No university in the United States teaches basic toxicology or other environmental sciences to students studying for a traditional chemistry degree, even a doctorate.
Marty Mulvihill was working in a laboratory with carbon tetrachloride. The lab’s supply of the solvent was diminishing, and Mulvihill learned it was being phased out for environmental reasons. Curious, he asked his advisor whether carbon tetrachloride was as bad as he had heard.
“He asked me if I change the oil in my car, and I said yes. So he said, ‘Well, it’s not any more dangerous than those chemicals,’ “said Mulvihill, who at the time was earning an undergraduate degree in chemistry at Reed University in Portland.
“I didn’t think to dig deeper,” he said. “I figured I took many more precautions in lab than I did in my garage.”
Carbon tetrachloride is among the most highly toxic solvents. Breathing it can damage the liver, and it is believed to be a human carcinogen. It also eats away at the Earth’s protective ozone layer. But relying on a chemistry professor to explain the environmental risks of a substance is like asking an orthopedic surgeon whether you have asthma: It’s not his area of expertise. Chemists and chemical engineers have been taught everything they need to know about how to synthesize a substance or trigger a reaction. Then they go out in the world and use an old chemical or invent a new one. Yet most don’t know the effects on people or the environment — whether a chemical can collect in mothers’ breast milk, damage a baby’s brain, kill off immune cells, reprogram genes or cause male frogs to grow female organs.
No university in the United States teaches even basic toxicology or other environmental sciences to students studying for a traditional chemistry degree, even a doctorate. Chemistry textbooks are devoid of any mention too.
“It’s absolutely absent from the curriculum,” said John Warner, president of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry and chairman of California’s science advisory panel for its Green Chemistry Initiative.
Until chemists understand toxicology and related environmental sciences, then the new molecules they create may become our new environmental problems, Warner said.
“The reason we have hazardous materials is that we don’t know how to do it any other way. Green chemistry is the science to correct that,” he said. “But academic inertia is a big problem.”
A 2005 National Academy of Sciences report blamed inadequate education and training of chemists as a major reason for the chemical industry’s lack of emphasis on developing environmentally friendly compounds. A new educational agenda is “the fundamental grand challenge” in making safer chemicals, the report said.
Only a handful of universities train chemists how to make environmentally friendly chemicals, and none are in California. At the University of Oregon, two professors restructured a conventional lab course to emphasize green principles. At the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Warner created the first doctoral program in green chemistry.
Most professors seem to be content teaching chemistry the old way, while some have the perception that the pursuit of safer chemicals is politically driven, not scientific.
“They hear the phrase ‘green chemistry’ and they think of hippies trying to do chemistry,” said Amber Wise, 30, who graduated last year with a doctorate in chemistry from UC Berkeley.
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