THE BLOG
10/11/2013 04:03 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Pouring Water on Sand

One recent weekend I had my family out for a beach day in Northern California, and watched in puzzlement as my grandson and his friends tried to fill a moat with water for their sand castle. One of the older children kept encouraging the younger kids to "get more water" and "go faster" bringing buckets from sea to sand, but inevitably the water in their moat would seep away, and finally in frustration with the effort they all just stomped down the castle and moved onto more interesting and rewarding activities, like chasing waves.

I had this scene in my memory on the following night, when I attended the world premiere of "The Human Experiment," a documentary produced by Sean Penn and filmmakers Dana Nachman and Don Hardy about the increasing dangers of toxins in our environment and their impact on human health - in the buildings we inhabit, in the products we use, even in the residue they leave behind in our water and air. A good portion of the film detailed the uphill battle that activists face when standing up against powerful lobbyists and special interest groups with deep pockets who heavily influence the dialog around this issue. In one particularly memorable scene chemical companies, through a front group called "Citizens for Fire Safety", use deception after deception to misinform and manipulate California lawmakers to stop legislation prohibiting the use of chemical fire retardants - even though no evidence exists that such chemicals offer any safety protection (while increasing evidence mounts that the materials are highly carcinogenic). Such tactics have also been powerfully exposed through investigative reporting at the Chicago Tribune, in a series called "Playing with Fire".

In the movie and all around, I see well-meaning people continuing to "pour water on sand" by trying to get laws passed at the state and federal level to ban toxic substances like Bisphenol A, PVC, and flame retardants. But, these grassroots legislative efforts aren't getting us anywhere, against the titanic forces of industry who have proven a mastery in public relations wars and political lobbying. The last great lion of consumer protection, Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey, literally died while trying to get government to do the right thing.

And with the mess in Congress right now why do we think that even the best advocacy can get us the results? I would love to see the reform of our toxics law. But the time for waiting on legislation has passed. We need to inspire new reform, using the market and consumer demand to expedite change.

First, let's start educating more of a new brand of chemists - green chemists. By training young scientists that we can engineer alternatives to toxic chemicals we can inspire better products in the next generation and engineer ourselves out of the status quo. Already, there are premier programs in the United States, including the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale University, the Institute for Green Science at Carnegie Mellon, and the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry at the University of California. The programs are taking off internationally too, like the Centre for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and the Centre for Sustainable Chemistry at the University of Nottingham, England. It is inspiring to see this kind of focus flourishing on campuses around the world, but it's not happening nearly fast enough. We need to incentivize and support participation in these programs, as well as speed job placement for these students once they graduate. And that means creating more market demand for green products.

Fortunately, there is a groundswell of support for more sustainable, environmentally-friendly and nontoxic products in some critical areas. Take the building industry - beyond the environmental impact of buildings (buildings account for 38.9% of all energy consumption in the U.S., and an equal percentage of our CO2 emissions) they also create an intense melting pot of chemicals and humans. We spend about 90% of our time indoors, where levels of pollutants are often two to five times (and occasionally more than 100 times) higher than outdoor levels. Indoor contaminants like radon, cleaners, personal care goods and other chemical-infused products are attributed to cancer, autism, infertility and respiratory problems like asthma.

Leadership organizations like the United States Green Building Council (USGBC)are offering incentives for the creation of healthier products with their new version of its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system, which rewards buildings using products that have been validated as chemically safe using third-party green product certification programs like the Cradle to Cradle Certified Program and GreenScreenTM.

Even this recent move was met with some conflict. The chemical manufacturers tried to kill the adoption of one credit for safe healthy materials , claiming that such restrictions should be left to the EPA to decide. Fortunately, these efforts weren't successful. The USGBC membership understands the value of a healthy working space free from toxic impacts and successfully passed the credit.

In the movie, one company, Construction Specialties, talks about how they had to innovate their product chemistry to keep one of their largest clients, Kaiser Permanente, who insisted that their new buildings not include the carcinogenic substances PVC or PBT. The company chose to redesign their product ingredients - a difficult and more expensive path at first - but one that has helped the company achieve a place at the forefront of green building and become a select manufacturer in the green building and healthcare industry.

It can be a frustrating place advocating as the underdog in a battle against special interest groups. But I won't pour water on the beach or stomp down our sand castles. Instead, I will start looking for new ways to inspire and drive market demand for green products, while applauding the efforts of organizations like USGBC and companies like Construction Specialties, who are showing us the way.