responsible way, and the technology required to do that.
You said that you were not trained in toxicity and no chemists are trained in that. How can that be?
Warner: Unless you are a toxicologist, (in which case) of course you are. If you are a chemist who is destined to work at the DuPonts and Dows, our curriculum is so jam-packed with things that we have to learn that we can't fit (it in)--or there is not enough of a present awareness of the importance of it.
If you go online at any university in the country, go to the chemistry department and look at what's required; you show me one chemistry department where someone who has graduated with a degree in chemistry is required to take anything like toxicology or environmental harm. You won't find one. Unless your major is toxicology or environmental sciences. Whereas if you are going to be in the job of monitoring, measuring, characterizing (toxics) after (chemicals have) already been created, then you have to take a ton of classes. But the ones who are doing the creating aren't being educated.
As a parent, I've read about plastics used in baby bottles (that may be harmful) and arsenic in the lumber to build playgrounds. Do we have a good idea of how bad the dangers are?
Warner: That's a very scary thing--that our knowledge of toxicology is a moving target. What we knew 10 years ago, what we know now is changing. The people who invented chlorofluorocarbons were heroes. Every week there would be a disaster: an ammonia explosion from a refrigerator plant--people were dying. Society mandated replacement for ammonia. Chlorofluorocarbons were invented at that time and they were thought of as wonderful, benign and safe things. Years later, we found out that they were ozone-depleting. It wasn't a bad invention--they just didn't know.
The reason is perhaps that a chemist kind of works in isolation. Do you ever see a history major or psychology major sitting down with a group of chemists and saying, "Hey, what are you doing?" The next question is: why shouldn't they?
There is a profound impact...when you invent a material. Why is it that in our society we completely disassociate people who do science and those who don't? What we need to do is get more people to realize that they can participate--their eyes, their ears, their ideas are just as valid to help in that process to say, "Wait a minute. Why are you using that material? Did you know over here somebody actually did find out that it has some toxicological concerns?" Right now, the only way those things happen is by accident during the design process or by identifying the horrors sometime later.
Let's put it as upfront as possible. We're not going to solve all the problems--we're still going to fail, we're still going to screw up, some dangerous things are going to slip through. But right now, there's no chance of stopping them. Someday in the future, we will be better at this. But we have to at least make a decision to go in that direction today.