By Alicia McCarthy
Green chemistry, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is the design of chemical products and processes that take into consideration the entire life cycle to reduce and eliminate the use or generation of hazardous chemicals. An aspect of green chemistry that can, at times, be overlooked is the communication up and down the supply chain of a substance. It is easy to sum up good practices for green chemistry, but it is another thing to implement those principles.
During my academic career, I knew I was passionate about sustainable chemistry, toxicology, and environmental health, but I had no idea what career options I had beyond what was listed in my major’s brochure. I took the time to reach out to professionals I met through my university and at conferences to hear about their own journey. When I was curious about certain career directions, I actively looked to join projects that would help me get a taste for different fields relating to green chemistry and toxicology. These projects provided hands-on experience and facilitated interaction with professionals, allowing me to see the bigger picture of substances from upstream, which could be the development and manufacturing of a substance, and following it downstream where it reaches end-users; revealing where the practice of green chemistry principles are or should be implemented.
When green chemistry principles are not initially utilized, certain occupations and fields become vital to the protection of human health and the environment. This blog will discuss a few areas related to green chemistry that I have learned about from my own experiences. There are plenty of other areas that benefit from a background in green chemistry and toxicology, but in this post I will go over hazard communication, recycling, chemical policy, environmental certification organizations and third party testing laboratories, formulation, the military and medical writers.
Communication is essential during the entire lifecycle of a substance; from the formulator to the recycling or disposal workers. Most workers that use hazardous substances only have labels to depend on to warn them of risks. However, there is a considerable difference between hazard and risk that is posed by a substance. The hazard will be present in all situations due to a substance’s intrinsic chemical or physical properties, but a risk posed by a substance is dependent on how a substance is handled, contained, and transported.
Whether on a global, national, state, or industry level, hazard communication is a field that has many opportunities for refinement. Countries adopt different editions of the GHS (Globally Harmonized System), and there are still inconsistent substance classifications on national harmonized lists. Just because there is a harmonized system does not mean there is harmonized labeling. Labeling and classification is dependent on hazard groups, categories adopted, editions of GHS utilized, national substance classification lists, country-specific requirements, and many other factors. Understanding the variables associated with national adoption of GHS brings opportunities to improve hazard communication.
Substances may be intended for one type of function, or for use in a mixture, however when downstream users are untrained in the risks of straying from those expected functions, the specific hazards and precautionary measures defined by the manufacturer may no longer be relevant. Having knowledge of chemical reactions and properties, mechanistic toxicology, and green chemistry can assist when training and educating workers and suppliers about the risks that go beyond the scope of the SDS (Safety Data Sheet) or GHS labeling.
With new technologies will come new human health and environmental toxicity risks; 3D printers and carbon nanotubes are just a few examples of emerging technologies that lack complete hazard communication and full risk assessments. Hazard communication can be the gatekeeper when it comes to risk assessments of substances like these, especially when certain risk assessment tools rely heavily on SDS. Missing toxicological information on a substance, trade secrets, or availability of in-house alternatives for substances are dependent on hazard communication professionals who contribute to these important policies and documents. For more information on careers in this field, the Society of Chemical Hazard Communication is a great way to talk to professionals and learn about opportunities in this area.
The reuse and recycling of substances and waste produced by industrial processes or consumer articles are also within the scope of green chemistry. Those with degrees in chemistry, environmental health, and toxicology are crucial to the understanding of a substances fate, exposure, and potential effects at the end of the pipeline, especially if an article or substance is being transformed into something else. Many businesses, as well as cities and states hire recycling specialists to help develop and run recycling programs.
When recycled, some materials can expose workers to toxic chemicals that would not have been released in the original state. The reuse of substances can also pose a potential health risk depending on the original material. An example of this would be tires used to make turf fields. Businesses that reuse material need to have the expertise of chemists who understand environmental health and consider the life cycle of the new product and any new exposures the frontline workers may face. This is an area that is often forgotten within green chemistry, but it is a growing process for companies looking to save money and reduce costs of disposal.
Chemical Policy: Agencies, Institutions, and Organizations (United States and Europe)
Many of the exposure limits set by national agencies are allowable concentrations defined between industry, third party laboratories, government agencies, and other organizations. Chemical policy is always changing around the world and having expertise in green chemistry and toxicology can help contribute to a better “big picture” view. Knowledge of mechanistic toxicology and chemistry is important for knowing how to test certain substances and not expect that all will react in the same way, e.g., endocrine disrupting chemicals and the ongoing debate on the criteria to test and regulate.
