“I’ve synthesized over a hundred molecules that never existed before,” Warner tells me. By the time he finished graduate school at Princeton in 1988, with a PhD in organic chemistry, Warner had published seventeen scientific papers–many on compounds related to pharmaceuticals, particularly anticancer drugs–a volume of research publication he immodestly but matter-of-factly says is “perhaps unprecedented.”
One day Warner got a call from Polaroid offering him a job in their exploratory research division. So he went to work synthesizing new materials for the company, inventing compounds for photographic and film processes. Describing his industrial chemistry work in an article for the Royal Chemistry Society, Warner wrote: “I synthesized more and more new compounds. I put methyl groups and ethyl groups in places where they had never been. This was my pathway to success.” There was even a series of compounds he invented that, in his honor, became known as “Warner complexes.”
Warner had married in graduate school and while working at Polaroid had three children. His youngest and second son, John–born in 1991–was born with a serious birth defect. It was a liver disease, Warner tells me, caused by the absence of a working billiary system (which creates the secretions necessary for digestion). Despite intensive medical care, surgery, and a liver transplant, John died in 1993 at age two. “You can’t imagine what it was like,” says Warner. “Laying awake at night, I started wondering if there was something I worked with, some chemical that could possibly have caused this birth defect,” Warner recalls. He knows it’s unlikely that this was the case, but contemplating this possibility made him acutely aware of how little attention he and his colleagues devoted to the toxicity or ecological impacts of the materials they were creating….
“I never had a class in toxicology or environmental hazards,” Warner tells me. “I have synthesized over 2,500 compounds! I have never been taught what makes a chemical toxic! I have no idea what makes a chemical an environmental hazard! I have synthesized over 2,500 compounds! I have no idea what makes a chemical toxic!” “We’ve been monkeys typing Shakespeare,” he adds.
“The chemical synthesis toolbox is really full, and 90 percent of what’s in that toolbox is really nasty stuff.” It’s a coincidence and reality of history, Warner tells me, but the petroleum industry has been the primary creator of materials for our society. “Most of our materials’ feedstock is petroleum. As petroleum is running out, things will have to change.” But, he says, it’s an oversimplification to say that using naturally occurring, non petroleum materials will automatically be safe.
Industrial chemistry has relied on the criteria of performance and cost. But safety, Warner adds has not been an equal part of the equation. Green chemistry puts safety as well as material and energy efficiency on a par with performance and cost. This sounds like common sense, but our economic system’s overwhelming focus on performance–combined with the past century’s reliance on what have been inexpensive petroleum-based feedstocks (or base materials)–have created a vast number of high-performing but environmentally inefficient and detrimental materials.
What we need to do, says Warner, is link the design and function of the new materials and new molecular synthesis with an assessment of their hazard and risk. “Historically, we’ve mitigated risk,” explains Warner, “and we’ve done this by trying to limit exposure,” If we eliminate hazard in the first place, the issue of quibbling over exposure limits–where all of our chemical pollutant regulatory energy has been focused–goes away. If you haven’t created and put materials with inherent hazards into introduction and commercial uses, you do not have to decide, for example, if it’s safe to expose high school but not elementary and middle school students to lead dust emanating from artificial turf, or wonder why New York allows its residents to be exposed to higher levels of a potentially carcinogenic agent than does California.
“We’ve taken it as a fait accompli that chemistry must be dangerous. But the cost of using hazardous materials is exponentially more costly,” says Warner. “There is no reason that a molecule must be toxic in order to perform a particular task.” the cost of storing, transporting, treating, and disposing hazardous materials, not to mention the expense of liability, and corporate responsibility for worker health and safety, are among the high costs associated with using hazardous materials. Corporations have seldom been required to take responsibility for hazardous materials they use or produced–apart from product failures–beyond some aspects of the manufacturing stage. The costs of environmental impacts were not considered an explicit cost of doing business; they were what are referred to technically as externalities. As that view has slowly begun to change, with pressure from consumers, unions, government regulators, and the courts, manufacturers are increasingly motivated to find ways to reduce these costs. Green chemists argue that one of the most effective ways to do so is by designing more environmentally benign and efficient products.
“What you do in industrial chemistry,” says Warner, “is make and break bonds–bonds that come together and apart again, that assemble and reassemble, and are reversible–dominate.” This is important, he tells me, because “if we can learn what molecules ‘want’ to do–if we can learn what they do in nature–we should be able to make better, less toxic products.” If we can do that, we won’t be fighting nature or introducing ultimately unwanted, often hazardous, and inefficient elements into the synthetic process.
“…I had a great relationship with Polaroid,” recalls Warner, “But after my son died, I left because I wanted to create the world’s first green chemistry PhD program” –which he did, at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell in 2002… Warner tells me, “Chemistry for nonscientists is all about the environment, but the American Chemical Society that accredits U.S. academic chemistry programs includes no environmental studies in its requirements.”
“One of the astonishing things I learned while talking to green chemistry advocates and chemical engineers–and that helps explain why there has been so little attention to anything like footprint analysis–is that neither toxicology nor ecology has been required as part of a chemist’s academic training” – Elizabeth Grossman
Listen to the discussions of environmental impact and product life and you’ll likely hear the phrases “life cycle analysis,” “cradle-to-cradle,” “cradle-to-grave,” and “cradle-to-gate.” All can be variously and subjectively defined. A life cycle analysis is generally understood to analyze and account for the environmental impacts of a product’s entire manufacturing process, its impacts while in use, and its impacts when a product is no longer useful. Cradle-to-cradle assumes the premise of a closed loop production and product life-cycle loop–in which materials are reclaimed and reused, while cradle-to-grave assumes disposal rather than reuse or recycling for at least some portion of the product when it’s discarded. Cradle-to-gate, meanwhile, has cropped up as a way for companies to measure the environmental footprint of their products but to stop at the factory gate–excluding what happens when the product goes out into the world. The proliferation of terms indicates that assessing environmental impacts is far from a standardized process and is often more of an afterthought than an integral consideration from the beginning of the manufacturing process for synthetic chemicals or any other product.