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Fat, Stupid, Impotent & Dangerous: The Future Without Green Chemistry

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On Friday November 6, despite opposition from the chemical industry, the house passed a bill that would strengthen chemical plant security and require dangerous chemicals that could be used in terrorist attacks to be replaced by safer alternatives. The measure, said chemical industry lobbyists, explaining their objection to extending this Homeland Security provision instituted in the wake of 9.11, could lead to shortages of certain materials.

Not included in the brief national news coverage is the fact that to make materials destined for everyday products - sofa cushions and the plastics that go into food and beverage containers and electronics, to name but a few - the chemical industry currently uses vast quantities of hazardous chemicals. For example, a chemical known as phosgene, used as a nerve gas during World War I, has long been used to make bisphenol A, the chemical building block of polycarbonate plastics. A class of chemicals known as isocyanates are widely used to make plastic foams - the kind that go into everything from chair seats and carpet backing to take-out food containers. Highly explosive, isocyanates have been involved in numerous fatal accidents, including the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India and a 2008 explosion at a Bayer CropScience plant in West Virginia. Numerous highly flammable and toxic gasses are routinely used in microchip production. Scores of highly volatile and carcinogenic chemicals are involved in manufacturing products that range from plastic shopping bags to pharmaceuticals.

The chemical industry has long insisted that it can control these risky chemicals and that their benefits out weigh the substantial costs of storing, transporting, handling, and disposing of hazardous materials. Chemical companies already "spend millions of dollars
protecting their facilities," and don't need additional regulations, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-Jefferson, LA) told the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

But accidents do happen. And people previously assumed to be reasonable law-abiding citizens do wreak tragic havoc - Oklahoma City is but one of too many examples.

At the heart of the matter, however, is not an argument about more armed guards, concertina wire, or security-coded storerooms but about growing pressure on the chemical industry - from consumers and increasingly, policy-makers - to shift the business away from its dependence on materials hazardous to human health.

"What this is about," said Scalise, "is radical environmentalists coming in and trying to impose new policies that (they) call inherently safer technology."

While it's true that no nerve gas ends up in your child's sippy-cup, your computer case or food can liners, and your couch cushions will not explode, chemicals in many of these apparently inert items are in fact biologically active. One example is bisphenol A. It's been identified as an endocrine disruptor - a chemical capable of interfering with hormones that maintain the body's metabolic and reproductive systems and are vital to neurological, cardiac and immune system health. BPA and many other synthetic chemicals that go into manufactured products that we encounter daily, simply do not stay put. These chemicals are leaving finished products and, one way or another, entering our bodies. The Center for Disease Control has found dozens of such chemicals in the majority of Americans tested. And babies are now born with synthetic chemicals already percolating through their blood.

The mere presence of chemicals linked to health disorders - reduced sperm count, diabetes, obesity, attention deficit disorder - does not mean disease will result. Yet research scientists and medical professionals now say that based on the evidence, there is reason to be concerned. While research continues, many are urging precaution.

One obvious solution to this problem is to replace chemicals of concern with safe alternatives - materials without adverse health impacts. So from New England to California and Michigan in between, state and local governments are beginning to enact policies to support such a shift. And while the potential benefits, to public health and local economies, are clear, this movement - involving what's called green chemistry - is making business-as-usual chemistry industry supporters nervous.

What seems far more disturbing is our continued use of hazardous materials that, if used improperly, pose dramatic security risks, yet while used as intended are steadily disrupting the biological mechanisms that maintain our species' health.

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