Chemicals lite

Most of the chemicals turning up—often unintentionally—in waterways, foods and consumer products were designed to maximize some desired function, like fighting grease or softening fabric. Now, chemists are discussing designing not just for function, but also for less harm. The discussion comes amid growing concern about the glut of chemicals present in every aspect of life, a trend evidenced by the growing market of “green” and “nontoxic” products and California’s trailblazing new law to regulate toxic chemicals in consumer products.

In an article published in Chemical Reviews, Yale University chemists call on their peers to shoot for the least toxicity possible when designing unique chemical compounds that are still commercially useful.

The potential threat of chemicals to humans and the environment is largely unknown, as more than 85 percent of the hundreds of chemicals introduced to the market each year have no health and safety data. The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a list of 134 chemicals it will screen—and that’s just the potential endocrine disrupting chemicals. There are also plasticizers, insecticides, and many others that need more research.

The EPA’s Design for the Environment program aims to help industrial scientists consider the environmental and health risks of new chemicals they bring to the market. Those that pass muster can place a special DfE label on their products.