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Green chemistry. What is this savior that will rescue our doomed planet from the evils of toxic chemicals? One basic premise is that they can be eliminated from many products by simply replacing them with non-toxic chemicals. In theory, this would make a nice situation where we would never have to be exposed to toxic substances and the new substances will be safe because we have designed substitutes which will not pose any threat to man nor beast. I remain skeptical but others are convinced this goal is achievable. While I don't claim to be a mystic with the ability to predict the future, I can say with a great deal of confidence that this is going to end badly.
March 15th, 2011
Green Chemistry Makes Many See Red
Prediction is Very Hard, Especially about the Future
If you believe that we can snap our fingers and create completely safe substitutes in every case then I'm afraid you're going to be very disappointed. However, if you accept the reality that some of the chemicals may be substituted, some chemicals may be changed and others may be eliminated from consumer products then you understand that chemistry is chemistry and there are limitations as to what can be accomplished. Deep within that great realm of possibilities lays a full range of believers with very strong views at both ends of the spectrum.
The Green Chemistry Initiative in California brought high hopes when first passed a few years ago as AB 1879 but more recently has become the center of the controversy fomented by the expectations of all concerned. Legislators passed some fairly progressive legislation that is viewed by other states as a model for how Green Chemistry initiatives can be implemented across the nation and the activist community celebrated a great victory in the war against toxic chemicals.
If You Don't Know Where You're Going, You'll Wind Up Someplace Else
It's a great concept but implementation has proven to be a challenge. The Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) and Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) were both charged with the task of bringing the law to life by developing regulations to implement the initiative. Now both agencies are in the unenviable position of seeking a delay in the program citing the need for "additional time to be responsive to the concerns raised" according to a letter from Linda Adams, Secretary of California Environmental Protection. The letter to Assembly Member Mike Feuer, acknowledges that creating a program that would meet the intent of the AB 1879 has proven to be difficult.
The science issues are complex and not easily swept away with the stroke of a legislative pen. Establishing regulations based on sound science is not as easy as it would appear to be and this reality has made it difficult for policymakers to find legally enforceable and defensible positions. This doesn't mean they didn't try.
In fact, they got downright creative when it came to nanotechnology. DTSC came forward first with a definition of nanomaterials that would have captured thousands of bulk powders which have been used for years at the micron (1,000 nm) scale. The thinking behind this expanded definition from a more commonly accepted upper limit of 100 nm in any single dimension was based on studies that may show nanomaterials exhibit different properties when they are as large as hundreds of nanometers. Pragmatism ruled the day, however, as DTSC came to realize this approach would unintentionally force them to expend precious limited resources on chemical evaluations of legacy products.
While DTSC worked toward a regulation based on science, OEHHA took what could charitably be called a "novel" approach to the regulation of nanotechnology. Actually, when it comes right down to it, you could say they just made things up. For instance, they created a "nanomaterial hazard trait" to essentially define all nanomaterials as hazardous making them subject to a wide variety of regulations. Since it has not been shown that all nanomaterials are hazardous, this particular approach would not withstand any reasonable legal scrutiny.
When that approach didn't achieve any traction OEHHA created an "exposure hazard trait." You might ask yourself what that is. Don't know? Well you're not alone because there is no such thing. Hazard and exposure data are both needed to assess risk and OEHHA would be well-advised to take a more prudent approach that would be scientifically reasonable as well as legally defensible.
It Ain't Over ‘till it's Over!
Where does this leave us? According to news reports some are angry that it has taken so long and so little has been achieved. At the beginning of this column I raised the possibility that expectations may have been little too high. Perhaps the Green Ribbon Science Panel can help sort this out but even if they can provide some new direction for Green Chemistry will California have sufficient resources to provide the leadership that other states are looking for?