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Mr. Clean

September 16, 2009
by Marilyn Berlin Snell
photograph of Michael Wilson with an unknown woman

Michael Wilson wants the chemical industry to make products safe before they get to the market.

Twenty years ago, when Michael Wilson worked as a firefighter—paramedic in the strawberry—and vegetable—growing region around Salinas, he responded to countless 911 emergency calls from workers caught in machinery or struggling to breathe. A malfunctioning conveyor belt would grab a worker’s arm. A chlorine cloud loosed during the vegetable cleaning process, or a leak in the line that ran ammonia to storage freezers, would take down a group of workers. Wilson and his team would stabilize the accident victims and then rush them to the emergency room.

“Our role was done,” he says. “But there was often this totally disabled person, wrecked really, with lifelong costs and complications.” Most of these incidents, Wilson recalls, were completely preventable, and “a direct result of the 24-hour production focus of the plant.” Frustrated by his inability to stanch the flow of injuries and shocked by widespread indifference to the problem, he entered Berkeley’s School of Public Health, where he is now a research scientist.

When we met in his office on the seventh floor, with its sweeping view of the Bay Bridge under construction, of Oakland’s vast dock works and ships headed to port, Wilson, MPH ’98, Ph.D. ’03, was at an elevated computer station that allowed him to stand while typing. He retains some traits of a first responder. During our conversation he sat on the edge of his chair with a furrowed brow and focused gaze. He’s not fidgety, just squared up to react.

Wilson’s research at Berkeley initially took him to greasy auto repair shops around the state, where hexane, another debilitating chemical, was in wide use—the result of good intentions gone disastrously bad. In an effort to protect public health, California had been phasing out chlorinated solvents. The market responded by introducing hexane, a brake—cleaning solvent sprayed from an aerosol can—a known neurotoxin, but a chemical not on California’s hit list. Wilson met a 24-year-old auto mechanic who had completely lost his sensory and motor functions. “He was in a wheelchair and had the symptoms of multiple sclerosis,” remembers Wilson. “He had no control of his limbs. He had no grip strength. He’d been seen by three different neurologists but no one could figure out what it was.” A colleague of Wilson’s at UCSF discovered the hexane link.

Manufacturers tried to reduce the hexane content in individual spray cans by cutting it with acetone. But that combination of chemicals was more dangerous, since acetone amplifies both the severity and duration of hexane’s neurotoxic effects. And it wasn’t just Californians who suffered. The state is such a massive market that manufacturers shifted away from chlorine-based to hexane-based products and ended up creating an occupational health disaster across the country. Through this research, says Wilson, he realized that it wasn’t enough to focus on one chemical at a time. “We had to look at the entire chemical production system.”

Wilson began to see toxics control as an intricate puzzle. If he had concentrated solely on hexane, for instance, he would have seen an interesting and isolated case while completely missing the big picture. The challenge became not just the toxicity and health hazards of individual compounds but also the political decision-making that created the problem in the first place; the economic policies that justified the status quo in development, manufacturing, and marketing by prioritizing profit alone; and, finally, the potential for profit and for public and environmental health through an entirely new and sustainable way of doing business. These ideas became the building blocks for a powerful new initiative in California called “green chemistry.”

By taking such a wide swing at the problem of toxics, Wilson had whacked a multibillion-dollar hornet’s nest. Most Americans assume that if a product is on the shelf it’s been tested and government approved. In fact, industrial chemicals are largely unregulated, and there are no incentives to create benign alternatives. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), all chemicals on the market before 1979—that’s 92 percent of those used today—are exempt from scrutiny. As a result, we do not know the health and environmental effects of most of the 80,000 and more chemicals currently in wide commercial use.

Wilson understood that regulating individual chemicals—getting hexane banned, for example—was a trap. Instead, his green chemistry idea took a “life cycle” approach. Products should be less toxic by design. Their component chemicals should not bioaccumulate in the body, and they should break down readily in the environment. Manufacturing processes should use safer chemicals, consume less energy, and produce less hazardous waste.

Large chemical corporations are understandably resistant—even hostile—to fundamentally changing the policy frameworks that have guided chemical use in the U.S. since World War II. But the European Union, America’s largest trading partner, has already adopted a green chemistry policy. And since 2003, Wilson and his Berkeley colleagues, with surprisingly strong support from the legislature and the governor, have been in the forefront of an effort to bring green chemistry to California. Their studies conclude it will not only save lives, but will also create new clean-tech jobs and strengthen the state’s ability to compete in the global marketplace.

