Science Wednesday:Foresight for a Better Future: Green Chemistry

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By Sarah Blau

“We don’t want to make things just a little less bad, we want to move towards a systems perspective….so tomorrow is not as unsustainable as today.”

These are the words of Dr. Paul Anastas, EPA’s assistant administrator for science. I heard Dr. Anastas speak recently at the Society of Toxicology conference in Washington, DC. These words stuck with me.

Dr. Anastas was kicking off a well-attended workshop on Green Chemistry with his presentation on “Molecular Design for Reduced Hazard.” His statement which stuck with me (quoted above) is relevant to much more than just Green Chemistry though. I heard him as basically saying: let’s have some foresight with what we’re doing here, people.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines from a movie: “Hindsight – it’s like foresight without a future.” “So true” I remember thinking during the movie, and this is what I thought of Dr. Anastas’ presentation as well.

He explained that a major aspect of Green Chemistry lies in the design of chemicals. Chemicals are all around us, and some of them are harmful—either to us, to the environment, or to both. Dr. Anastas believes in using a “systems perspective” with chemical research. This means looking at the whole picture, from where the chemical comes from, the processes used in its creation, its role for us or for the environment, and its potential effects on us and our environment. Basically, taking a systems perspective means utilizing great foresight to understand and predict the consequences of new chemicals in the early design stage of research.

“Design considerations are a part of green chemistry,” Anastas gave an example, “you are not just making a red dye, but a red dye that does not also cause cancer.”

What a great idea—to detect potential harmful effects as early in the designing stages of new chemicals, new materials, and new products as possible. Hindsight only offers us the opportunity to try to fix a problem. Foresight allows us the opportunity to keep problems from developing. Dr. Anastas delivered an important message about the concept of Green Chemistry, but also an important message about all aspects of research (and life too): let’s have some foresight with what we’re doing here, people.

About the author:  Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working with EPA’s science communication team.

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