Be a green chemistry consumer

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


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.