Since the passage of the California Green Chemistry legislation I've noticed a significant uptick in activities related to the presence of toxic substances in consumer products brought to the public's attention by this law being enacted. The number of trade groups, associated companies, and other groups who have suddenly come alive to the central tenant of the law – alternatives assessment – is rather interesting. It's not as though the idea of toxic substances in consumer products is a new issue, and the idea of alternatives assessment has been developed for a while, most notably in the US in response to the Toxics Use Reduction legislation in Massachusetts. The latest foray into this will start tomorrow, on the November 15th, as an NRC Committee is being convened on the Design and Evaluation of Safer Chemical Substitutions. It will be worth following the activities and outcomes of the Committee.
A National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Institute of Occupational Medicine symposium held on the 7th and 8th of November on "Identifying and reducing environmental health risks of chemicals in our society" was also extremely enlightening. Despite many advances in toxic substances reduction across a variety of areas, there was much that was discussed that has been discussed for the past 25 years or more and still needs to be addressed. On the one hand, this could be surprising to some; on the other hand, it really is a reflection of a systemic issue. And that issue is this: you don't have to go too far back in the chemical supply chain to find toxic substances – it’s just the way chemistry is done and has been done for a very long time. As I observe at many symposia and conferences like the NIEHS IOM symposium last week, there are rarely any chemists in the room when large numbers of people are talking about toxic and hazardous substances. The people who are making molecules and using various metals, reagents, solvents, etc. use what they use because that is what they have always done.
To state the situation very simplistically, on one side you have the steady drumbeat of the Occupational Medical Community, Environmental Health scientists, a variety of advocacy groups, and others trying to influence government policy and enact chemicals legislation. On the other side, you have a community, chemists, chemical producers, etc. whose way of working is seen as business as usual, and they feel that there is nothing wrong with it because they have been managing exposures to toxic substances and thereby reducing the risk of consumer and environmental exposure to toxic substances in consumer products. It's a recipe for gridlock, and that is generally what occurs.
That is, of course, the reason for sustainable and green chemistry to be more broadly supported, accepted as the only way to do chemistry, and all chemists, chemical engineers and the companies or organizations that employ them need to change business as usual. This is possible but we need to get beyond the one molecule, element or product at a time approach that we have been taking. It's a systemic issue and unless we address the root causes, we will not make a lot of progress. Yes, we are making progress, but think how much more could be done if chemists became truly alive to the problem at hand. We need your help, and I look forward to working with you to reimagine how chemistry is done so we can move towards a brighter, more sustainable future.
As always, let me know what you think.
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