Wilson credits Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and the growing awareness that actions today will affect many generations to come, with helping his green chemistry proposal to gain footing. Conversations with delegates from the European Union’s green chemistry group, who attended a conference Wilson hosted in 2003, confirmed he was on the right track. Some important Californians agreed. “Members of staff from the California state legislature also came to this conference and had an epiphany,” Wilson says. A short while later, the chairmen of the state Senate Environmental Quality Committee and the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Metals officially asked him to flesh out the concept. His report, completed in 2006, began by identifying three dangerous and fundamental “gaps” born of TSCA and other federal statutes.

First, the nearly total lack of information about the effects of most industrial chemicals—a “data gap”—makes it difficult for firms to identify hazards in their supply chain, and for workers and consumers to choose less-toxic products. Without that information, government agencies cannot meaningfully identify or prioritize chemical hazards, and so cannot use their legal tools to regulate toxic compounds. Wilson called this the “safety gap.” Third, there are no market and regulatory incentives to drive green innovation, creating a “technology gap.”

In his report, Wilson drew a portrait of a world awash in untested and largely unregulated chemicals. He reported, for example, that the only way a mother can shed persistent industrial pollutants commonly found in breast milk—such as methylene chloride, toluene, trichloroethylene, and xylene—is to deliver them directly to her developing fetus through the umbilical cord or to her infant through the breast milk.

Legislators including Joe Simitian and Mike Feuer were quick to respond, introducing three green chemistry bills within months of the report’s release. Another, AB 1879, introduced in 2008, would regulate consumer products containing lead, mercury, phthalates, and four other known neurotoxins while giving the Department of Toxic Substances Control more autonomy to adopt safeguards based on scientific findings. Environmental groups rallied behind the proposed legislation. Bill Magavern, the Sierra Club’s California director, believes the bills “have a decent shot at enactment, though all face serious opposition.”

According to one legislative insider, the strategy in Sacramento has been to fashion bills that go beyond a chemical-by-chemical approach but aren’t so comprehensive that “they unify every monied interest group in opposition.” It’s unclear whether the bills will pass this year. But there are hopeful signs. “It’s not just the environmentalists against industry anymore,” the legislative insider says. “The private sector is manufacturing green products and wants market advantage, so industry’s voice isn’t as unified. Also, the media and public are more focused on the health effects of chemicals. Citizens are coming to Sacramento to voice their concerns.”

The road had been paved for both Wilson and the legislature by the European Union. In 2007, the European Commission had instituted REACH (the regulation on Research, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemical Substances), with provisions that flip important aspects of U.S. law. For example, REACH requires industrial producers to supply basic health and environmental information, and to prove their chemicals are safe. (Here in the United States, the government must judge chemicals unsafe before they are removed.) EU authorities also retain the right to bar chemicals of “very high concern” unless and until producers can demonstrate that risks can be adequately controlled, or if there are no suitable alternatives.

U.S. agencies and chemicals-industry lobbyists did everything short of provoking an international incident to derail REACH, which affects most American-manufactured chemical exports to Europe. Even now, the Office of the United States Trade Representative website complains that the directive “adopts a particularly complex and burdensome approach that appears to be neither workable nor cost-effective in its implementation and that could adversely impact innovation and disrupt global trade.”

California is the nation’s largest exporter to the European Union. Under REACH, American producers will be forced either to adapt or lose access to the EU market of 27 nations and 490 million people—a reality Wilson’s report made clear. In one case affecting the state, EU legislation restricting toxic electronics components did not bankrupt that industry. But it did force environmentally beneficial change. “Ours wasn’t just a health report, which many expected coming from the School of Public Health. We made an explicit link between solving public and environmental health problems and the need to create new opportunities for clean-tech innovation, investment, and employment,” Wilson says. “Industry is going to be resistant. It’s going to be expensive. But the transition is essential.”

