Theres Something in the

Clouds are building slowly along the horizon as afternoon breezes begin to stir the air. Cumulous clouds float over the northern shore of Lake Erie, casting shadows on fields of wheat and corn and soybeans. They float over the Tomato Capital of Canada. Over cattails and water lilies and disappearing bullfrogs. The breezes travel south over Lake Huron and over Ojibwe homelands on the south shore of the lake. They travel over the smokestacks of Sarnia, Detroit, and Windsor, and mix with air blowing north from Cleveland and the Ohio Valley. They ruffle flags on the small docks of homes along the St. Clair River, bending the plume of power-plant smoke and black-tipped flares from the refineries that shadow their backyards. They whip up waves at the mouth of the Detroit River and rock the fishing boats moored at the Wheatley Harbor where children scamper along the pier, casting lines in practice for the upcoming fishing derby.

It is because this Great Lakes region has the worst air quality and the highest ozone levels along the U.S.-Canadian border that I am standing in an Ontario bean field on a sweltering July day in 2007 with scientists who have set up mobile labs to map and measure what's in the air. It's here that airborne effluent from petrochemical and automotive factories, oil refineries, and coal-fired power plants in Samia, about an hour's drive north of here, and factories in Windsor and Detroit along the U.S.Canadian border, mixes with diesel exhaust from one of North America's busiest trucking corridors, which runs between Midwestern and Eastern industrial hubs. As air swirls above the Great Lakes, propelled by cool lake waters and heat from the sun, chemical reactions are taking place. Hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and dioxide, nitrogen, sulfur, and persistent pollutants bounce around the troposphere.

Some of these chemicals will linger locally, as smog and particulates that will make some residents of this Great Lakes region wheeze and cause the blood vessels of others to constrict. Some will act as greenhouse gases and contribute to the climate-disrupting effects of global warming. Some will turn up in Great Lakes fish, for which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently maintains some thirty-nine different chemical advisories.1 Atop a buoy bobbing on the waves of Lake Erie, the scientists I'm visiting have placed a filter to catch pollutants that drift out over the water. Overhead, a small plane loaded with gear to monitor what's floating up near the clouds cruises over the farm fields, its buzz mingling with summer insect drone and distant traffic hum.

Later I'll drive through neighborhoods surrounding the factories that turn fossil fuel into the ingredients of plastics; solvents; fertilizers; pesticides; lubricants; synthetic fibers; surfactants; pharmaceuticals; moisture, stain, and flame repellants; cosmetics; and household cleaning and personal care products. Families in these neighborhoods carry the chemical constituents of these products in their bloodstreams.2 Hospitalization rates in their communities are significantly higher than elsewhere in Canada as are rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease. People who live here also have notably higher incidences of certain cancers— Hodgkin's disease and leukemia—than do other Ontario residents.3 It's becoming increasingly clear that these illnesses are related to the thousands of tons of airborne pollutants that circulate through these communities. These chemicals may also impact residents' health in far less overt or acute ways, prompting subtle but significant changes in how genetic receptors and hormones behave and setting the stage for dysfunction that may take years or even generations to become apparent.

Some of these chemicals will also move on, mingling with soot, vehicle and agricultural emissions, and vented indoor air. They will travel on city breezes, with global air and water currents—with clouds, rain, snowmelt, pollen, oceans, rivers, and fog. Some will end up continents away from their points of origin, leapfrogging with seasonal weather patterns across county, state, and national borders. As a result of such chemical migrations, even the most remote and visually pristine places on Earth—high-altitude rain forests, coral reefs, and Arctic communities among them—are suffering the impacts of industrial pollution.

Later that same July, on a day when the sun barely set, in an Alaskan island village built on permafrost, I listened to residents express frustration, anxiety, and anger over not knowing how these kinds of lingering pollutants might be affecting their health and that of the animals they depend on for food. Some of the same chemicals wafting over those Ontario farm fields and found in the tissue of Great Lakes fish will be in ice samples I helped scientists bag a few months later, in December on the frozen Beaufort Sea. Tracking the journey of such pollutants further the following April, I watched gulls fly over water dotted with small ice floes off the north coast of the Norwegian islands of Svalbard, just 10 latitude degrees south of the North Pole. Brominated flame retardants—synthetic chemicals commonly used in upholstery and electronics—have been found in these birds and their eggs.

