Green Chemistry Curriculum Growing at UC Berkeley

Micheal Wilson, UC Berkeley School of Public Health

Green chemistry, a hot topic in scientific, environmental, industry and government circles, becomes an official part of UC Berkeley's chemistry curriculum starting in Fall 2010, supported by a $250,000 grant from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. Already at the forefront of green chemistry science and policy analysis, UC Berkeley is now building a leading-edge curriculum intended for students from the sciences, engineering, law, policy and social sciences.

Green chemistry, also known as sustainable chemistry, is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances. In 2006, more than 34 million metric tons of chemical substances were produced or imported in the United States every day.1 The great majority are unregulated, though there is mounting evidence of global health and environmental harm caused by chemical pollution and exposures.

Two of the innovators behind the new curriculum, which will be offered first by the College of Chemistry, are COEH scientists Megan Schwarzman and Michael Wilson. They have been a driving force behind the new Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC), a first-in-the-nation consortium of faculty and researchers working to advance green chemistry science and policy through collaborative research, education and service.

Based on the Twelve Principals of Green Chemistry,2 the curriculum is interdisciplinary, encompassing studies in chemistry as well as toxicology, environmental health, business, law and public policy—recognizing that the next generation of scientific leadership will need to understand all of these areas of scholarship as they confront the challenges of sustainability.

Marty Mulvihill and Akos Kokai, recently appointed program affiliates, are working to introduce the Principals of Green Chemistry this fall into the existing Chem 1A course, which typically attracts some 2,400 non-chemistry majors each year.3

By 2011, the curriculum will be available to advanced undergraduate and graduate students. Course modules will focus on sustainable technologies, novel laboratory methods and the political and social issues driving change in chemical policies around the world. The curriculum will offer students an integrated understanding of both emerging science and the social, ethical and political aspects of industrial chemical technologies.

Members of the BCGC plan to roll-out the full curriculum to other California colleges and universities in the summer of 2011 as part of California EPA's innovative Green Chemistry Initiative, launched by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2007.

Gap Between Science and Chemicals Policy

In a recent issue of Science, authors Schwarzman and Wilson emphasize how US chemicals policy has failed to keep pace with scientific evidence on chemical hazards. The great majority of chemicals, they point out, are simply unregulated, including hundreds of known endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which can interrupt the biological signaling mechanisms central to development, reproduction and immune function in humans and wildlife.4

In their article, the authors describe how the European Union enacted in 2006 what may become a de facto global standard for chemicals policy. REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals) is intended to improve information on chemical hazards and employ a more precautionary approach to decision-making in controlling chemicals of greatest concern. EDCs are likely to fall into this category.

Schwarzman and Wilson, whose work informed the state's Green Chemistry Initiative, call for similar changes to US chemicals policy, pointing out that better information on chemical hazards and more efficient—and quicker—action to address the worst actors will produce health and environmental benefits, while also opening new investment and employment opportunities in green chemistry.

 

1,4 Schwarzman MR, Wilson MP. Science and regulation. New science for chemicals policy. Science. 2009 Nov;326(5956):1065-6.

2 Anastas PT, Warner JC. The Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry, Green Chemistry Theory and Practice. Oxford University Press, 1998.

3 Proposed Deliverables from the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC) University of California, Berkeley, to the Department of Toxic Substances Control, California EPA.

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