Science Wednesday: A Green Chemistry Moon Shot

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By Chris Crane

I was born in the late 80’s and like many other members of my generation I often dismiss the idea that there are any challenges in this decade that compare to John F. Kennedy’s 1962 Moon speech: “We shall send to the moon…on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth…and do it first before this decade is out.”

What could compare to that?

After attending the 15th Annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference, I stand corrected. At the conference, EPA Assistant Administrator and “Father of Green Chemistry,” Dr. Paul Anastas gave a keynote on “Molecular Revolution.” While I was expecting something heavily laden with scientific terms, what I heard was a welcome surprise (in English)—especially to a young environmentalist dedicated to a sustainable future.

After taking a moment to marvel at what green chemistry has accomplished in its first 20 years, Dr. Anastas moved to address the hard questions of the future. “Today there exists an absurdity, despite our best efforts… it’s absurd that our products and processes are still of concern.” Manmade substances can cause developmental problems for the unborn, hardwire obesity in the womb, and decrease intelligence before a child is even born, Anastas explained.

Alluding to JFK’s historic speech, Dr. Anastas revealed an equivalent challenge for our generation: “By the end of this decade, we will achieve an end to unintentional manmade hazards and the full incorporation of safe and healthy molecular structures.”

There are three essential components to this goal: 1) Every student and practitioner must be trained in the principles of green chemistry. 2) Industry must use no toxic substances and produce no toxic waste. 3) All chemicals in all products must be known to be free of hazard.

Dr. Anastas is calling for a revolutionary transformation in the core functions of our institutions (moving from production with harmful side effects to sustainable production) and the beliefs that support those functions (that waste and hazards are no longer acceptable).

Despite my tendency to dismiss historical patterns, Dr. Anastas showed me how we are all faced with a modern day moon challenge as we try to create a sustainable world. It’s going to take similar levels of cultural, scientific, and political unity behind this goal if we are going to reach the moon.

About the Author: Chris Crane is an intern with the Science Communications team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He is an environmental economics major at Colgate University.

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