What makes this far-flung pollution perplexing is that while some of it comes from smokestacks, drainpipes, tail pipes, waste sites, and other industrial sources, many of these contaminants can be traced to and migrate out of products we use every day and seldom think could be the source of airborne or aquatic contamination. Our kitchens, offices, bathrooms, hospitals, and children's toy boxes are filled with these products. We clean our homes, clothes, and bodies with them. Travel in a car, airplane, or modern train and you are surrounded by them. Much of our food is grown, processed with, and affected by such chemicals. Agricultural, industrial, and urban runoff, along with what we flush down our own household drains, has filled our waterways with so many of these chemicals that they are now common in coastal environments. We wear them, eat them, and touch them constantly. Vacuum cleaner and drier lint are full of them. One scientist has recently posited that young children's exposure to such compounds may be proportionally higher than adults' because they touch hands to mouth so much more frequently and are in closer proximity to household dust.4

Many of these fugitive chemicals have turned out to be long-distance travelers that resist degradation in the environment. They are accumulating in groundwater, soil, aquatic sediment, glacial snow, and polar ice. Many last for years, even decades. Others, such as those that make up polycarbonate and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, migrate only short distances and do not last for extended periods of time but are nevertheless pervasive and so widely used as to be virtually inescapable in twenty-first-century, consumer-product-filled society.

Both the persistent pollutants and the less long-lasting but pervasive synthetic chemicals are turning up repeatedly in animals, plants, food, and in people, including those who do not work with these substances nor live anywhere near where chemical product manufacturing takes place. Though used commercially with the assumption that they are safe, a growing body of scientific evidence indicates many of these materials may in fact not be. While not acutely toxic at levels routinely encountered, it appears that even at low levels some of these compounds can disrupt normal cell function with a number of disturbing outcomes. Among these impacts is interference with endocrine system hormones and genetic mechanisms that regulate reproductive and neurological development and metabolism. Some are being linked to the recent rise in obesity and other metabolic disorders, including diabetes. Others are confirmed or suspected carcinogens, while some have been documented to both interfere with hormone function in ways that can result in early puberty and irregular reproductive cycles and promote certain cancers as well as interfere with chemotherapy drugs.5 Adverse impacts are now being seen not only in laboratory experiments but also in field observations.

A number of these engineered materials have molecular structures that make them soluble in fat. If traveling with air or water and taken up by an animals or plants, these substances will lodge in, and over time can build up in, the fat cells of plant or animal tissue. As contaminated plants and animals are eaten so are these fat-soluble compounds, and thus they work their way up the food web. Polar bears, top predators with great stores of fat, have among the highest recorded levels of such chemicals. Residents of the Arctic, whose diet centers on marine mammals and fatty fish, have some of the highest levels of exposure to these toxics. Recent scientific investigations indicate that fat cells themselves can become reservoirs of these fat-soluble or lipophilic (fat loving) toxics, setting the stage for prolonged contact even when the external sources of exposure are removed.

Some of these chemicals—both the persistent and the shorter-lived pervasive compounds—have become so ubiquitous that they are now found in the vast majority of Americans tested for them.6 Similar results have been found in such testing (known as biomonitoring) done all around the world, with nearly everyone's results revealing evidence of chemicals to which they have had no occupational or other previously recognized exposure. Flame retardants, plasticizers, and surfactants (synthetic chemicals that give soaps, detergents, lotions, paints, and inks, for example, their special textures and consistency) are being found in new-borns' umbilical cord blood. An expert in this field has told me that no babies are born in this country today without at least some of these synthetics percolating through their bodies.7

These chemicals—compounds designed in laboratories and that exist nowhere in nature—have given us lightweight, durable, flexible, and waterproof materials. These synthetic materials can be manipulated to deliver medicine, help increase crop yields, and create the nerve centers of digital information systems. They have transformed our lives in countless efficacious ways and it's now hard to imagine life without them. Yet the chemistry of a great many of these synthetics is also changing the world in ways that extend far beyond their intended design. In some cases these materials have permanently altered the behavior of hormones that control metabolism and reproduction resulting in adverse health effects that are already showing up in wildlife and human populations.

