Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry: An Interview with Elizabeth Grossman


Island Press

Elizabeth Grossman, author of Chasing Molecules, is a freelance journalist and writer specializing in environmental and science issues. Her past articles have appeared in Scientific American, InsideClimate News, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, and other publications. Previous books include High Tech Trash and Watershed. She received her B.A. from Yale University.

Tell me a bit about your background and career and how you arrived at writing this book, Chasing Molecules?

I wrote Chasing Molecules after finishing my book High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics and Human Health that looked at the environmental and health effects of high tech electronics. It was while working on that that I was introduced to what scientists are learning about environmentally mobile, pervasive, and persistent synthetic chemicals. Chemicals used to make electronics were—and still are—turning up in the environment and in people and wildlife, all over the world. I wanted to know why this was happening. And as I learned about the potential health effects of these chemicals, I also wanted to know how and why we had come to create and were using so many chemicals with adverse environmental and health impacts.

At the same time, I was introduced to the concept of design for the environment and to green chemistry, the idea of preventing pollution at the design stage. I was really intrigued by this work. And the people I met who were working on solving these problems were fascinating, so I decided I wanted to learn more.

What is green chemistry?

The idea behind green chemistry is that it is better to prevent pollution than to clean it up after it’s been created. The 12 principles of green chemistry were developed to guide chemists through the process of synthesizing molecules in a way that is materials and energy efficient, that does not create copious or hazardous waste or toxic byproducts, and that creates a finished product that is environmentally benign and safe for human health throughout its entire life cycle and no matter how or where it’s used.

It’s important to understand that green chemistry is a set of principles rather than a prescription for what materials to use. The idea is to prevent pollution and the health problems associated with hazardous chemicals by designing chemical products that are without environmental health hazards rather than trying to control the risks or alleviate contamination after it’s happened. Eliminate the hazard through design rather than trying to control toxic emissions and waste—that’s the idea behind green chemistry.

Is green chemistry really the panacea? How does green chemistry work and how is it viewed by the scientific community?

I don’t think anyone thinks green chemistry’s the panacea. But it seems to me a persuasive and potentially powerful solution to problems posed by hazardous chemicals. Green chemistry advocates preventing hazardous chemical pollution by designing chemicals that are nontoxic and safe from the outset. It seems simple, but this is not what has happened historically. Typically, chemists have created new materials or molecules serendipitously or to fill a particular need. The goal has usually been to create a new molecule or material that performs a certain task. For example, to make a new material that is shatterproof or stretchy or waterproof. After the materials are invented, the next question typically asked is if that material will be practical to produce commercially. Questions about a new material’s potential effects on human health or the environment—or if it will be hazardous to make—have historically been asked only after that.

A large part of the problem is that chemists have not been trained in ecology or toxicology or any type of environmental health science that would teach them to ask such questions. Historically, chemists have invented the new materials and it’s been up to someone else to assess these substances’ toxicity. Green chemistry asks chemists to think about toxicity at the beginning of the molecular design process. That’s why I think it’s exciting as a solution to chemical pollution. When it comes to pollution prevention, we’ve gone after the large-scale emission sources—toxics released during industrial manufacturing or disposal. But one of the things we’ve started paying closer attention to recently is chemical exposure that occurs through finished products,

Another chemical exposure issue that green chemistry can help address as a pollution-prevention strategy—perhaps better than methods aimed at curtailing industrial emissions—is that of low-dose or low-level exposures. We’ve learned in recent decades that, for certain chemicals and certain health effects, low-level exposures can prompt potentially serious adverse health effects. Historically, toxicology and regulations have focused on high doses, assuming that the higher the dose the greater the impact. That’s not always the case. For example, where hormones are concerned, it may only take a small exposure to have a negative impact. We’ve also now learned that timing of exposure—as well as level—can be very important. Certain chemicals, it appears, can prompt adverse impacts if exposure occurs at a particularly vulnerable point in development, such as very early in life. The effects of low doses and timing really complicate how we think about protecting people from potentially harmful chemical exposures. We could say, this substance is safe for everyone except pregnant women and children under four. But how do you do that practically? We do that with certain products but a much better approach is to design materials that are nontoxic and safe for everyone to use.

