Article on chemical safety heavy on policy, light on science.

Posted by Evan Beach at Apr 25, 2011 07:00 AM | Permalink

A recent article in the New York Times calls attention to a frustrating situation that is unfortunately all too common in the world of chemistry: supposedly “green” alternatives to problem chemicals end up being just as problematic. The article explores potential policy fixes, but doesn’t mention any role that actual chemists – the molecular designers – could play in a solution.

The article describes replacement of bisphenol A (BPA) with bisphenol S (BPS). BPA, which is used in thermal receipt paper and some plastic products, has come under consumer pressure because research suggests it leads to a range of harmful effects in humans. Unfortunately, it is emerging that BPS isn’t much better, so “BPA-free” labels may give consumers a false sense of security.

Reform of U.S. chemical policy – for example the Toxic Substances Control Act – is discussed in the article as a way to improve the safety of chemicals found in commerce. However, policy changes don’t get to the heart of the problem: that most chemists are not trained to understand toxic phenomena, so it remains extremely difficult for a chemist to predict whether a new chemical will be hazardous or not.

The “green chemistry” movement aims to give chemists control over environmental and health impacts of chemicals and has been working to provide better tools and training. Ongoing research is showing that it is possible to use the results of toxicity tests – ranging from computer models to animal studies – to create molecular design guidelines. By understanding the chemical properties that lead to harmful effects, chemists can design safer products for everyday use.

Molecular design for reduced hazard therefore represents a scientific approach that would complement any political solutions to the problem of toxic chemicals. Times readers would have benefited from a discussion of the state of the science, which is rapidly developing in laboratories worldwide.