Many of these compounds are so different from the products of natural chemistry, says one scientist, that "it is as if they dropped in from an alien world."8 Another—-John Warner—commented, "We're lucky if 10 percent of the chemicals we use are truly benign."9 These manufactured chemicals are subtly changing environmental chemistry worldwide—the fundamental building blocks of life on Earth—on both a cellular and landscape scale. So many of these changes have already taken place that according to marine scientists studying the impact of these chemicals, "During the course of the last century, the planet has become and is now chemically different from any previous time."10 ^ ^ ^

Virtually everything on Earth is made up of chemicals, as any number of people who work for chemical manufacturing companies have pointed out to me. Chemicals are simply the elemental molecules that make up life on Earth. I've also been reminded that at certain doses, under certain circumstances, even the most environmentally benign substances (water is the oft-cited example) can be toxic. There are also natural sources of many hazardous materials—mercury, for example, or poisonous plants— so industry is not the sole source of environmental toxics. All this is certainly true. The chemicals I'm following in this book, however, are all deliberately manufactured or the result of environmental breakdown and recombination of commercially synthesized materials. None would be present in our lives if they had not been invented in a laboratory, and their hazard or toxicity is directly related to their molecular composition and design. Unlike an overdose of water, exposure to these synthetic chemicals is occurring under normal circumstances—not accidentally or as a result of any product misuse, although occupational exposure to some of these synthetics can cause serious problems—often over extended periods of time, and most often without warning signs of unusual odor, taste, or other immediate sensory distress signals.

We've been living with warnings about industrially synthesized and dispersed chemicals for decades now. But we've responded to these concerns on a piecemeal, substance-by-substance basis, taking one material off the market when its adverse effects have been recognized and substituting another without altering the framework of this process. This ap proach has discontinued use of some blatantly dangerous chemicals, and some scientists feel this has successfully reduced our exposure to the most hazardous toxics. But this approach has also allowed the commercial production of tens of thousands of new materials, many of which have turned out to be environmentally problematic, while allowing continued use of older known hazards either at low volumes or in places with less stringent environmental regulations. If evidence of chemical contamination were reported graphically on a global map, that chart would now be so riddled with blots that virtually no part of the world would be untouched.

Living with pollution and potentially hazardous materials is not new. Humans have been polluting ever since we began burning, mining, forging, milling, tanning, and dying. What is new in historical terms is the existence of so many synthetic chemicals—many of which are toxic—and the large number of such substances we are exposed to, often since before birth, and how impossible they are to avoid. We've now gotten a grip on some of the most egregious offenders in terms of large volumes of acutely toxic or noxious emissions—we're no longer using most ozone-depleting chemicals or spraying DDT across North America, for example—but the legacy of many of these substances is still with us and large quantities of hazardous effluent continue to flow from industrial point sources.

Some of the discontinued toxics, for example, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls)—which were used as industrial insulators and coolants, primarily in electrical equipment—are so persistent in the environment that although they were taken off the U.S. market in 1977 due to their carcino-genicity, they continue to be found almost everywhere scientists have looked. You "can't go anywhere on earth and not find PCBs," says John Stegeman, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who specializes in marine contaminants.11 DDT was also taken out of use in the 1970s in the United States and Europe, but its chemical breakdown products continue to be found in people without current direct exposures in both North America and Europe. These are but two examples of such chemical persistence.

