Chemists aim to make everyday products safer

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Thanks to Phillip Torrone for the photo.
  • Thanks to Phillip Torrone for the photo.

And, they've just begun to think this way now because ...? Oh, right: money.

Chemistry is all about sparks — bonds break, beakers bubble, reactions rule. But a growing number of researchers are obsessed with chemistry’s quieter side. Rather than vigor and vim, they seek a calm predictability.

These scientists are calling for a new approach to chemical design: They want compounds that do one job well — whether rubber that bounces back or nail polish that shines — but the action needs to end there. No multitasking, thank you very much.

Many of today’s chemicals — in packaging, cleaning products, furniture and elsewhere — go where they should not go and do more than they were designed to do. Bisphenol A, a common ingredient in polycarbonate plastics, has made headlines for getting into the body and interfering with tissue development and function (SN: 7/18/09, p. 5). Flame retardants new and old persist in the environment, contaminating soil, waterways and wildlife (SN: 4/24/10, p. 12). And a new analysis, reported online January 14 in Environmental Health Perspectives, finds that the blood and urine of 99 percent of pregnant American women tested contain a laundry list of chemical interlopers, including various PCBs, pesticides, PFCs, PBDEs, phthalates and the rocket-fuel ingredient perchlorate.

Unless there is a fundamental shift in the way that chemicals are created from the outset, the next generation of compounds will probably be just as meddlesome, says Michael Wilson, associate director of the green chemistry center at the University of California, Berkeley. Currently more than 30 million metric tons of chemicals are produced in or imported to the United States each day, a quantity that would fill a line of tanker trucks 10,000 miles long. And industrial chemical production is expected to double in the next quarter century, outpacing population growth.

Read the rest of this Science News article, by Rachel Ehrenberg, here.

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