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net_efekt / Flickr
A molecular model of DNA at Oxford University Natural History Museum

What does increased chemical exposure mean for the body?

One of the things that’s been discovered in the past few decades in environmental health science is that synthetic chemicals can be found virtually everywhere we look, including in people. For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) has been conducting what are called biomonitoring studies, looking for and measuring the presence of synthetic chemicals in the human body. These studies have been monitoring more than 200 different industrial chemicals. Many are being found in the majority of Americans tested. Studies like this have now been done all over the world with similar results. These chemicals are also being found in newborn babies. In fact several studies have now found more than 200 such chemicals in newborns’ umbilical cord blood. We don’t yet know what, if any, health impacts all of these chemicals have but many are now linked to a range of adverse health effects. And we do know that they weren’t meant to be in people.

Over the past couple of decades, there has been an enormous amount of research into the health effects of these chemicals. One field that’s developed during this time is that of research into what are called endocrine-disrupting chemicals—chemicals that can disrupt or interfere with endocrine system hormones. These hormones are involved with regulating the body’s most important systems—metabolism, development, reproduction, even neurological, immune system, and cardiovascular health. They are very sensitive and it turns out that a great many synthetic chemicals can interfere with the healthy function of these hormones. Very small amounts of certain synthetic chemicals, it’s been discovered, can prompt changes that can lead to adverse health effects that may take years to develop. Such exposures early in life, including before birth, can affect health later in life or even the health of future generations.

When it comes to human health outcomes, it is often very difficult to prove direct cause and effect when it comes to a particular chemical exposure, in part because we are exposed to so many chemicals throughout our lives. But it’s now understood that environment and environmental chemical exposure plays a key role in determining health. And when it comes to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, tens of thousands of scientists and a number of scientific organizations, including the American Medical Association now say that, despite existing data gaps, it seems clear that reducing exposure to endocrine disrupters, particularly early in life, would help improve public health.

How were earlier movements successful in reducing human exposure to toxic chemicals and what have we learned from that effort?

While I think we’ve made great progress since the 1970s (when most of the United States’ major pollution prevention laws were enacted) in curtailing large-scale pollution, I don’t think we’ve yet been as successful as we could be in preventing ongoing exposure to hazardous chemicals.

We’ve done a good job at reducing some of the most hazardous exposures—lead, for example. But overall we’re nowhere near where we should be, and dealing with low-level exposures and exposures that have lots of small-scale sources, like consumer products, is even more challenging than putting scrubbers on smokestacks or preventing dumping of toxic waste. And while we’ve made workplaces much safer than they were 50 or 60 or more years ago, there is still far too much occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Why has the government, having made a stand against certain types of pollution, not made a stand against more?

What got tackled first, as we began to come to grips with industrial-chemical pollution, were large-scale sources. Stopping wholesale release of toxics into rivers, using the air as a disposal, and allowing hazardous chemicals to be dumped anywhere. We’ve improved that situation substantially and in many cases dramatically. There are stories from all over the country about rivers and waterfronts that were shunned back in the 1960s because those waterways were so filthy. Today, those places are sought-after, highly desirable locations, thanks in no small measure to pollution prevention.

But we didn’t pass the U.S. law that regulates chemicals in commerce, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), until 1976 and that law has not been as effective as it could have been. In fact, a big debate is now going on in the Senate and among environmental health advocates and industry as to how to improve that law. One thing TSCA did was make it very difficult for the Environmental Protection Agency to actually restrict the use of a hazardous substance, as TSCA makes it very difficult to show that a chemical is harmful. And contrary to what many people might assume, TSCA does not require that chemicals are thoroughly tested for safety before they are produced and used commercially.

Solving chemical pollution isn’t easy but I think it’s even harder to get a fix on the pollution you can’t see or smell than on the pollution you can. We’re by no means finished dealing with industrial emissions—I don’t think we’ll ever be—but I don’t think we can successfully deal with either the belching smokestacks or the invisible exposures without designing and using safer materials, which is what green chemistry asks us to do.