Environmental regulations enacted at about the same time as these product bans have effectively put the brakes on uncontrolled industrial emissions. But while we've worked hard to control these large fixed sources of chemical contamination, thanks to the global marketplace and supply chains of the twenty-first and late twentieth centuries, what we've added to this ongoing burden are potentially millions of new point sources of pollution—millions of individual products, mass-produced and launched at high volume and rapid pace into the world market— whose chemical contents permeate our lives and the world's environment. What is also new is that these chemicals are abroad in the world at a time when other crucial ecological dynamics are changing. These substances are interacting with biological mechanisms, individuals, species, and ecosystems that are also now affected by the impacts of global warming, natural resource depletion, and habitat destruction—all of which make us and the rest of nature more vulnerable than ever and which increase the urgency of finding solutions to this chemical pollution. ^ ^ ^

Our overall use of synthetic chemicals is enormous. Every day, the United States alone uses or imports about 42 million pounds of such compounds.12 Nearly 82,000 of these chemicals are registered for commerce in the United States. (The European Union, Canada, Japan, and other countries maintain comparable lists.) About 10 percent of these registered chemicals are produced or imported to the United States at volumes of 10,000 pounds or more each year. About 3,000 are produced or imported at quantities of 1 million or more pounds per year.13 This list, administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is only a partial accounting of all the chemicals in use, however. It does not include compounds like PCBs that are present in the environment but not in active use. Nor does it include chemicals like dioxins or the carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and sulfur oxides released in tailpipe emissions, substances that are breakdown or reaction products rather than deliberately manufactured materials.

Of the synthetic chemicals we're now using, about 90 percent are petrochemicals, a proportion that has grown to be about eighty times greater than it was some thirty years ago.14 Using hydrocarbons as the building blocks for synthetic materials sets the stage for hazard: The basic physical properties of hydrocarbons (benzene, for example) make them toxic to many vital bodily systems. Hydrocarbons tend to evaporate easily, many are not water-soluble, and some have a viscosity that enhances their biological toxicity while others have what are called side-chains of chemicals that enable them to interact in often adverse ways with specific cellular mechanisms. At the same time, our reliance on petrochemicals reinforces our reliance on fossil fuel energy sources, adding to the practical challenges of shifting away from the materials driving climate change.

When it comes to keeping track of how these substances behave in the environment, of the 30,000 or so chemicals currently in common commercial use, the environmental and health impacts of only about 4 percent are routinely monitored. Some 75 percent have not been studied for such impacts at all.15 Meanwhile, newly synthesized chemicals— which now include the products of nanotechnology (nanomaterials), infinitesimally small molecules that represent a whole new class of substances with novel properties and behaviors and barely studied toxicity— are put into commercial production at the rate of about 2,000 new chemicals every year. Altogether, over the past century, tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals have been released into the world's atmosphere.

In the United States and many other places in the world, new generations of synthetic chemicals were launched into commercial production—including at high volume—with little or no knowledge of their long-term impacts on human health and the environment. In the United States, even when seriously adverse effects of chemicals have been detected and confirmed, many toxic chemicals—including the suspected human carcinogens formaldehyde and trichloroethylene, for example— have remained in production or in use in products sold in the country for years. And our system of chemical regulation, which is based on reducing exposure only after a chemical has been shown to be harmful, has made it extremely slow and cumbersome to effectively take a hazardous substance out of circulation or to establish effective protective national safety standards.

The increasingly recognized dangers of such chemicals have prompted both a move toward new types of regulations and greater efforts to develop alternative materials through green chemistry. In December 2006 the European Union passed legislation establishing a chemical management policy known as REACH—Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals. In contrast to most existing chemical regulation— particularly in the United States—REACH requires chemical manufacturers to disclose health and safety information about their products (for new products this must happen before they're marketed commercially) and replace the most hazardous chemicals with safer substitutes when available. Effective as of June 2007, REACH applies to all chemicals sold in the EU, including those made by U.S. companies and others outside of Europe. Similar legislation has been passed in Canada and Japan. Although the Bush administration initially lobbied vigorously against REACH, U.S. legislation called the "Kid Safe Chemical Act" that works similarly but is limited to chemicals used in products designed for infants and children, was introduced in May 2008 by the House and Senate. The bill failed to pass, but it or similar legislation may be reintroduced. While it's too soon to know the results of REACH or any comparable regulations, increasing consumer awareness is prompting changes as well.

