Skim the latest environmental health headlines, and it’ll quickly become clear that something is amiss. Not a day goes by without a report on a new study linking some toxic chemical to environmental contamination or health problems in animals and people.
In Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry (Island Press, $26.95), author Elizabeth Grossman delves into this issue, examining the many hazardous chemicals in use today, their subsequent effects on our health and the environment, and how green chemistry can turn this toxic mess around.
Grossman says the reason toxic chemicals are ubiquitous in consumer products and our bodies is simple: industrial chemistry has historically focused on product performance and cost, while almost completely ignoring safety. This policy has resulted in an odd imbalance, according to Grossman — the majority of today’s chemists have never taken a toxicology class, a revealing concept, considering their role in determining what kinds of chemicals are in our food, personal care products and medicine.
In the prologue, Grossman provides a telling quote from John Warner, former director of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell’s Center for Green Chemistry.
He says, “I never had a class in toxicology or environmental hazards. 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!”
From this, Warner rather appropriately concludes, “We’ve been monkeys typing Shakespeare.”
This is truly a shocking realization about U.S. chemical policy, and it’s especially powerful because it’s taken straight from the horse’s mouth.
And for the next hundred pages of the book, those new to the environmental health scene will continue to be shocked by Grossman’s in-depth examination of the effects that elemental and synthetic chemical contamination have had on places as far-flung as the Arctic Circle.
Readers will become familiar with chemical compounds like PBDEs, perflourinated compounds and industrial surfactants (think flame retardants, stain repellants and non-stick cookware, respectively) and all of the problems that come with their creation.
They’ll also be surprised to learn these chemicals are everywhere, from Antarctica, North America, Australia and Africa to Iceland. Even PCBs and DDT, which have been banned in the U.S. for about 30 years, often show up in the ecosystem and even in our bodies, illustrating just how hard it is to get rid of chemicals once they are on the shelf and in the environment.
The material Grossman uncovers is important, and again, for those who are new to the subject, they will be intrigued and horrified by Grossman’s findings.
But for those who have followed environmental health news for some time, they might find themselves wondering what’s new here.
That’s because the idea that the chemical industry is fairly unregulated, and that it has resulted in people using consumer products basically at their own risk, is fairly commonplace.
To be fair, much of the research that Grossman cites is indeed new, but the theme itself — that our chemical policy has resulted in a toxic mess — has already been covered adequately by others. Yet Grossman painstakingly goes over these conclusions as if they were brand new.
It’s true that the author does need time to make her case for scrapping U.S. chemical policy before she can start talking about the exciting new field of green chemistry, but the entire book shouldn’t be devoted to the problems.
After all, the subtitle does include the “promise of green chemistry,” and though green chemistry’s potential is hinted at throughout the book, it’s not until the book’s last quarter (including the epilogue, which some people don’t even read) that Grossman finally writes about green chemistry’s potential for making chemicals that not only perform well, but also do no harm to the environment or to people.
It’s in these last pages that Grossman starts to shine, especially with this powerful conclusion: "Green chemists caution against driving out the good in pursuit of the perfect and staunchly support any steps in their direction. Yet if we were to imagine the ideal — chemical hazard-free products would not be luxuries, nor would they require special diligence and education to find. They would simply be a given. Green chemistry alone cannot bring about these changes, but we cannot do this without green chemistry."
By the end of the book, it’s clear that green chemistry must play a role in cleaning up our chemical soup; it’s just unfortunate that the author left the most exciting part of the story for the end.