Green Chemistry Guru Comes Home

Gwyneth K. Shaw PhotoIt was a moment that most research scientists will never experience: Nearly two years ago, an angry citizen rose from an audience full of Louisianans coping with a massive oil spill that threatened their way of life. An accusation flew at Paul Anastas, then a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official: You don’t care enough about how much this is hurting us.

Anastas acknowledged that he could never know exactly what the residents were experiencing. But, he noted, he was making sacrifices, too.

“I have a six-week-old baby at home,” he said. “And I’ve been down here for the last five.”

The room erupted, Anastas recalled this week, the crowd instantly with him. In some ways, it was a quintessential moment for Anastas, whose life’s work is focused on challenging a much broader assumption than the one made by the room full of irate residents: That “chemical” has to be a dirty word.

Anastas told the story this week from a calmer spot: His office in Yale’s Kroon Hall, a bastion of green design and engineering. The anecdote helps explain why he’s back here in New Haven, and the need to balance the personal and professional while pursuing another kind of equilibrium—in scientific breakthroughs.

He’s still unpacking boxes and adjusting to his return as the director of the university’s Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering. But his mindset isn’t that different than it was in Washington, where he applied a scientist’s eye to the public policy effort to keep people and the environment safe, whether they’re coping with oil spills or encountering the chemicals that are woven into our everyday lives.

His two-year stint at the EPA was worth it, Anastas said, but he’s glad to be back. His family is pretty excited, too: While at the EPA, Anastas was in Washington, while his wife, Julie Zimmerman, and two daughters stayed in Guilford. (Zimmerman, herself a force in the green engineering and chemistry field, served as director while Anastas was gone. She’s now associate director of the center.)

Anastas was the EPA’s associate administrator for research and development and the agency’s science adviser. His tenure came during a tumultuous time for the agency, as it had to tackle tough questions like whether to use chemical dispersants on the oil the Deepwater Horizon spilled into the Gulf, and whether the natural gas drilling practice using hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as “fracking”) posed a danger to the environment.

He was well-suited for the challenges. Anastas got his start at the EPA more than two decades ago, coining the term “green chemistry” as he explored ways to make chemicals safer from the beginning rather than waiting to see if they proved harmful. He founded the Green Chemistry Institute as an arm of the American Chemical Society, then spent several years at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as the assistant director for the environment.

That seated him in the front row for the development of federal policy on nanotechnology, which leverages the often unique properties of super-small particles (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter) to build better medicines, electronics and other products. Anastas worked on early efforts to study the potential environmental, health and safety implications of nanotechnology and nanomaterials—a field which is growing but still lags behind the broader push for innovation.

Anastas, the co-author of the “12 Principles of Green Chemistry,” is a low-key but passionate advocate for sustainable design. He sat down with the Independent to talk about his work, his return to New Haven and the future of green chemistry.

In the interview, he took pride in how far the effort has already come—and spoke urgently about how scientists, manufacturers and regulators can work together to promote innovation while protecting public health and the environment around us.

“Green chemistry and green engineering is about what we can create, what we can innovate, what we can invent, that is fundamentally sustainable,” Anastas said. “It is about coming up with the next generation of products and processes that meet environmental and economic goals simultaneously. So that’s why I’m so excited about it.”

An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

Talk to me a little bit about how you got into this idea of green chemistry in the first place.

So, I’m a synthetic organic chemist, which means I make molecules, I make chemicals. I started out first making chemicals for anti-cancer drugs ... But during that time, some of the people who were closest to me in my life passed away of cancer, and I needed to get a little bit of distance from the field …

At the age of 27, I went down to EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and I was asked by a great mentor called Roger Garrett what it is that I wanted to do. I answered that rather than trying to make chemicals that could treat or cure cancer, I’d like to see how we could go about making all of our chemicals so they never cause cancer or have other toxic effects … Two years later, we launched the first green chemistry program, in 1991.

Where was the point where you started really started thinking about whether the things that have already been developed might be contributing to the very thing you were trying to cure?

There’s a saying that Bobby Kennedy used to like to use: Some people see the world as it is and ask why, and others see the world as it could be and ask, why not?

So you start asking yourself about the toxicity or hazard, and you ask, is it necessary, is it intrinsic to these chemicals that they have to be harmful in order to be useful? And the short answer—the answer that green chemistry has shown over the past 20 years—the answer’s no.

You can design chemicals to do all of the functions that you want ... without the type of toxicity and hazards and wastefulness that has marked the past ... I believe it’s just taking the field of chemistry to a new level of elegance and creativity.

In the same way that the pharmaceutical industry and medical industry brilliantly figured out how to make molecules biologically active … what green chemistry is doing is making sure the chemicals do not have a biological effect … in many ways, it comes down to this is what chemists do.