As I write, a groundswell of public concern over the health impacts of chemicals that compose polycarbonate and polyvinyl chloride plastics is pushing manufacturers and retailers of baby bottles, pacifiers, toddlers' sippy cups, other children's products, and refillable water bottles to switch to alternative materials. Europe and Canada are already phasing out some of these chemicals starting with products designed for infants and children. Beginning in 2009, a bill signed into law in August 2008 bars half a dozen PVC plasticizers from children's products. More than a dozen U.S. states have introduced bills to bar bisphenol A, the polycarbonate chemical building block, from children's products—but as of May 2009, only two such bans have passed, one in Minnesota and the other in

Chicago. Meanwhile, European legislation restricting certain synthetic chemicals with known adverse health impacts has prompted numerous manufacturers to redesign or reformulate products ranging from nail polish to IV tubes to computers.

Given the history of these chemical products, rules that protect proprietary information (the secret formulas for these substances), and absence of independent third-party oversight, how are we to be assured of any new material's safety, now, ten, or twenty or more years from now? This is where John Warner and his green chemistry colleagues come in.

It's unlikely that we will return to making everything out of metal, stone, glass, and wood or that we'll abandon all synthetic fibers and pharmaceuticals. So the question at the heart of green chemistry is how to design molecules and materials that will perform desired tasks without adverse impacts—ideally a material that is resource-efficient and environmentally benign at every stage of a product's life. As two of the world's leading proponents of green chemistry—and in many ways its founders—John Warner and Paul Anastas, director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale University, explain, "Green chemistry involves the design and redesign of chemical syntheses and chemical products to prevent pollution and thereby solve environmental problems."16

Work in the green chemistry field has really only gotten underway within the past decade or so—but new nontoxic chemicals designed to replace existing problematic synthetics are already in use. One striking example is Columbia Forest Products' formaldehyde-free plywood and particle board that uses a nontoxic adhesive developed to mimic the substance mollusks use to cling to rocks. Another is SC Johnson's reformulation of its stretchy plastic Saran food wrap to eliminate polyvinylidene chloride, a synthetic that includes carcinogenic chemical components and waste products. Other green chemicals are being developed as environmental cleaning agents that detoxify persistent pollutants already in the environment. Manufacturers and retailers as well as large-volume purchasers are involved in these product-shifting efforts—companies that include cleaning-product companies such as Clorox and Sysco Systems, pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Schering-Plough, specialty chemical producer Rohm and Haas, agribusiness conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland, and others including Nike, Ikea, International Paper, Wal-Mart, and the U.S. Army, to name a few.

As large companies move away from known chemicals of concern and devise new strategies, they are discovering that, contrary to common perception, such innovations do not necessarily add to the overall cost of business. Some—InterfaceFLOR, the world's largest manufacturer of modular carpet, for example—have increased market share by adopting environmentally friendly practices and products. Other companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers among them, are attracted to the prospect of green chemistry for the savings it can bring through resource efficiency and reduced costs associated with the entire production process.

That said, the benign synthetics now in use represent but a small fraction of the shift that could take place both in terms of products and processes. There are also varying interpretations of what makes a chemical product green, and any number of apparent contradictions in existing product lines and processes. Green chemistry is not a magic wand, but what is happening is real and already far from a fringe movement or boutique trend.

Yet perhaps even more fundamental to green chemistry than the idea of substituting a benign material for one that is hazardous, is its departure from the historical approach to designing new materials and to commercial chemical production, which has focused overwhelmingly on performance and price. Green chemistry advocates are quick to say that their products must perform at least as well or better than existing, less environmentally benign materials. They also quickly add that to be commercially viable, these new products must end up on the net profit side of the balance sheet. But what's historically been absent from the calculus of commercial chemical production—or that of other manufactured products for that matter—is a full accounting for the cost of environmental impacts, short- or long-term. Green chemists recognize that these costs must be addressed.

Assessing a product's environmental impacts is not as clear-cut as it might seem. To begin, the outlines of the product's footprint must be de-fined—parameters for which there are not yet common standards. This may sound arcane but setting these boundaries is essential to capturing an accurate picture of a product's impacts, as deciding how far up the materials stream to go and which resources to include will produce widely varying results.

Listen to discussions of environmental impact and product life and you'll likely hear the phrases "life-cycle analysis," "cradle-to-cradle," "cradle-to-grave," and "cradle-to-gate." All can be variously and subjectively defined. A life-cycle analysis is generally understood to analyze and account for the environmental impacts of a product's entire manufacturing process, its impacts while in use, and its impacts when the product is no longer useful. Cradle-to-cradle assumes the premise of a closed production and product life-cycle loop—in which materials are reclaimed and reused, while cradle-to-grave assumes disposal rather than reuse or recycling for at least some portion of the product when it's discarded. Cradle-to-gate, meanwhile, has cropped up as a way for companies to measure the environmental footprint of their products but to stop at the factory gate—excluding what happens when that product goes out into the world. The proliferation of terms indicates that assessing environmental impacts is far from a standardized process and is often more of an afterthought than an integral consideration from the beginning of the manufacturing process for synthetic chemicals or any other product.

One of the astonishing things I learned while talking to green chemistry advocates and chemical engineers—and that helps explain why there has been so little attention to anything like footprint analysis—is that neither toxicology nor ecology has been required as part of a chemist's academic training. Historically, during the design phase, chemists work feverishly to get the next best material on the market before their competitors. Questions about the health, safety, and environmental impacts of their inventions typically came later. Safety testing and documentation is required for chemicals going into commercial production, but protocols and questions that would detect the kind of chemical migration and the biological impacts we're now seeing on a global scale have generally been absent from this evaluation process. Advocates of green chemistry aim to change this, too.

Green chemistry is not a set of easy answers or an instant solution. But it has the potential to completely change the nature of our synthetic materials. Neither a brand nor a prescriptive labeling program, green chemistry is a philosophy outlined by a set of principles that, if followed, will create profoundly safer, more environmentally benign materials than most we now use.17 These materials will be made efficiently and result in products without the persistence, byproducts, and costly waste issues that are responsible for so many of the problems that plague industrial chemistry as it's traditionally been practiced. Paul Anastas and John Warner call it a "revolutionary philosophy" for the way it upends the historical approach to chemical safety.

Instead of simply opening the universal kitchen cabinet of chemical ingredients and choosing whatever will create a material with the desired performance (ideally as quickly and cheaply as possible) then waiting for someone else to test safety later on, proponents of green chemistry ask synthetic chemists to assess safety and to avoid hazard at every step of design and synthesis. Are the basic materials toxic? Are the ingredients that facilitate chemical reactions and bonding hazardous? Are dangerous waste products created during synthesis? Are the required reactions and production process resource-efficient? Will the final product be hazardous in any way during use or disposal? These are among the questions green chemistry asks, not after a new material has been synthesized but as it is being designed.

We have behind us a century or more of chemical products based on syntheses that often rely on highly hazardous materials—phosgene, for example, a highly toxic chlorine compound known as a nerve gas during World War I, is used in the process of making many common synthetics including plastics, upholstery foams, and synthetic fibers. In contrast, green chemistry entails creating what amounts to a new alphabet and grammar of chemical synthesis. As Amy Cannon, another leading green chemist, readily points out, green chemistry may sound fuzzy and soft— particularly now that the word "green" is slapped on everything from packages of toilet paper to motor oil, lipstick, and shoes—but, she says, it's actually much harder to practice, and it requires more analytical steps than conventional chemistry.

Green chemistry is also revolutionary in that it operates from a foundation that runs contrary to the basis of several generations' worth of policies regulating chemical safety. These policies have removed some egregiously bad chemical actors from the scene but have also prolonged the use of countless other hazardous materials, resulting in the environmental release of vast quantities of pollutants and the exposure of millions of people to substances with the distinct potential to harm human health. By focusing safety efforts on controlling risk, we've accepted the presence in our lives of numerous chemical hazards, from long-recognized toxins like lead to volatile organic compounds like trichloro-ethylene and perchlorate, to more recently recognized endocrine disrup-tors. This approach has also resulted in the confusing situation of having different levels of exposure to the same substance deemed acceptable in different geographic locations. Why should babies in Canada receive one kind of protection and American babies another? Why are women in Europe protected from chemical exposures that women in the United States are not, while residents of California receive more stringent protection than New Yorkers? "We have to turn the aircraft carrier around," says Terry Collins, who directs the Institute for Green Science at Carnegie Mellon University, "and get the hazard out."

