Skip to content
Most industries remain dependent on hazardous substances
Second of two parts
To a chemist, chlorine is the perfect compound.
Easily combining with other elements and molecules, chlorine is transformed into new classes of chemicals with an endless array of uses. It disinfects water, cleans clothes, kills bugs, degreases metals, bleaches paper. It has long been vital to the synthesis of plastics, drugs, microchips and many other products around the globe.
But to environmental scientists, chlorine is a perfect nightmare.
FOR THE RECORD:
"Green" chemistry: An article in the A Section on Friday's about the limitations of more environmentally friendly "green chemistry" said chlorine was a compound; it is an element. —
Fumes seeping from a tanker could kill thousands. Some formulations are linked to cancer. And several notorious chlorinated compounds, including DDT, chlorofluorocarbons and PCBs, have saddled society with many of its costliest environmental problems.
Though great strides have been made in reinventing some chemicals and products, most industries remain dependent on thousands of hazardous substances such as chlorine. Many obstacles, including insufficient investment and lack of training, keep chemists from embracing green chemistry and designing safer substitutes for the vast majority of compounds in use today.
Of the estimated 83,000 chemicals in commerce, only a few hundred are "green." Hundreds of others accumulatein human bodies, build up in nature or are linked to diseases such as cancer. For many of the rest, the risks are unknown or uncertain.
"Today, chemists can make virtually any molecule, no matter how structurally complex, using the synthetic methods available to them. On the other hand, only a very small percentage of the chemical products are made following the principles of green chemistry," says a 2005 National Academy of Sciences report called "Sustainability in the Chemical Industry."
The industry -- which had $637 billion in global sales in 2006 and employs 7 million people -- has begun to focus more of its efforts on environmental health and safety, but the transformation is occurring slowly.
"I believe 100% that it will happen, but what terrorizes me is how long will it take? A decade? A generation? A century?" said John Warner, a former University of Massachusetts chemistry professor who is now president of a research company, Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry. "Right now, it's not nearly the pace it should be."
In 2006, 12 of the largest chemical companies, including BASF, Dow, DuPont and Rohm and Haas, hired consultants to explore ways to make their industry more environmentally friendly. After nearly a year of research, the consultants concluded the industry was "fiercely defensive" with a "bunker mentality" that was impeding progress.
Its environmental initiatives are "reactive, not proactive," and "disconnected with company and stakeholder priorities,'" said the consultants' report, published by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
"The industry has a very short-term focus and discounts long-term issues," the report said. "There is a lack of product responsibility in the industry, with most product stewardship efforts seen as minimal and ineffective."
Many chemical companies still take a stance of "let's just let this green thing blow over," said Yale chemistry professor Paul Anastas, known as the father of green chemistry.
Others do what amounts to corporate "greenwashing," taking a few steps that involve a fraction of their products. Some look for safer substitutes only when forced to by lawsuits or laws.
"The chemical industry doesn't have the most wonderful reputation in the industrialized world," said Alan Barton, executive vice president of Rohm and Haas Co., a Philadelphia-based chemical manufacturer that was acquired in July by Dow Chemical Co. "It does suffer a credibility gap."
Chemical company executives say pursuit of green chemicals is vital for creating new markets in their fiercely competitive industry. But they stress that the goal can't be just to save the planet, but also to make substances that work at a reasonable cost. Consumers, they say, aren't going to stop demanding high performance and low cost from an array of goods traditionally made from cheap petrochemicals.
"You probably don't need any of the products of the chemical industry if you don't mind living in the year 1400," said William Carroll, past president of the American Chemical Society and a vice president at Occidental Chemical Corp.
Despite recent advances, such as detergents derived from coconut and plastic polymers made of corn or soybeans, the industrial world's dependence on hazardous compounds hasn't changed much since World War II.
"One of the things we're fighting against is [that] green chemistry is relatively new and you have decades, even centuries, of chemistry that is off the shelf right now," said Richard Engler, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's green chemistry program.
The premise of green chemistry is that it's better to prevent environmental problems than to clean them up later. That means knowing the dangers of a chemical before it is manufactured or used, and designing safer compounds to replace hazardous ones.
But the National Academy of Sciences report says funding for research and development at the top 50 chemical companies has been declining since 2000.
"Green chemistry is currently a small band of dedicated champions, and it needs to be a massive scientific revolution backed by serious funding and support," said Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
The failure to identify hazards of a chemical before it is mass-produced has created some of the world's worst environmental crises -- asbestos causing deadly lung disease, DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls building up in food chains, and ozone-eating chlorofluorocarbons.
Even newer chemicals can be problematic. Brominated flame retardants, for instance, have rapidly accumulated in people and wildlife, and have harmed the reproductive systems and brains of lab animals.
"Unfortunately, we often do not find out about a chemical's real toxic impacts until after it is commercialized and some intrepid scientist somewhere figures out that nature is telling us there is a problem, or discovers a new toxicity in the lab," said Terry Collins, a chemistry professor who directs Carnegie Mellon University's Institute for Green Science.
Even after the dangers are known, Collins said, chemical companies "tend to want to protect cash flows and expansion plans of established chemicals."
Anastas said the industry is playing a risky game of whack-a-mole: It handles one problem, only to have another one pop up. "If you ban chemical X, everyone runs to chemical Y," he said.
