by Preston MacDougall
April 22, 2005
Today is the 35th Earth Day, and as the name implies it is observed all around the world. Here in Rutherford County, Tennessee, the company that runs the landfill gives out saplings for people to plant. My family now has two tall, deciduous reminders of earlier Earth Days. One is a Crimson King Maple and the other is a Tulip Poplar, Tennessee's state tree.
Another local event, and the one that usually gets most of the media attention, is the hazardous waste collection. My family and I have participated in this event too, and our garage is a little bit tidier, but a lot less flammable as a result. Often referred to as a "pick-up", it is actually a "drop-off." And it is usually promoted as an opportunity to "get rid of household chemicals."
The mildly irritating aspects of this promotion are that it ignores the scientific lesson that everything in your house is a chemical substance, and secondly, colloquialisms aside, the word chemical is not a noun.
If I could, I would also edit the subtle message that is conveyed, especially to young minds, by these types of events: ecology is good, chemistry is bad. Unfortunately, many science books that are used in elementary grades, and through high school, reinforce this message.
Even those students who rarely open their textbooks are not spared the message, since several cartoon shows are on the same page. My favorite example of animated proselytism is Captain Planet. In the episodes that I watched with my children when they were younger, more often than not the bad guys were somehow associated with the chemical industry. Instead of black hats, the kingpin usually wore a three-piece suit and his henchmen often wore white lab coats.
Perhaps I missed an episode where Captain Planet and his pals had to clean up after a rogue ecologist, named Bugsy, who introduced rabbits to a large island, which soon found its agriculture threatened.
I am no Pollyanna, and am not trying to whitewash the serious problems of air, water and land pollution. Certainly a lot of environmental damage has resulted from irresponsible disposal and venting of waste from industrial-scale chemical processes. However, tarring the science of chemistry for the mess in Love Canal is as wrong-headed as quarantining ecologists for the ongoing plague of rabbits in Australia.
As an antidote to this sort of brainwashing, I like to share with my students a letter that I received from Al Gore. It was sent form the White House when he was Vice President. He was acknowledging my participation in a successful research project that was just a small part of the so-called Clean Car Initiative. This was a partnership between government research labs, where I was working at the time, and the big three U.S. automakers. Something went awry, since the most notable new design has been the Hummer.
Anyway, in the letter he writes: "inspire your students to pursue careers in environmental chemistry and to apply their professional knowledge toward discovering chemical solutions to environmental problems."
I don't know how successfully I have met this challenge, but I will keep trying. Other chemistry professors are really cleaning up in this area of chemistry, however. Dr. Terry Collins is one in particular. He is the Thomas Lord Professor of Chemistry at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Dr. Collins' research is focused on the greening of oxidation chemistry. Oxidation is different from oxygenation. Fish tanks need oxygenation so that enough oxygen gas from the air is dissolved in the water for the fish's gills to do their thing. This is ecology. Oxidation is a type of chemical reaction, so named because it often involves transferring one or more oxygen atoms to the molecule that is being oxidized. This is what happens when a brunette becomes a peroxide blonde, and it is chemistry.
Colloquialisms aside, peroxides are a class of chemical substances, the most common being hydrogen peroxide, with over one million metric tons of it produced annually. A major use of hydrogen peroxide is the bleaching of wood pulp so that paper is white. Bleach, also known as sodium hypochlorite, and sold in stores as Clorox, is commonly added to boost the oxidizing strength of hydrogen peroxide. Because of this, the effluent from pulp and paper mills must be monitored for chlorinated organic compounds.
Dr. Collins has invented re-useable iron-containing compounds that catalytically boost the oxidizing strength of hydrogen peroxide, removing the need to add any bleach, and thus chemically solving a major environmental problem. For this and other efforts, Dr. Collins has received numerous awards, including the Environmental Protection Agency's Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award in 1999, and the 2002 Golden Goggles Award from the Chemistry Club at my university.
Being green will get easier, especially if bright college students leap into chemistry. Now if only I could find out how to FAX a Press Release to Kermit the Frog at Sesame Street News.