Are there specific examples where you think a lot of progress has been made?

The short answer’s yes. Green chemistry has achieved award-winning breakthroughs … in sectors ranging from energy to agriculture, pharmaceuticals to plastics, dyes to adhesives, textiles to electronics, and everything in between. So because you’re working at the most fundamental level, the molecular level, it can and does affect all parts of our society and our economy in a positive way. And it’s showing how you can meet environmental and economic goals simultaneously.

Because, in contrast to many of the other ways that we try to protect human health and the environment, green chemistry doesn’t have to be a cost strain. It can actually be more profitable, and actually increase competitiveness, at the same time that it’s achieving this goal.

When you talk about making this both economically and environmentally sustainable, how much of those savings come from simply being able to say, “We’ve got something that we know doesn’t cause a problem”?

There is some percentage of the consumer public that values things that they know are healthy, healthy for their children, sustainable to the planet, and that is a value to them. There’s a percentage of companies that identify themselves as sustainable companies and want to pursue a cleaner, green product.

Those that pursue that value certainly see that advantage. Even for companies that are focused exclusively on the traditional … green chemistry is showing that it is more profitable by adding more performance, more capabilities, more efficiencies … Those companies are finding it to be extremely beneficial and appealing as well.

For companies that are even unconcerned, perhaps, with those environmental and health issues, even they find that it is a more effective way of meeting their legal and regulatory responsibilities.

It’s interesting to me how hard it is sometimes, as a regular consumer, to find out what’s in many products. From your perspective, whose job is that, or whose job should it be, to sort of help people navigate that?

I guess in a word, I’d say the greatest obligation is transparency. There’s a real need to have more information, more data, more transparency, about what is in our products that we use and come in contact with every day. There’s ways to achieve this without compromising legitimate business concerns about trade secrets and confidential business information … I think the key is transparency, enhanced transparency.

Can EPA push transparency, given the concern over the confidentiality requirements and the pressure from all sides?

So right now there are laws that include provisions for confidential business information, and where those claims are legitimate, the agency is required to protect that information. I think an open question that people are asking is what percentage of the claims are legitimate and what is the best way to make those determinations so that obviously the public good is preserved, as well as the legitimate interest of the company.

I think that EPA has made significant strides in making, I believe, it’s literally hundreds of chemicals open, transparent and no longer confidential. I think that those are important steps that they need to be applauded for.

While you were overseeing research, what kinds of things do you feel like that part of the agency really made a lot of progress on, and where are places where there are still gaps?

Big steps in the right direction have been made on computational toxicology, so rather than doing testing on a handful or two of chemicals, this year EPA will do toxicological screens on about 10,000 chemicals at one percent of the cost of traditional toxicology testing. So that is tremendously important, it’s going to give treasure troves of data and insight on all kinds of biological endpoints and toxicological endpoints.

But here’s the even better news: In addition to just giving us insight about “that something is hazardous,” or even why it’s hazardous, more importantly, it gives us insights on how we design the next generation of chemicals so that they can’t be hazardous. This data is informing design.

About nanotechnology: How do you balance the need to let innovation happen while protecting people, or fish, or water?

This is what the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale is all about. In two words, it’s about innovation and design. How do you, rather than wait and see whether or not something’s going to be harmful to humans or the environment and unsustainable, how do you instead understand the inherent nature of a product or a process or a system to know how to design it so it’s not a wait and see, that you’re actually going to design it to be more benign to humans and the environment, or even beneficial to humans and the environment? … It’s really important, again, to understand what causes the problems for the purpose of informing the solutions to those problems. In other words, designing them to be safer.

Now that you’re back, what are some of the things you really see as your mission in the next five years?

So as much as I loved being at the Environmental Protection Agency, and it was an honor to serve, I am just thrilled with being home and being back at the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale. Back with my colleagues, the students. 

The center is dedicated to transformative innovation and sustainable design. That means instead of focusing on the traditional ways of looking at environmental and health protection—what it is that we have to stop doing, what we have to reduce, that we have to eliminate, that we have to ban, control—green chemistry and green engineering is about what we can create, what we can innovate, what we can invent, that is fundamentally sustainable. It is about coming up with the next generation of products and processes that meet environmental and economic goals simultaneously. So that’s why I’m so excited about it.

The work that people are doing in the center ... these are things that are interesting not only to traditional environmental groups but industrial groups, business groups, policymakers. And perhaps one thing that I’d really focus on is that the center is in some ways different from many other academic centers. Yes, we absolutely have the basic research component that creates new knowledge, but we want that new knowledge to have impact. And building that into how it gets into the world, into new products and new policy, is an essential part of our mission at the center.

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