Northeastern University

Be a green chemistry consumer

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I spoke with chemistry professor and chair Graham Jones a couple days ago for a story published yesterday about his research developing imaging drugs for cancer and central nervous system disorders. His lab takes a “green chemistry” approach, looking for ways to make organic syntheses “faster, cheaper, and cleaner.”

By the end of our conversation, he was running down a laundry list of problematic chemicals we encounter on a daily basis without even realizing it. I want to be very clear that this list is not meant to scare anyone: Chemicals are everywhere and in everything, and they aren’t inherently bad for you (you, after all, are made out of chemicals yourself).

But as Jones said, an informed consumer is a responsible consumer. He is helping lead a movement to change the paradigm of industrial and research chemistry, wherein environmental and health safety are not an end-goal but the foundation from which new products and experiments derive.

In order for that to happen, we all need to be informed — not just chemists. So, in the spirit of awareness, not “chemophobia” here is Jones’ list, in his own words:

 

Beware of Be informed about your breakfast

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Photo by cookbookman17 via Flickr.

Bacon cooked at high temperature has the potential to contain quantities of toxic substances known as N-nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are suspect carcinogens and are formed by the preservative which is added to bacon [potassium nitrate] being converted to its nitrite form during the cooking process, then reacting with amines [present in the bacon] to form the potentially dangerous N-nitrosamines. Fortunately there is a remedy. Antioxidants can help reduce the formation of the N-nitrosamines, and vitaminc c (ascorbic acid) is an effective one. As a precaution, vitamin C is now added to all USDA regulated cured meats including bacon, but an even better option may be to simply enjoy a glass of orange juice with the food.

 

 

It’s not the caffeine you’ve got to worry about

Photo via Thinkstock.

Photo via Thinkstock.

White coffee filters are produced by a process whereby the native brown paper pulp, composed of lignin, is bleached using a chlorine based process. Small quantities of chlorinated aromatic hydrocarbons are produced as a byproduct of the process, and can be detected in coffee generated using the white filters, when steam extracts the coffee and leaches out components of the filters themselves. Though quantities of these chlorinated species are minuscule, there is concern based on a lifetime risk. One set of compounds of particular concern are the dioxins, which have been linked to a variety of cancers, and which can accumulate in fatty tissue. While scientists debate on acceptable exposure limits, there is a simple remedy for the concerned consumer—use the unadulterated brown filters.

 

The side effects of a natural woman

Photo via Thinkstock.

Photo via Thinkstock.

P-phenylaminediamine (PPD) is a chemical dyestuff used in a large number of hair coloring products, to produce a permanent brown tint. Though PPD is commonly regarded as a safe consumer product, there is concern that some of the oxidation products of the dye are toxic or carcinogenic. A number of studies are examining the potential for N-hydroxy metabolites to induce bladder tumors. The issue here is that individuals, based on their specific genomic makeup, may metabolize these and other products into toxic substances. Though chemicals are rigorously tested, since each person’s genome is unique, and other lifestyle factors (like the person’s microbiome, diet, medications, exercise regimens, etc.) can contribute to metabolic processing, this is an area which requires considerable oversight as we learn more about personal toxicogenomics.

 

….okay maybe you do have to worry about caffeine

Photo by Michael Myers via Flickr.

Photo by Michael Myers via Flickr.

Red Bull and other energy drinks contain high levels of caffeine (a known stimulant) and other substances, including taurine (which interacts with neurotransmitters). There is concern that heavy consumption of these popular beverages, followed by vigorous exercise may unduly stress the cardiac system, resulting in potentially life-threatening consequences in certain individuals. Cases of ventricular arrhythmia have been reported, and the medical community alerted in response to such risks in cardiac patients. The Swedish national food administration (NFA) has even issued public warnings on use of the products.

 

 

 


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