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The Green Chemist
By: Bradley A. Porter (HS'08)
The chemical industry is about 150 years old and, undeniably, it has brought the world enormous benefits. But sometimes there is a price. Unforeseen adverse health and environmental effects can show up decades after a chemical has been commercialized. Enter Carnegie Mellon's Terry Collins who is developing real-world solutions.
It's 1971 and this undergraduate chemistry student is a hardworking kid. When not in class, Terry Collins spends most of his time in labs, conducting experiments, sometimes for classes and sometimes just to satisfy his own curiosity. Once the spring term ends, there is no summer vacation for the native New Zealander. To help pay for his education at New Zealand's University of Auckland, he loads refrigerators onto trucks for a local appliance factory. At lunchtimes, he enjoys shooting the breeze with the other workers.
Like workers everywhere, they all have their gripes, especially the guys on the parts cleaning crew. This group is an important cog in the factory's routine. Before the outer and inner cabinet linings of a 1970s refrigerator can be assembled to have foam impressed between them, this crew must remove any traces of tar that was used to seal the inner lining's outer surface. They do the cleaning by wiping the inner lining's enamel surface with cloths drenched in an industrial solvent.
Collins notices that this crew's complaints go beyond the typical rumblings and that they are also eerily similar—nosebleeds, dizziness, fatigue, persistent headaches. The 19-year-old aspiring chemist is concerned. Among all his hours spent in the university teaching labs, he had been reading about the toxicity of benzene. It has dawned on him that the workers may be displaying the classic symptoms of overexposure to benzene, which can be found in industrial cleaning solvents.
He decides to dig deeper. He visits the cabinet cleaning room where the workers use the solvents, estimates the room's dimensions, notes its lack of ventilation, determines how many drums of solvent the workers go through daily. He then calls the producer, posing as a buyer, and learns how much benzene and related aromatics are in the solvent—5% aromatics of which about 1% is benzene. With all of this information, he calculates how much benzene the workers inhale at work.
Even his most conservative estimate points to what he suspected. The workers' exposure is enormous, just through inhalation (not to mention what must be passing through their hands). These workers, simply by doing their job, are being poisoned—literally, not figuratively.
Although he is just a college student on a summer job, Collins takes it upon himself to try to help the workers. He goes to the company's chief chemist and explains his findings, but he is told that if there are unhealthy exposures, it's because of the crew not following proper procedures. Collins adamantly disagrees. He is also told the company will soon move to a safer approach. Collins doesn't know whether to believe this, but summer is over, and it's time for him to return to his university studies. He doesn't forget the workers, though, and some months later, he revisits the factory hoping to find changes have been made. There were no changes. The workers are still holed up in their scrubbing room, applying the same solvent the same way. He informs a leader in the national chemistry society about what is happening at the factory. The official doesn't believe that the government will take the matter seriously. Frustrated, Collins photocopies all of the references he can find on benzene toxicity and delivers them personally to the chief chemist at the refrigerator factory.
Collins says he will always remember the look on the chief chemist's face when he handed over the documents.
Three decades later—as the Thomas Lord Professor of Chemistry and director of the Institute for Green Science at Carnegie Mellon—Collins still refuses to look the other way when it comes to the short-term and long-term adverse effects of chemistry on health and the environment. He is an advocate of what is called green chemistry, which is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances—a definition he attributes to his friend and colleague, Paul Anastas, who is Yale's director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering.
Through green chemistry, Collins has devoted himself to "look farther down the road" in order to stave off problems that chemical technologies can create. "We chemists have focused primarily on solving challenges of technical performance and profitability," he says, citing the demand for breakthroughs that lead to advances in consumer products such as a stronger plastic, a more pressure-sensitive ink, or a pleasing fragrance that people will buy. The solutions, though, like the process used in cleaning the refrigerators at the New Zealand factory, can have significant consequences.(Continued …)