Cancer and green chemistry
By Teresa Heinz Kerry, Terry Collins and John Warner July 10, 2010
THE PRESIDENT’S Cancer Panel recently issued a stunning report on the role of environmental factors in causing cancer. For those wondering why America has yet to win the war against cancer, the panel minces no words: “The true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated.’’ If you ignore the cause, how can you prevent cancer and really win the war?
The panel urges strong actions to reduce people’s widespread exposures to carcinogens. It says the prevailing regulatory approach used in the United States is “reactionary, not preventive.’’ It concludes that US regulation of cancer-causing chemicals is ineffective for several reasons, including inadequate funding, weak laws, and undue industry influence.
This report is not the result of a liberal panel following the lead of the Obama administration. Both panel members were appointed by President George W. Bush and the panel’s public hearings were conducted before Bush left office.The report identifies a series of actions that can be taken to win the war against cancer.
First, it recommends that a prevention-oriented approach should replace the current reactionary system, and that this should become the cornerstone of a new national cancer prevention strategy.
It finds that government agencies responsible for protecting Americans from cancer need more tools, and that a more integrated and transparent system — one driven by science and free from political or industry influence — must be developed to protect public health.
Among its many recommendations, we were especially encouraged to find this: “ ‘Green chemistry’ initiatives and research . . . should be pursued and supported more aggressively. . .’’ Green chemistry offers a path forward that leads both to a healthier America and a wave of positive chemical innovations that can strengthen our economy.
World markets want safe materials. Green chemistry will be able to provide them, but only if it gets the resources it needs to flourish. Other countries, including Germany, India, and, China, are investing far more in green chemistry than the United States does. As demand grows for safer materials because of the compelling science that show how chemicals in wide use today are undermining our health, America’s chemical industry needs to become the leader.
What’s holding us back? Lack of financial support for green chemistry research and innovation. But just turning on the funding spigot won’t be enough. We also need to reinvent how chemistry is taught in US colleges and universities.
Green chemistry equips chemists with the knowledge to ask tough questions about potential hazards when they are thinking about making a new chemical. As they make choices early in new chemical design, this simple step could dramatically reduce the chances that new chemicals would be toxic.
In the past, chemists have rarely been trained to ask these questions. It’s as if a course in driver’s education never taught students about traffic accidents. Perhaps not surprisingly, students as well as potential employers are creating demand for this change.
Green chemistry has a long way to go to develop a full toolkit of chemical methods that can replace more classic approaches. But the path is clear, a “prevention-oriented’’ design strategy that can do honor to the President’s Cancer Panel’s insistence that “new products must be well-studied prior to and following their introduction into the environment. . .’’
Invigorating green chemistry is a win-win solution. Americans will become healthier because the materials in their homes, the air, and water will be safe by design, and the chemical industry will be better positioned to compete in world markets that care about chemical safety.
Teresa Heinz Kerry is chairman of the Heinz Family Philanthropies. Terry Collins is a professor of green chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. John Warner is president of the Warner-Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry.