Beverley Thorpe

Dr Chao-Jun Li earned his doctorate from McGill in 1992, studying under Tak-Hang “Bill” Chan, now Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, widely credited as the father of green chemistry research in Canada. Dr. Li is a professor of Chemistry at McGill, a leading expert in and teacher of green chemistry, and helped form a dedicated Green Chemistry Network in Canada, of which he is now Canadian co-chair and coordinator. McGill is the centre of green chemistry research in Canada.

Green chemistry is a term used to describe the production of inherently safer chemicals under a set of twelve principles originally drawn up by Paul T. Anastas and John C. Warner (see Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, Oxford U. Press, 2000). This book provided the first introductory treatment of the design, development, and evaluation processes central to Green Chemistry. Three of their principles discuss the concept of eliminating hazards at the design stage of new molecules.

Such a focus on the inherent hazards of chemicals runs counter to the usual risk assessment, based on the expectation that any chemical hazard can somehow be controlled or managed by establishing “safe” concentrations and exposure limits. Green chemistry attempts to prevent the need for pollution control and clean-up. (For a general introduction, visit www.epa.gov/greenchemistry.)

I went to visit Dr. Li in his office to catch up on what has been happening in the green chemistry movement in Canada and I found, to my pleasant surprise, that support is — slowly — beginning to stir in Canada.

When asked how he viewed the green chemistry movement and what is needed to strengthen it, Dr. Li replied that more interest is being expressed by government, industry and academia. In the Fall of 2000, T.H. Chan of McGill University launched a major Canadian initiative by establishing a Canadian Chapter of the Green Chemistry Institute and, in 2002, by setting up a nation-wide Canadian Green Chemistry Network involving over 40 academic research scientists from across the country as well as scientists from the National Research Council, Natural Resources Canada and Environment Canada. (Visit their website at www.greenchemistry.ca.)

Unfortunately, funding to launch a major initiative has not materialized but grant applications have now been submitted to the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Moreover, Ontario is more active and that province’s Ministry of the Environment is now pushing green chemistry as part of their toxic reduction efforts. One of their scientific experts is Philip G. Jessop, the Canada Research Chair of Green Chemistry and a Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and Environmental Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston. In late 2003, a Canadian Green Chemistry Forum was established within the Canadian Institute for Chemistry and, by 2004, green chemistry activities had spread into most universities, governmental laboratories and some industries, such as pulp and paper. (For more information about the history of green chemistry in Canada see the editorial by P.G. Jessop and C.J. Li in Green Chemistry, Vol. 6, 2004, “Canada Is Greener This Spring” at www.rsc.org/ publishing/journals/GC/article.asp? type=currentissue)

I asked Dr. Li if we sufficiently integrate concerns about environment and human health in the chemistry curriculum in our universities. Sadly, this is still not happening. Chemistry students are not required to study toxicology or biology as part of their degree. What is needed to make this happen? CJ explained that demand would have to come from the students themselves before the curricula could be redesigned, since this would require changing an already packed and established course curriculum. “Look at the Obama campaign and see how the demand was channeled from the bottom up,” he pointed out, “it is that kind of demand that will change things.”

On the issue of designing inherently safer chemicals from the beginning, CJ explained that presently there are no tools to give the students. Yes, there are criteria governing what makes a chemical safer and, yes, there are screening tools for the chemical industry to assess if new molecules are highly toxic (such as the PBT Profiler—a voluntary screening tool to identify Pollution Prevention opportunities for chemicals without experimental data—provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), but there is still no clear road map to hand to students learning molecular design. I handed CJ a copy of my organization’s ‘Green Screen for Safer Chemicals’ to show him how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) promote substitution of hazardous chemicals in products with safer choices. I explained that even big retailers, such as Wal-Mart, are looking for chemical screening tools for their suppliers. Perhaps we need to link the NGO community with chemistry students? Are new types of outreach needed? “Yes, all this would be helpful,” said CJ, “which is why we are seeking grants to pay for more dedicated resources in green chemistry outreach.”

So how does Canada compare with the initiatives in other countries, I wondered? At the end of this past September, California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed two bills which will move his state toward a comprehensive green chemistry program to reduce or eliminate hazardous chemicals in products and the environment. One bill establishes authority for the Department of Toxic Substances Control to create a process for identifying and prioritizing chemicals of concern, to create methods for analyzing alternatives to existing hazardous chemicals and to develop regulations. The bill also establishes an expert Science Panel to give advice on implementation, as well as on expansion of the role of the Environmental Policy Council, made up of the heads of all California Environmental Protection Agency boards and departments who oversee critical activities related to the implementation of the green chemistry program. The second bill creates an on-line Toxics Information Clearinghouse, a web-based database to enhance consumer knowledge about the toxicity and hazards of thousands of chemicals used in California every day.

In Britain, the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence, based at the University of York, trains students in green chemistry and then connects them to real-life, hands-on projects with local industries. The Centre does outreach to schools and has an on-line Masters program for government officials, businesses and even NGOs. The Centre was established by the government in order to promote the region as a centre for innovation and practical help for industry.

We, in Canada, have no such outreach or legislative initiatives. I came away from the interview with CJ Li more hopeful and immensely grateful for his time and his energy in promoting green chemistry. But I am still frustrated that chemistry departments in our schools and universities are not including detailed information in their curricula about the impact of chemicals both on our environment and our health. The Canadian government has bolstered research to better understand the toxicity of the more than 23,000 chemicals massively employed in Canadian commerce, but we lack a comprehensive vision and funding for programs that would launch us toward a toxic-free future. Green chemistry legislative initiatives in California and hands-on experience such as that of the UK’s Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence would be a start.

(Beverley Thorpe is International Director of Clean Production Action and a Board Member of both Prevent Cancer Now and Breast Cancer Action Montreal)