After California state legislators began introducing their green chemistry bills, the state’s Environmental Protection Agency commissioned Wilson to produce a second report, which was published this past January. “Governor Schwarzenegger didn’t want to be out-greened by the legislature,” Wilson jokes. The new report, “Green Chemistry: Cornerstone to a Sustainable California,” was endorsed by 127 faculty members across seven UC campuses, and the Lawrence Berkeley and Livermore National Laboratories. Unlike Wilson’s first 115-page legislative report, the Cornerstone report is a brisk read at 23 pages, with multiple charts and bullet points. At a meeting with industry representatives, Wilson recalls, “One guy actually said to me ‘the problem with this report is that it’s going to be read!’” Megan Schwarzman, MPH ’07, a research scientist at the School of Public Health, co-authored the new report along with colleagues from UCLA. Completing her medical residency at a clinic near San Francisco’s low-income Bayview Hunter’s Point, Schwarzman had grown frustrated treating illness that should have been prevented upstream. “Everyone had asthma,” she says of her patients. “It was like trying to catch the ocean in a teacup.”

The day the Cornerstone report was released by Berkeley’s Office of the President, Wilson and Schwarzman were asked to brief members of two of the state’s largest chemicals trade groups. “The meeting was very tense,” Schwarzman says. “They complained that they hadn’t been consulted.” In fact, Wilson had participated in 35 meetings and conferences while preparing his two reports. He often solicited industry advice about what it needed to ease the transition. “But they’re much more accustomed to shaping the outcome,” he adds.

John Ulrich, head of the Chemical Industry Council of California and convener of that meeting, acknowledges that his trade group has been involved with the process for two years. “We support it, absolutely,” he tells me when we meet at a California EPA public workshop on the nuts and bolts of proposed green legislation. But he says he’s worried about the details—such as the requirement to supply data about chemical compounds. “That gets into confidential business information and requires a company, which may have poured a lot of R&D money into this compound, to essentially give that magic away for free to competitors.” This information, of course, is required by the EU already and is crucial to green chemistry in California. Without it, the “data gap” persists.

Ulrich also argues that the focus should be on chemical exposure and not on hazard. This could not be a more important distinction. Under an exposure standard, it’s the government that must prove a given chemical poses a risk, and at what dose and under what circumstances—which is exactly how toxins have traditionally been regulated. With a focus on hazard, the burden shifts to industry to prove that a compound is safe.

If California goes the exposure route, scientists can endlessly duel over data, which has happened with myriad chemicals of concern. One is bisphenol A, a highly active developmental toxin that is used in numerous plastic consumer products. Studies conducted over the past 20 years have found bisphenol A to be active even at very low doses, causing cancer and affecting fetal brain development. Other studies, most of them industry funded, have found no adverse effects—a stand-off that has kept the chemical in circulation.

If, on the other hand, the threshold for bisphenol A and other chemicals were hazard, a statistically significant result in animal studies that a chemical can have a harmful effect would trigger regulatory action. Period.

In another contentious exchange at the EPA workshop, industry representatives argued for voluntary rather than regulatory measures. Tony Kingsbury is a Dow Chemicals executive currently on leave to oversee the Dow-funded Berkeley Sustainable Products and Solutions Program, associated with both the College of Chemistry and the Haas School of Business. “Government can play a role, but if you put [chemicals policy] in the regulatory realm, if you mandate alternatives, you stifle innovation,” Kingsbury argued at the meeting. Although Ulrich and other industry representatives are on a first-name basis with Wilson and Schwarzman—they met frequently while crafting the report—it’s impossible to miss the great divide that still separates the respective worldviews. Wilson retains the unflappable calm of a first responder—the kind of guy you’d want at the scene of an accident. And he doesn’t back down. “We can choose the path we take. It will require new laws,” he says in response to Kingsbury’s comment. The sides part amicably at the end of the meeting, with industry representatives making plans to meet up for lunch, and Wilson and Schwarzman donning their bike helmets to peddle back to campus.

Wilson’s new path will also require a new generation of scientists trained in green chemistry; yet to date Berkeley’s top-rated chemistry department doesn’t offer any courses on the topic. “You can get a Ph.D. in chemistry or chemical engineering at any of the UC campuses and never have to demonstrate even a rudimentary understanding of toxicology, let alone the principle of green chemistry,” Wilson says. “If we don’t have the chemists, we won’t have the technical chops to come up with solutions, like molecules that don’t accumulate in breast milk,” he says.

That may be changing, though slowly. In the fall, a graduate student will direct a weekly seminar on green chemistry, funded by Kingsbury’s Sustainable Products and Solutions Program. If they can secure more funding, Wilson and Schwarzman will sponsor another graduate student to teach an upper-division undergraduate course in green chemistry next spring.

“The U.S. was a leader in environmental policy until the 1980s,” Wilson points out. If his green chemistry idea gets political traction, he believes California could lay the groundwork for a comeback.

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