Chemistry: It’s Not Easy Being Green

By Katharine Sanderson of Nature News

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By the latter half of the 1980s, the worldwide chemical industry knew that it had to clean up its act: its environmental reputation was dismal. Still fresh in the public mind was the 1984 disaster at Bhopal, India, where at least 3,000 people died and hundreds of thousands were injured by a toxic gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant. Also fresh were memories of the 1978 Love Canal incident in Niagara Falls, New York, where the discovery of buried toxic waste forced the abandonment of an entire neighbourhood, and the discovery of dioxin contamination a few years later that forced the evacuation of an entire town — Times Beach, Missouri.

Even when companies did try to deal responsibly with their waste, which typically included volatile organic solvents and other hard-to-clean-up agents, the volumes were daunting. Global statistics were, and still are, fragmentary. But in the United States, according to the earliest systematic data gathered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), some 278 million tonnes of hazardous waste were generated in 1991 at more than 24,000 sites. Not all of it came from chemical companies, but much of it did. More than 10% of the total, some 30 million tonnes, came from one firm alone: the Dow Chemical Company, headquartered in Midland, Michigan. And other firms, such as petrochemical giant Amoco, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, and DuPont, of Wilmington, Delaware, were not far behind.

The result, as chemical companies struggled to deal with increasingly stringent environmental regulations, was an industry-wide move towards what is often called ‘green chemistry’ — a term introduced in 1991 by Paul Anastas, then a 28-year-old staff chemist with the EPA.

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