In the United States, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is a federal agency that is part of the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). NIOSH helps promote safe and healthy workers through interventions, recommendations, and capacity building. NIOSH has a diverse range of employees in the fields of epidemiology, medicine, nursing, industrial hygiene, chemistry, and different branches of engineering. OSHA works closely with NIOSH to create standards for occupational health. The EPA is another agency that plays a huge role in chemical policy and the research of substances. The EPA promotes the usage of green chemistry principles within their own laboratories, certification programs, and through grants.
On state and local levels within the United States, there are institutes and organizations that assist in the research, education, and professional opinion within chemical policy. Some examples of these would be Silent Spring Institute, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, The Campaign for Safer Cosmetics, Warner Babcock Institute, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), and the Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI). I recommend students and early professionals to learn what organizations or institutes are out there that share your interests, and talk with people who work at these places to find out what steps they took to advance their careers.
In Europe, the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) is in charge of the European Union (EU) regulation called REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals). There are also sectors of the European Commission that impact chemical policy such as the Directorate-General for Environment and the Directorate-General for Industry and Enterprises. Every country within the EU also has their own agencies, institutions, organizations, and trade unions that have their own research and development of safer substances.
Creating ties through volunteer work, internships, or pathway programs is a great way to secure a longer-term position at an institution or agency involved in policy. Internships abroad are also a great way to learn about other chemical policy systems. Do not restrict yourself to just the United States or the EU; look globally to see what is going on in chemical policy and what career options are available in other countries.
Environmental Certification Organizations / Third Party Testing Laboratories
Non-profit environmental certification organizations, like Green Seal, are another area offering jobs involving green chemistry. Green Seal provides science-based environmental certification standards to help manufacturers, purchasers, and consumers from cradle to grave and improve product quality. Not only do they certify products, but they also provide education and guidance for a more sustainable world. Safer Choice, by the EPA, is another certification that researches chemical toxicology and works with industry to improve health safety.
Research for certification of these labels also comes from third party testing laboratories, such as TURI. Work at third party laboratories allows for experience in quality control, reformulation, and evaluation of comparative products already on the market. It is also a great way to get familiar with industry, regulations, and quality documentation.
Green Chemistry Formulation
Formulators are the first line of prevention of hazardous substances. Although most formulators work within the restriction of a company’s methods, some institutions and businesses look for those with an understanding and background in green chemistry for not only ethical reasons but also to reduce occupational disease costs.
An example of a type of business looking for chemists with a green chemistry background is a correctional facility. MassCor provides inmates training and skills through work that provides quality products at a competitive price. They recently hired a student who worked at TURI Laboratories as a head formulator for one of the Massachusetts correctional institutions to instruct the inmates within the shop department to manufacture Green Seal certified janitorial products. This position eventually will allow the formulator to innovate new formulations for these products that are safe for the inmates to create within a correctional institutional environment.
Commission Corps / Military Specialist
There is a section of the United States military that people in the public health, toxicology, and chemistry field may qualify for: the Commission Corps. Those who join can work as science and research health professional officers. These officers conduct cutting-edge research on public health topics for scientific and medical discoveries within the United States or abroad, and they provide oversight for national health research and development. Some of the distinct disciplines within this branch of the military include epidemiology, chemistry, toxicology, and microbiology.
Toxicology and green chemistry research may eventually be distributed to the public. Readability of this information takes knowledge and skill so that the topic is accessible without being diluted or oversimplified. Nonprofits, hospitals, and even industry need people who have the writing skills and education to relay this information in layperson’s terms. The average readability level within the health field is 7th to 8th grade among Americans. In some cases, it can go as low as a 3rd grade reading level. Explaining important health risks and research at these levels is a huge asset and facilitates engagement at the community (tax-payer’s) level.
These are just a few of the career areas that intertwine toxicology and green chemistry. Most of the opportunities and jobs that I have been able to experience are due to putting myself out there and just asking to be a part of something. Even more so, the skills I have gained are partially due to finding mentors that are willing to help me grow within the many factions of green chemistry and environmental health. Connect with your professors and colleagues and get involved with associations. Find the people who inspire you and ask them to share stories of their own professional journeys. Stories from people in your field can give you amazing tips, areas to strengthen, information on current projects, more connections, and allow you to reflect on your own professional path. Never be afraid to actively ask to be a part of a project or apply for positions that may be a little bit outside of your experience.
Alicia McCarthy graduated with a BS in Environmental Health and is currently in the Occupational and Environmental Hygiene Master’s program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She is a Research Assistant and CHO at the Toxic Use Reduction Institute Laboratory. Alicia is an intern at the ETUI this summer in Brussels, Belgium.