EPA scientist advocates 'green chemistry'

Green chemistry vials

Kai Ryssdal: So here's a thought: What exactly is the Environmental Protection Agency protecting us from? At the most basic level, it's things that are bad for us. Things that are toxic -- toxic chemicals, quite often.

Twenty years ago, a young scientist at the EPA had an idea. "Green chemistry" he called it -- convincing people to design chemicals to be non-toxic from the start instead of having to regulate and clean up afterwards.

Sarah Gardner reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk that scientist, Paul Anastas, is still at it.


Paul Anastas: Hey, thanks for comin' over. Thanks for coming down.

Sarah Gardner: It's a Wednesday morning at EPA headquarters in Washington D.C. About 60 employees have been patiently waiting for their over-scheduled boss to show up for what sounds sort of like a pep talk.

Paul Anastas stands on a chair in the office lobby so everybody can see him.

Anastas: And when you take a look back at what has been accomplished, it is nothing short of astounding.

A bit of hyperbole, perhaps but EPA employees says their new chief scientist and head of R&D is making them think. This Yale professor is pushing his vision of a world where, frankly, there'd be less need for an EPA. That's because there'd be fewer toxic chemicals to regulate in the first place.

Anastas: The design of chemical products and processes that reduces or eliminates the use and generation of hazardous substances.

That's the sound bite version of the "Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry." Anastas and fellow scientist John Warner developed them together in the 90's. Anastas was inspired partly by personal tragedy. As a grad student he researched anti-cancer drugs, but changed direction after several family members died of the disease.

Anastas: And I said rather than looking at how we design molecules that can treat or hopefully cure cancer, I want to try and come up with a way that all of the chemicals that we're surrounded by can't cause cancer and can't cause other kind of toxicity.

The idea is starting to take hold, although it's much easier to reduce industrial waste or make a chemical less toxic than design a non-toxic chemical from the start. Green chemistry co-founder John Warner, for example, recently figured out how to cut down the amount of chemical waste from manufacturing a Parkinson's drug. And an Illinois company won an award for a less toxic chemical to control mosquitoes. But 20 years after Anastas coined the term "green chemistry," the philosophy is still far from mainstream, even at the EPA.

Ramona Travato: Paul's asking us to think in a new way.

Ramona Travato is a longtime EPA staffer who came out of retirement to work for Anastas. Travato says she was inspired by his willingness to challenge the status quo.

Travato: EPA's done great work for 40 years, but it's an evolutionary change and the evolutionary change is to not just think about how can we reduce pollution -- but think about how can we prevent some of that pollution.

So far, that's meant working with chemical companies instead of just regulating them. It's also meant pushing EPA's own scientists to come up with new ideas that fit the green chemistry playbook. It's too early to say whether these fledgling changes will take hold, especially given the serious budget cuts EPA now faces.

It doesn't help that green chemistry remains on the margins of academic science, says Professor Mike Wilson at the University of California.

Mike Wilson: Here at U.C. Berkeley as well as at every college and university essentially across the country that offers a degree in chemistry, there is no requirement that students in those disciplines demonstrate any understanding of toxicology, for example.

But industry's growing interest in green chemistry may force academia to pay attention. Business leaders say they're all for Anastas' Twelve Principles, as long as they result in products that perform as well or better than current ones -- and don't increase their costs.

In Washington D.C., I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk.

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