Such efforts are underway all around world and, as noted, are being undertaken by some of the world's largest chemical companies and manufacturers. The proportion of currently available synthetic materials that are wholly products of green chemistry as yet represents but a small fraction of those now in use. But the impetus to explore environmentally benign alternatives to widely used problematic synthetics is growing. Altering manufacturing processes to eliminate hazardous and copious waste products, and to eliminate the need for hazardous process chemicals, may ultimately reduce production costs significantly because handling and disposing of toxic materials is expensive.

While some of the pressure to eliminate hazardous materials stems from manufacturers' desire to reduce production costs—including those of complying with regulations—there is also incentive to meet the growing consumer interest in safer products, whether it's baby bottles, mattresses, laptops, or makeup. When this interest is accompanied by regulation of recognized chemical hazards—or even the prospect of such regulation—design of more environmentally benign products accelerates. We've seen this already begin to happen with consumer electronics, cosmetics, textiles, and toys.

Among the notable changes of the past decade or so is how much more quickly the general public can access information on potential product hazards—and the speed with which the information is shared. Thanks to the Internet and e-mail, scientific studies, reports, and news bulletins make their way to far more offices and households around the globe than ever before, resulting in greater consumer awareness and, often, heightened concern. Concern from the public and from scientists has pushed policy makers—particularly in Europe but also in the United States—toward consideration and implementation of legislation, such as REACH, that takes a more precautionary approach to chemical use. It has also increased demand from consumers—institutional, corporate, and in-

dividual—for products without adverse health or environmental impacts. ^ ^ ^

Scientists are professionally cautious. Their day-to-day work—in the field and in the lab—focuses on what is effectively one jigsaw puzzle piece at a time. Years of data collection and analysis are involved in creating each puzzle piece before it's ready to be snapped into place, and still more before any panoramic picture takes shape. But in the past year, while working on this book, I've heard impressively credentialed scientists make emphatic statements about the state of the world that astounded me for the depth and breadth of their concern.

"If we wait for comparable human data and it comes out like animal data, we aren't going to be breeding as a species," I was told by Patricia Hunt, Meyer Distinguished Professor at Washington State University's School of Molecular Biosciences. "Based on what we know now, why wait to count the numbers and the adverse events. Why wait until it's too late?" said Grace Egeland, Canada Research Chair in Environment, Nutrition, and Health at McGill University. "We're at a crossroads in the choices we make today as a civilization between a bad or a really bad future," Dave Barber, Canada Research Chair in Arctic System Science at the University of Manitoba, told me.

Our manipulation of natural elements has, undeniably, improved the quality of life in innumerable ways. Yet it now seems abundantly clear that our interference with Earth's natural environmental chemistry has thrown ecological systems—large and small—seriously out of balance. And the sources of what's forcing global climate change, it turns out, coincide with those of the materials responsible for changing environmental chemistry. The chemical emissions prompting the climatic changes we're now seeing have largely the same petrochemical origins as the synthetic chemicals altering essential cellular behavior in plants and animals, including humans, worldwide. The materials prompting global warming and all of its climate-disrupting impacts are thus, in effect, the backstory to that of these problematic mobile chemical contaminants that are interfering with the cellular and genetic processes vital to health.

We are in this fix largely because, over the course of the past century, worldwide we became a petrochemical society. It seems clear that solutions to our current dilemma will ultimately lie in our ability to move away from overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels, at least in the way we use them now. Aside from refashioning our main sources of energy, a large part of that shift away from petrochemicals will entail not only designing new products but also rethinking our entire approach to their design by asking questions we've been reluctant to ask about the materials we use—and being willing to change course when problems become apparent.

The news about the current state of the world is not good, but when it comes to the materials we use and the products we design, it is far from hopeless. Finding solutions depends considerably upon first understanding why such changes are necessary. Describing our future, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen wrote in 2002, "A daunting task lies ahead for scientists and engineers to guide society towards environmentally sustainable management during the era of the Anthropocene," as he has dubbed our current geological era. "At this stage, however, we are still largely treading on terra incognita."18

That terrain has begun to be mapped. The chapters that follow explore some of that territory and investigate why its discovery is so urgent.

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