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Green chemists get a shot
of government green

It's a simple idea: instead of writing rules for when and how we can use poisonous chemicals, why not design them to be safe from the get-go?

That's the promise of green chemistry, pioneered by Paul Anastas, founding director of Yale’s Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering. The promise just got a boost from the federal government (this week's shutdown notwithstanding).

A $4.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency will allow Anastas—former head of EPA’s Office of Research and Development—and colleagues to "develop tools that help molecule designers predict toxic hazards . . . and modify [chemicals'] designs to reduce risks," a Yale press release says.

“For the last two centuries, chemists have been increasingly able to design molecules, chemicals and materials so that they perform particular functions, from color to adhesion to conductivity," Anastas says. "One thing that we haven’t been able to do is to design chemicals so that they have reduced toxicity."

Without that ability, identifying hazards doesn't always lead to safer products. Take the case of bisphenol-A, or BPA. Yale has done leading research on how that chemical, used in hard plastics such as baby bottles, damages the neurological and reproductive systems of people and fetuses. But other studies show that BPA alternatives may be just as harmful.

With the grant, collaborators at Yale, Baylor University, George Washington University, and the University of Washington will aim to create software to "assess whether a molecule is likely to cause toxicity, the specific factors that create that risk, and the modifications that would reduce potential toxic outcomes," the news release says.

"The idea is to train chemists and toxicologists early in their college careers about these approaches so that chemists actually learn what toxicology is and toxicologists learn how to use their knowledge to help chemists," says Julie Zimmerman, a Yale engineering professor and co-principal investigator.

Filed under chemistry, environment, Paul Anastas
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