Excerpt from the chapter Material Consequences
Pages 160 – 161
Concepts in Green Chemistry
“The fundamental concept of green chemistry,” Collins tells me, can be spelled out in an equation: “Risk equals exposure times hazard [Risk = Hazard X Exposure]. As green chemists, let’s try to understand the hazard and get the hazard out. We have to turn the aircraft carrier around and get the hazard out.” Another aspect of this metaphorical ship is that we’ve relied on our preferred energy source–petroleum–to supply the base for so many of our current synthetics. “If you don’t have the energy problem fixed, it overwhelms everything else.” notes Collins.
“A hundred years ago, the chemical industry was terrible about protecting us from chemicals that kill cells. Now we’re dealing with chemicals that disrupt cellular development, chemicals that interact with DNA and may cause mutations that can lead to cancer. The stakes of not dealing with endocrine disrupters are very high. We need to address endocrine disruptors from inside chemistry.” It all comes back to chemical design, Collins believes.
“The body has a magnificent mechanism for destroying chemicals,” says Collins. And some chemicals need to be persistent. “Drugs must be persistent to work. But when they get into rivers and lakes–what does that mean in the long term?” Yet he points out–alluding to the endocrine-disrupting compounds found in so many personal care products, cosmetics, gadgets, and textiles–persistent compounds are being used to “gloss up the life of adults while messing up the life of kids. There needs to be a mandate of intergenerational responsibility in a way we’ve never seen before.”
“There’s a fracture in the world of research, with research threatening the status quo of corporate culture. Real-time profits are going to be challenged and it’s extremely threatening to certain segments of corporate culture,” says Collins. “How do you respond to a new product when there is a problem? Do you pretend it doesn’t exist? We need to talk about it publicly. These issues really, really matter, and we need to do something about them.”
The morning after the presentation he’s given to the Oregon Environmental Council, I have a conversation with Collins over breakfast. “Capitalism can’t work for sustainability without credible government constraints,” he tells me. “We’ve been obsessed by technical performance and entirely missed anticipating bioaccumulation.”