Towards Greener Chemistry


By Jason Turgeon:

As a regular part of my job, I visit large industrial sites (mostly sewage treatment plants-yum!). This means that I have to have an OSHA certification in worker safety. Every year, my employer hires a trainer to give us an 8-hour health and safety refresher so that our OSHA certification will be valid. It's the same guy every year, and he does a good job of trying to keep it fresh for us by changing his presentations. Usually this means lots of gross-out pictures of people with burns, snakebites, and various amputations, interspersed with humorous clips of worker safety from shows like Saturday Night Live.

This year, he showed us a couple of minutes from a disturbing documentary called Bhopal: The Search for Justice. Without delving into the specifics of this truly horrifying tale of politics and greed, let's just say it was a nice segue for him to then get us to take a look at the NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards that he'd placed on every table. As we took a quick quiz to see if we could use the guide to correctly identify the proper personal protective gear we'd need in case we had to deal with a spill of Ethylene bromide or Methyl isocyanate (the chemical that killed perhaps 4,000 people in Bhopal), I couldn't help thinking that something is seriously wrong with the way we make things in modern industrial society.

The NIOSH guide contains information on 677 chemicals or groups of chemicals. Every single one of these chemicals, by virtue of its inclusion in the guide, is hazardous to human health or safety. But the chemicals listed in the guide are only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of chemical compounds that are floating around out there, the really bad ones that can kill thousands of people instantly if something goes wrong. The guide doesn't list the more insidious ones, like the current chemical-of-the-month, bisphenol A, or BPA. BPA is found in all kinds of plastics that are supposed to be food safe, like Nalgene bottles and baby bottles. But–surprise, surprise–it turns out that this is yet another barely pronounceable chemical that might not be good for you.

McDonough and Braugart spent a good chunk of their book Cradle to Cradle taking a hard look at the chemical industry. They wanted to know why so many industries insisted on using nasties like methyl isocyanate (used in the manufacture of rubber products and adhesives) and BPA even though these products certainly offer no value to the end user. The ability of my rubber cement manufacturer to kill a couple of thousands of people is not a selling point for me any more than the chance that you might increase your child's risk of cancer is a selling point when you're choosing a baby bottle. The usual excuse is that “it costs too much” to find an alternative, but we all know that's a pretty flimsy excuse.

Enter Lean. Most of these manufacturers are looking at the cost of the individual compounds they have to purchase to make their products. The safety measures that went into building the plants are sunk costs, and the decision-makers at the top are hard-pressed to see how experimenting with something that works is good for them. To complicate matters, to change their practices might mean admitting that they were doing something wrong, something bad for human health and the environment, in the first place. But a good Lean practitioner should be able to guide management towards greener chemical practices.

When you take away a toxic chemical and replace it with a green alternative, the cost of the substitute can't be the only comparison. What about the costs of all the associated Tyvek suits and specialty gloves? What about the fire-suppression system that can now be deactivated? What about the lower insurance bills for your employees and the reduced sick-time that comes from working with these chemicals? The elimination of the need to train people to safely work with these chemicals and the commensurate regulatory burden? The costly wastewater treatment system to handle the leftovers? The air-purifiers, the odor control complaints, and the explosion hazards that come from working with VOCs?

As we face mounting evidence that the thousands of chemicals we're using in manufacturing today are bad for the environment and for human health, either individually or in the aggregate, there are fewer and fewer excuses to carry on with business as usual. As the corals continue to die, and cancer rates continue to rise, it's time that we finally get industry on board with green chemistry, what the LA Times calls a Green Revolution. Regulation alone won't fix this problem–we need real buy-in from the industrial and manufacturing sectors. That's where Lean practitioners can really help.

Next time you find yourself in the field, whether a hospital or a factory, take a look around at the various chemicals in use and ask if there is a way you could use Lean to help replace them with a green alternative. If you're not sure where to start, why not check out the Cradle to Cradle folks' list of certified C2C products? For a more detailed take on what a traditional product could look like after it's been Leaned and Greened, here's a great write-up of a mattress company that's not only eliminated the polyurethane and formaldehyde common in our beds, but has also figured out a great way to reduce wasted energy and space in shipping the mattresses (let's just hope the bed's comfortable).

By the way, the NIOSH guide could use a complete revamp from Edward Tufte. Most of the highly trained professionals in that room failed to correctly identify the proper safety gear and/or hazards for at least 2 or 3 of the 10 compounds we were supposed to identify, even when working in teams of 2 or 3. It's not that we didn't care, it's that the guide is very hard to read, full of abbreviations, footnotes, asterisks, and involving lots of page-flipping. It's not something I'd want to rely on in an emergency, and I'm sure that the error-proofing crowd out there could find plenty of ways to improve this.

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