Under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA can ban or restrict a substance if it "presents an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment." But the last industrial chemical outlawed was asbestos in 1989, and a court reversed that decision. The EPA takes decades to analyze threats of individual chemicals. It has taken 20 years to review dioxins, carcinogens created by chemical factories, paper mills and other manufacturers using some chlorine compounds.
The first step toward solving "this 83,000-piece jigsaw puzzle" is to ensure that complete data is available on potential hazards of every chemical, said Michael Wilson, a scientist at UC Berkeley's Center for Occupational and Environmental Health who wrote a report on toxics policies commissioned by the state Legislature.
"This is a fundamental piece, that if we don't get right, green chemistry will continue to operate just at the margins," Wilson said. "Companies are becoming aware of the liabilities of hazardous substances in their supply chains, but they need enough information about them to make a proper decision."
The European Union two years ago adopted the world's most rigorous chemicals law, which requires companies to submit health and safety data on about 30,000 substances. Those posing the most danger could be phased out.
California is mounting its own effort to propel green chemistry from a niche to the mainstream. After nearly 18 months of soliciting and analyzing ideas, state officials are expected to send their recommendations to the governor later this month.
As a first step, the Legislature and governor are considering a new law to require state scientists to evaluate chemicals in consumer products and determine how to minimize their hazards.
Environmental groups are urging California to insist on safer substitutes. The chemical industry, which opposed Europe's law, is urging the state to offer funding, education and incentives rather than imposing bans.
"We never will be able to eliminate the use of toxics and maintain the same quality of living and health in this country," said Michael Walls, vice president of the American Chemistry Council, the industry's trade group. "We must understand the risks and costs and benefits of eliminating a substance. Hazard alone shouldn't drive decisions."
Chlorine, for example, can be extremely hazardous. Not only is it deadly if inhaled, but various formulations have harmed the ozone layer, triggered multibillion-dollar excavations of rivers and nearly wiped out some birds of prey.
It also is perhaps the most essential chemical in use today.
"I'm hard-pressed to find another chemical with the breadth of use," said Rob Simon, managing director of the American Chemistry Council's chlorine division.
Though there are alternatives for some uses of chlorine, there are few viable substitutes for others, such as water disinfection. About 93% of drugs are manufactured with it.
The pharmaceutical industry lags behind many industries in finding greener technologies.
For every kilogram of a drug they make, pharmaceutical companies use more than 100 kilograms of chlorinated compounds and other solvents that are thrown away. In comparison, the oil industry wastes a much smaller amount of solvents: 0.1 kilogram for every kilogram of product.
"Higher-tech products often are much more wasteful, and the pharmaceutical industry is an example," said Tracy Williamson, chief of the EPA's industrial chemistry branch.
Kim Albizati, former executive director of chemical research at Pfizer, said a more efficient technique -- using catalysts made of enzymes, cloned from natural organisms -- can replace solvents. Pfizer, he said, saved $1 billion over the lifetime of a drug after his team invented a way to transform enzymes into catalysts.
"If you practice green chemistry, you are going to bring down the costs. No question about it," said Albizati, who co-founded BioVerdant, a chemical research firm in San Diego that specializes in environmentally friendly solutions for pharmaceutical companies.
Many pharmaceutical manufacturers still see green chemistry as slowing down their research. Being first with a drug is more important to most companies than being green or cutting costs.
Neil Hawkins, vice president of sustainability at Dow, which manufactures chlorine and about 20,000 compounds, said his company "is looking at all times for alternatives to every product."
"Compared to a decade ago, it is much easier to commercialize some of these [green] products," Hawkins said. "I see real movement in all the major chemical companies."
For consumer products, green chemicals often cost more initially than petrochemicals because extracting raw materials from plants is a more complicated process and manufacturing occurs on a smaller scale, said Josef Koester of Cognis, a specialty chemical company that created coconut-and-corn detergents for household cleaners.
"Starting green chemistry is a niche application, so that means it's exotic and it's expensive," Koester said. However, as the scale enlarges, it becomes more competitive, he said.
Nilesh Shah, Rohm and Haas' research director for performance materials, said many nontoxic products are doomed to fail because of cost.
"Any of the ones that cost more and are green for the sake of being green are unsustainable," Shah said. But "if they are green and more expensive and they bring some other attribute, then there's hope."
Ease, not cost
Regulation continues to be the most powerful force driving the market.
Rohm and Haas in the 1980s developed a biodegradable compound that prevented algae from growing on ship hulls. But the shipping industry didn't have much interest in green antifoulants until a few years ago, when the EPA banned the old tin-based compound, which built up in waterways and killed aquatic life.
"There's a big barrier to change. I demonstrate to so many companies that their costs would be much lower and they still don't convert, and they won't until there's a regulation forcing them to," said Katy Wolf, a former Rand Corp. scientist who directs the Institute for Research and Technical Assistance in Glendale.
"People think American industry looks at the bottom line," she said. "But they don't. They look at what's easiest."
For now, petrochemicals remain the foundation of the modern industrial revolution. Many conventional chemicals are made of petroleum.
Yet a new economic force -- the high cost of oil -- may finally lead reluctant companies to take a closer look at green chemicals.
"The notion that petrochemicals are cheap or inexpensive, that's a transient notion," said Dow's Hawkins. "All you have to do is look at oil at more than $100 per barrel."