Editor's Note: Paul Anastas, the father of green chemistry, is leaving his high-ranking post at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency next month and returning to Yale University. During an interview with Jane Kay of Environmental Health News, Anastas, who will remain at his post for another month or so, said there has been a "growing realization across EPA" that green chemistry "can meet environmental and economic goals simultaneously." During his two years as science advisor and assistant administrator at EPA's Office of Research and Development, Anastas played a key role in many important decisions and issues, including the use of dispersants during the Gulf oil spill and the agency's long-awaited analysis of dioxin.—Marla Cone, Editor in Chief
Q: Why are you leaving the EPA to return to Yale University?
A: I was just describing to some folks in Washington that people always say they're leaving their positions to spend more time with their family. Sometimes it's actually true. In the confirmation hearings, I was asked why I'd leave a perfect life. I said I considered it to be an extension of my love for my family, for my children. That fact in so many ways was necessary for me to leave them for this time. We've made some important changes at the EPA. It's time for me to go home.
I have a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old. The 1-year-old was born during the Gulf oil spill. Some of the most painful time is spending time in the Gulf of Mexico away from your wife when you have a newborn-to-be. We had a large town hall meeting in the Gulf of Mexico. Someone asked how do we know that you people in Washington care about us in the Gulf. I said I have a 6-week baby and I've been down here for the last five weeks. You can be sure I care what's happening. I've been gone half of my oldest daughter's life, and all of my youngest daughter's life.
Q: How have you instituted the principles of green chemistry at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?
A: The most important thing is that there's been this realization: the only reason to deeply understand a problem is to inform and empower its solutions. The EPA has a long history of understanding how toxic certain chemicals are. There's this realization now we can actually design chemicals and design manufacturing so they are less toxic and less polluting.
I can point to the work that's going on in the labs in Cincinnati developing new manufacturing processes, new synthetic methodologies and new nano materials making sure that you get the new performance without the concerns and the hazards. I can point to our work at Research Triangle Park in computational toxicology, which is informing molecular design to reduce hazards. We're doing it in our internal research, in our research grant programs to universities and in continuing the green chemistry awards that recognize accomplishments. This is part of solution orientation, how you use innovation to generate solution rather than only quantifying the problem. There is a growing realization across EPA that this approach can meet environmental and economic goals simultaneously.
Q: What do you think is your greatest accomplishment at the EPA?
A: My role in advancing the "Green Book" produced by the National Academies of Science. It is one of the best reports that I've ever seen from the NAS, and is something that I'm glad to be a part of. The "Green Book," or "Sustainability and the U.S. EPA," is a tremendously informative and powerful document that has received contributions from representatives of industry, academia, public health and non-governmental organizations. Its recommendations are currently being reviewed and deliberated by the agency this spring as part of the ongoing listening sessions to get people's perspectives about sustainability. The whole point is that we have 25 years of knowledge. This "Green Book" outlines the scientific, technical and analytical way to put sustainability into practice. While it is directed at the EPA, it is far more broadly applicable for people who want to put sustainability into practice.
Q: What still needs to be done at the EPA?
A: We need to strengthen scientific and legal foundations, expand the conversation on environmentalism to communities who have not traditionally been included and introduce innovation into consideration of all of the work that we do.
Q: What are your thoughts on the White House's decision to withdraw a tougher ozone standard?
A: The president takes into account many factors in making decisions. The timing of any actions needs to be considered as well. The science of the ozone assessment is very solid and is never in question. The standards on ozone are ones that the agency will revisit in the future in accordance with the law.
Q: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, in her note announcing your return to Yale credited you, among other things, with leading the EPA's response in the United States to the Fukushima power plant's radiological releases. What did you find?
A: It was an emergency operation basically letting the American people know if there was any radiation contaminating drinking water, rainfall, air or milk based on monitoring all over the country, including Guam and Hawaii. The good news is that, as expected, the levels continued to drop to below background levels. There are no lingering levels of radioactivity for people to be concerned about. The levels were elevated above background during the incident. But we concluded that the levels people were exposed to weren't causing additional risks.
Q: You also had a role in the response and investigation of the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Can you discuss some of the controversies related to the Gulf oil spill?
A: The biggest issue was the use of dispersants. The priority was to stop oil, to collect it, to skim it, to berm it. All of that wasn't enough. We knew the imperative was to keep oil off the precious shoreline. The decision to use dispersants was made, and it was not made lightly. Again, there is the constant task of continuance improvement. Dispersants like any other chemical can benefit from concepts of green chemistry.
It’s appropriate for people to ask questions and have concerns any time you are going to introduce large quantities of chemicals into the environment, which is why we put into effect extraordinary measures to monitor. That’s the reason why all of the precautions were taken -- ongoing constant testing of the toxicity to marine life and dissolved oxygen levels to make sure there wasn't any anomaly that could result in harm. We were making sure the dispersants were doing the job of breaking down the oil into a form that could be digested by microbes. FDA had responsibility for fish quality, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had responsibility for fisheries.
Q: Two decades after discovery of endocrine-disrupting compounds, why has the EPA still not worked out requirements for testing? What are the remaining issues and obstacles?
A: We recognize that it is important. This is one of the areas that hold a great deal of promise for the future. Computational toxicology is one of the emerging research areas that give insight to the toxicity of these types of chemicals, and it can do it at a faster rate and at a lower cost.
Q: What should the EPA do about emerging contaminants such as pharmaceuticals in water?
A: The important thing for anyone concerned about the environment is to understand that we're not going to make the progress we want if we consider chemical by chemical. We have to have a better understanding of the nature of the hazard at the molecular level. Once we have that understanding, we can understand chemicals in terms of families and groups and the risk on humans and the environment. One of the ways is to design them in a different way.
Q: What about the reassessment of dioxin that we have been waiting for the last 20 years?
A: The agency has publicly targeted completing that assessment in 2012.
More about Anastas:
Nominated by President Obama in 2009 to lead the EPA's research division, Anastas was the director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, and the inaugural Teresa and H. John Heinz III Professor in the Practice of Chemistry for the Environment at Yale University. Before that he was the founding director of the Green Chemistry Institute at the American Chemical Society. He began his career as a staff chemist at the EPA, where he coined the term "green chemistry" and became director of the agency's green chemistry program.
Here's a list of the 12 principles of green chemistry.