Elizabeth Grossman Explains Why Knowledge is Everything

elizabeth grossman graphic photo

This guest post was written by Elizabeth Grossman, author of Chasing Molecules and High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, in celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day.
TreeHugger: What are the major advances have you seen (in your field) during the past 40 years? What, if any, were the major failures?

Elizabeth Grossman: The major advance in green chemistry is knowledge.Almost ten years before the first Earth Day, Rachel Carson warned of a "silent spring." Twenty years ago, Bill McKibben wrote of the human alteration of every aspect of the natural world. Nature has not ended, but signs of severe and subtle disturbance are everywhere. We now know that one cause is the synthetic chemical materials we've used for the past century. Our knowledge of how synthetic chemicals enter the environment—and our bodies—and how these chemicals interact with living cells has grown enormously. We now know that such chemicals are migrating, not only from industrial and waste sites but also from finished products in everyday use. We also now know that very low levels of exposure—and exposure at particular stages of life—can have profound and lasting health effects.

Our greatest failure is that we have not acted on our knowledge, even though we understand the problem and have the ability to avoid it. The environmental regulations that were enacted in the wake of Silent Spring and first burgeoning of the environmental movement were designed to deal with pollution coming from large scale sources—and the assumption that only high levels of exposure would result in harm. We've done a good job at keeping rivers from bursting into chemical flame and of preventing the most harmful large-scale hazardous chemical emissions. The challenge we now face is how to protect people and the environment from the pervasive and subtle but profound effects of lifelong exposure to multiple chemicals that we now understand have the ability to alter some of the most fundamental building blocks of life on earth—our genes—often at very low levels of exposure. Because of weak laws, we continue to use ten of thousands of chemicals in everyday products that have been linked to illness and disease, even though green chemistry is providing safe alternatives.

TH: What does a bright green future look like in this field?

EG: Ideally, we would immediately begin curtailing use of chemicals recognized as endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, and mutagens—as well as those with high global warming potential—and enact measures that would ensure we don't replace these substances with others with such hazards. Ideally we would immediately begin an intensive effort to develop new materials that are environmentally benign at every stage of their life cycle—from raw materials collection to initial synthesis in the laboratory, through manufacture, consumer use, and recycling or disposal. These efforts are already underway—but not yet to the extent where environmentally benign materials eclipse those with known hazards currently in wide commercial use.

Ideally, this research and development of new non-toxic materials would be accompanied by an educational effort that would put materials science in an ecological context and incorporate ideas of green chemistry and biomimicry. Again, these efforts are underway, but I'd like to see them incorporated into science curricula at every level of education everywhere.

How would we do this? A combination of creative new policy that real regulatory impact as well as real support for new materials research and development, science education, and real support for environmental, occupational and public health research, hazardous materials clean-up, jobs creation and training. Idealistic, yes—but not impossible.

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