Better Living: Science, Technology and the Environment

February 10, 2012

“Better living through chemistry,” a twist on a DuPont Chemicals advertising slogan from the early 20th century, has since been applied to a number of miracles of chemistry, from prescription drugs to plastics. When the slogan was generated in 1935, we were blissfully unaware of the perils of DDT, of the ozone-eating potential of chlorofluorocarbons, and of the sinister effects of a number of chemical compounds that we are just beginning to understand. Now, some might use the term sarcastically; chemistry has, indeed, enabled the luckier portions of the world to combat sickness and disease, to enjoy a great variety of foods and drinks, to purchase an ever-expanding supply of materials that prevent eggs from sticking to our pans and stains sticking to our clothes. In using chemistry to better our lives, though, we have contributed to a steady flow of toxins and pollutants into our environment.

Is chemistry the villain in this story? In many ways, yes, but it also has the potential to be the hero. That will be the theme of this weekly post: the dual nature of science and technology in our society. Each week I will explore a current issue related to the interface between technology and the environment, from the discovered negative health effects of various chemicals to the latest news on solar cell technology.

For this first post, I want to comment briefly on the most recent speaker in our Chemistry Department’s lecture series. This afternoon, we were lucky to have with us Dr. Richard Engler of the EPA, who gave a presentation on the ideas behind green chemistry and its potential to revolutionize our pursuit of Better Living.

Green Chemistry, which developed in the 1990s, is a philosophy rather than a discipline, and can be implemented in any field from materials chemistry to organic synthesis. It is defined by the American Chemical Society as the “design, development, and implementation of chemical products and processes to reduce or eliminate the use and generation of substances hazardous to human health and the environment.” In essence, green chemistry means doing chemistry better – with less waste, more efficient processes, and a reduction or elimination of toxic materials. Green chemistry is safer, and in many ways it is more cost effective, but what the discipline strives for overall is sustainability. Engler defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” I think that’s a principle we could all agree on.

In addition to remedying our chemical processes, green chemistry has the potential to repair chemistry’s reputation so the “better living” phrase can be reclaimed without sarcasm. Dr. Engler discussed the recent trend in “chemical free” products, and even showed us an image of a “chemical free” chemistry set, pictured above. The past decades have taught our society to be afraid of chemicals. In reality, as Dr. Engler said, the only “chemical free” place is the “vacuum of space.” We have always been stuck with chemicals – in fact, we are made of them. Our path towards a greener society does not involve forsaking chemicals, but in redefining our relationship with them. I hope to shed some light on that journey.

To learn more about green chemistry, visit the American Chemical Society website!

Until next time!

Sharon Hartzell

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