Can Green Chemistry Get Us Out of Deepwater?

EPA-approved oil dispersants - themselves petroleum-based products with unknown long term impacts - are products of the kind of old thinking and outdated design that got us into this mess in the first place.
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As we've watched the Deepwater Horizon disaster unfold, Advancing Green Chemistry executive director Karen Peabody O'Brien and I have been thinking about how green chemistry can help change how we go about preventing the kind of toxic pollution now taking its toll on the Gulf Coast - how we can do better than booms, skimmers, dispersants, and fires - and how green chemistry can help move us beyond our dependence on petrochemicals. Here are some of our thoughts (and I'd like to acknowledge Karen as my co-author):

It is now more than three months since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 workers, injuring more, and unleashing its vast underwater oil gusher into the Gulf of Mexico. As this unnatural disaster continues with devastating consequences to Gulf Coast wetlands, wildlife, culture, and economy, our attention is - quite understandably - focused on the immediate. But as we hasten to rescue, repair, and restore, shouldn't we also be thinking about what we can do to make sure this never happens again?

This question has many answers. Among them is green chemistry, the science that calls for eliminating hazards and waste at the design stage rather than at the end of the pipe - literally and figuratively. While not a magic wand, green chemistry would go a long way toward moving us away from society's dependence on toxic petrochemicals as the basis for most manufactured materials.

Rather than preventing pollution and toxic exposures by designing products to be without inherent hazards, we've relied on containing, or "managing," the risk of exposure. And risk management works... until it doesn't. Sooner or later, it fails. Hence Bhopal. Hence toxic spills. Hence the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Accidents happen.

Historically, we've taken these risks and assumed the environment would successfully absorb the consequences of our industrial effluence - accidental or intentional. But clearly this is not working.

Green chemistry can change this course. It is a radical departure from the status quo, the age-old practice of valuing expedience at the expense of the environment and human health.

Green chemistry design has already created products like paint made with soy additives, pesticides made from microbes, and plastics made from orange peels. There are even green chemistry products that can break down petroleum in environmentally benign ways, products that detoxify hazardous petrochemicals and leave behind nothing more toxic than oxygen and water. Not only are these products safe for human health but who wouldn't prefer an orange peel spill to what is happening in the Gulf?

So far, nearly 2 million gallons of chemical oil dispersants have been poured into the Gulf. Yet these EPA-approved dispersants - themselves petroleum-based products with unknown long term ecological and health impacts - are products of the kind of old thinking and outdated design that got us into this mess in the first place.

"This is an engineering miracle," said Paul Anastas, assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Research and Development, pointing to a photograph of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. "But when we define our goals, we define the consequences of our actions," he continued in remarks to the 14th annual American Chemistry Society Green Chemistry and Engineering conference in Washington, DC, last month. "There is no doubt," said Anastas who is also a founder of green chemistry, "that we're on an unsustainable trajectory."

To change this course, said Anastas, "we need to design into our technologies the consequences to human health and the environment."

We have the capacity to do this - to create high performance products that are both effective and environmentally benign. But until we make a real commitment to this transformation we will be limited to what Anastas called "elegant and expensive technological bandages that are inherently unsustainable."

What would such a commitment look like?

- Every chemistry PhD student would graduate with an in-depth understanding of the environmental costs and benefits of the design choices they make. Every chemistry student would learn the biological mechanisms of toxicology. Investing in and expanding green chemistry education is key. Equipping the next generation with the tools necessary to create sustainable technologies is essential.

- Government procurement programs would use green chemistry principles to seek out the 'greenest' technologies. Rather than being limited to products (ranging from dispersants to carpets) that fit a standard set decades ago, government agencies would be empowered to choose and use the most environmentally innovative.

- Companies would compete to lead the transition away from chemicals of greatest concern. We are not talking about using marginally "less bad" chemicals, but about redesigning products and processes to be inherently benign and sustainable. How much smarter is it to become a market leader rather than wait for regulations to force a change?

We don't need rocket science to prevent future Deepwater disasters. We need chemistry. And green chemistry is one of our most promising tools. Let's deploy it to its fullest potential.

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