Will My Child Learn Green Chemistry?

Elise Miller, MEd
CHE Director

Every other week my seven-year-old goes with his buddy after school to ‘chemistry club’—meaning they spend an hour with a retired science teacher who taught in various schools for 40 years. His “lab” is something out of the early 20th century, complete with rows of dusty bottles with handwritten labels noting specific chemicals or simply “danger”, wires and gadgets that cover shelves and spill out of boxes, and an antique wood stove that never quite gets the room warm. He introduced the periodic table on the first day, and since then, has shown them everything from electromagnetic fields to explosive chemical reactions. The boys love him, even though he shifts quickly from one experiment to the next and gives them information that I recall not learning until at least high school.

Given the 20 years I have worked on environmental health issues, I observe this class both with exhilaration—watching these young kids get excited about learning how the world works, and with discomfort—wondering if they are protected enough from hazardous exposures, knowing all too well what certain contaminants can do to undermine healthy development.

Budding chemists learn the basics.

In the big picture, I also ponder whether children this age, when they reach middle and high school, will still be taught outdated methodologies that lead to the design and manufacture of chemicals that impair human and planetary health or whether they will grow up in a world where the principles of green chemistry are as fundamental to chemists as the periodic table.

What gives me hope that green chemistry will indeed become the norm are articles such as two published last week in Environmental Health Perspectives. The first, “Designing Safer Chemicals“, by Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Director of the National Institutes for Environmental Health Sciences, very explicitly states the need to be able to identify potentially hazardous chemicals early in the design process before they enter the manufacturing phase. She also goes on to mention TiPED (Tiered Program for Endocrine Disruption), which is elaborated on in a second article, “Tiered Protocol for Sussing Out Endocrine Disruption.” Given this clear signal that NIEHS and other research institutions are prioritizing the development and refinement of protocols not only for endocrine disruptors but for mixtures of a range of different chemicals (see also “Unraveling the Health Effects of Environmental Mixtures: An NIEHS Priority“) suggest that the tireless work of a number of researchers and NGO leaders is beginning to bear fruit.

In the meanwhile, organizations, such as GreenScreen, are prompting industry to shift away from the outmoded criteria they use for creating new chemicals and to stay ahead of the curve in terms of consumer demand for safer products. Other NGOs are pressuring decision makers to embrace public health policy that would include hazard-based prioritization and alternatives assessments of chemicals. Though these latter initiatives may not focus on the design phase of chemicals, they are essential in helping move many of the relevant sectors (science, economic and policy) towards integrating the principles of green chemistry principles in decision-making on all levels.

Yes, even if we stopped manufacturing all toxins tomorrow, we would still have an overwhelming legacy of contaminants with which to contend for decades to come. But I have to focus on the hope–on the possibility, even the probability, that green chemistry and related fields will be the cornerstone for my son’s generation and beyond. For that, I have many of you to thank for your vision and persistence over the years.

I truly look forward to taking another collective step towards turning that hope into reality in 2013.

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