Clean Chemistry

Forward-thinking scientists are trying to weed out the toxic chemicals from the sustainable ones


Green chemist Marty Mulvihill

Toby Burditt /

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Chemists are trained to create new molecular compounds in a lab, where they work under fume hoods wearing goggles and gloves to protect themselves from their potentially toxic concoctions. When the experiments are successful, explains Laura Wright Treadway in OnEarth (Summer 2011), the chemist often files a molecular patent and the new compound can be used to make consumer products: items like cleaning solvents, baby wipes, water purifiers, lipsticks, television sets, flame retardants, and, of course, all things plastic, from water bottles to rubber duckies to intravenous tubing.  

What’s shocking is that, thanks to the infamously lax Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, no health or safety testing is required for new chemical substances or their corresponding products. “Although the law says that a company should submit any available safety data, it’s also OK not to if no data exist,” Treadway reports. The result is that only five hazardous chemicals have been restricted over the past 35 years. Yet the Centers for Disease Control routinely detect hundreds of chemical classes in human blood—some benign, some dangerous, some unknowable.  

One solution to this devil-may-care approach is green chemistry: the science of creating sustainable compounds that reduce or eliminate toxic substances while also taking into consideration a product’s entire life cycle. Green chemists ask commonsense questions: Will car mechanics be breathing it, as a brake-cleaning solvent, inside the poorly ventilated bowels of an auto shop? Will babies be stuffing it, as a plastic toy, in their mouths? Will everyone who washes clothes be scraping it, in the form of lint, out of their dryers?  

The nation’s first PhD program in green chemistry was founded in 2001 by researcher John Warner at the University of Massachusetts, and other colleges have followed suit. The prestigious school of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, is collaborating with green chemist Marty Mulvihill to create its first graduate toxicology course aimed directly at training chemists. “Budding chemists need that basic awareness,” says Mulvihill. “They may work in isolation under fume hoods, but their products do not remain in that vacuum.”