EPA:

'Green chemistry' guru charting new course for agency science

What do you get when you cross a mad scientist with a bureaucrat?

Paul Anastas.

The assistant administrator of U.S. EPA's Office of Research and Development and the agency's science adviser is a high-strung fast talker who in a recent interview orbited his sprawling office to play show and tell. His favorite prop is a large white board on which he has scribbled seemingly unrelated slogans -- such as "Strategic Imperatives!" and "4-D Matrix!"

But Anastas, 49, is no bug-eyed, wild-haired caricature of an eccentric genius. He is good-humored and friendly and has the carefully coiffed, buttoned-down look of a politician. He also chooses his words with care; he doesn't stray from the agency line and is mindful to heap praise on his bosses, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and President Obama.

To his supporters, Anastas is a creative, big-picture thinker. To his few detractors, he is too big picture, prone to straying from important day-to-day actions. Both sides know him as "the father of 'green chemistry,'" the design of alternative chemicals that pose no risk to human health or the environment.

Since Anastas and chemist John C. Warner penned the principles of green chemistry 20 years ago, the field has expanded rapidly and many believe it holds the solutions to chemical threats to public health and the environment.

Anastas' fans say he is capable of making monumental changes at EPA.

"Inventors are inherently impatient with the status quo," said Charlotte Brody, the director of chemicals, public health and green chemistry at the BlueGreen Alliance -- a partnership of labor and environmental groups. "He's done a very important piece of work in pushing against the limit of current regulatory frameworks. He is moving the agency from a vision of a country that is well regulated to a vision of the country that is sustainable."

Anastas grew up in Quincy, Mass., and holds on to a faint Boston accent and a devotion to the Red Sox. His boyhood home faced wetlands teeming with wildlife.

When he was still a boy, developers destroyed the wetlands to make room for what Anastas called "big glass insurance companies and banks." The buildings left a mark on Anastas.

"My dad was a high school biology teacher," he recalled during a recent interview at his office at EPA's Washington, D.C., headquarters. "He had this 8-year-old on his hands who was pretty upset. One of the things he said was, 'If you really care about something, you care enough to learn about it.'"

Anastas wrote an essay on the wetlands that received a presidential award from Richard Nixon in 1971. The award hangs in his EPA office.

"Perhaps more than anything else," Anastas said of the wetlands, "that set me on the direction of wanting to be a scientist and to think about environmental issues."

Anastas went into chemistry at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and then got a doctorate at Brandeis University. He was doing research there on developing molecules to cure cancer when Roger Garrett , who was then at EPA's Office of Toxic Substances, contacted him.

Garrett brought him to EPA and provided money and a staff, so Anastas shifted course.

"Instead of trying to design molecules so they could either treat or cure cancer," he said, "I'd like to make it so we design all molecules so that they never cause cancer or other toxic effects."

By 1991, Anastas had published the 12 principles of green chemistry that focus on all aspects of a chemical's lifecycle -- from its creation to its disposal. The next step was an EPA research program to prove the principles were scientifically viable.

Fast forward to today, and there are research networks in more than 30 countries around the world dedicated to green chemistry. There are also four international science journals on the topic and college programs popping up across the globe. And, perhaps most importantly, the principles have been adopted by many large chemical manufacturers.

This week, green chemistry academics, regulators, policy analysts and industry representatives will gather at a major conference in Washington, D.C., on the subject. The 15th Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference will be held in concert with the 5th International Conference on Green and Sustainable Chemistry at the Capitol Hilton. Anastas will be a keynote speaker.

Evan Beach, a Yale University chemist who has worked with Anastas, said the principles allow scientists to have a better grasp on the long-term effects of the substances they create.

"It's a way to give chemists more control over the environmental impact of what they are working with," Beach said. "It's empowering. Before it wasn't even part of the education. Now you have these tools at your disposal."

Political guru at 18

For all of his scientist eccentricities, Anastas acquired bureaucratic skills on his first job, as a teenage campaign operative in Massachusetts.

As a "pup," Anastas helped manage the campaigns of city council members as well several state legislators.

"I was 8-0 by the time I was 18," Anastas said.

His political instincts have served him well in earning high-profile appointments and becoming director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale.

"He's not naïve," Brody, of the BlueGreen Alliance, said. "He understands that science exists in a political world."

That ability has also helped him win the plaudits of both environmental watchdogs and industry.

Bill Allmond of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates (SOCMA) noted his members were generally pleased with Anastas' appointment.

"A lot of his principles for green chemistry are ones that SOCMA would agree with," Allmond said. "He's been seen by industry and environmentalists alike as a good choice."

Those same political instincts may also explain some of green groups' frustrations with Anastas. They praise him for his big-picture thinking but want him to take a more active role in the specific agency actions.

In particular, they would like him to weigh in on controversial toxic risk assessments carried out by EPA's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) on substances like formaldehyde, styrene, dioxin and hexavalent chromium -- four suspected carcinogens.

Those assessments, they say, could lead to stricter regulations and a safer environment.

"I would definitely like to see Anastas defend his staff on their assessment of formaldehyde and styrene, especially in light of the '12th Report on Carcinogens' released by the National Toxicology Program that had similar scientific conclusions with the EPA IRIS draft assessments on those two chemicals," said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. She was referring to the program's report last week that classified formaldehyde as a carcinogen and styrene as likely carcinogenic (E&ENews PM, June 10).

Anastas notes that the Office of Research and Development doesn't write regulations and he wasn't inclined to say a chemical manufacturer should be forced to adhere to design guidelines. He also said he has a different view of the agency's role.

"I understand that EPA is thought of as a regulatory agency, but I actually think of EPA as a science agency with regulatory authority. There is a big difference," he said.

"The Office of Research and Development has 2,000 scientists. We have twice as many scientists throughout the agency," Anastas said. "Over 6,000 scientists and engineers are looking at all types of different innovations. So when we're talking about design rules, I'll amend that to ways of thinking about the design of molecules so there is no hazard."

Making 'green chemistry' disappear

Anastas went on to say that green chemistry is now at the point where it has been proven that companies can make money while making safer chemicals.

"This has been demonstrated," he said. "It is no longer an academic or pragmatic question."

Now, Anastas is charged with trying to make green chemistry systematic at EPA and beyond.

This is a transformative time at EPA, he said, and so he is focused "like a laser beam" on his work while still saving some time to spend with his wife and two daughters, Aquinnah and Kennedy.

He said he has a "laundry list" of ways to incentivize green chemistry principles. The main avenue for propelling his idea, he said, is exposing more people to it.

That will be done, he said, through further research in green chemistry and engineering that will serve as models of what can be done. EPA will also continue to be involved, he said, in education programs and through its ongoing presidential green chemistry awards.

"We'll know," Anastas said, "that green chemistry is successful when the term 'green chemistry' disappears because it's simply the way we do chemistry."

Robert Peoples, who has Anastas' former job as director of the American Chemical Society's Green Chemistry institute, said Anastas is "stirring the pot" at EPA.

"He's calling out some of the old ways and some of the old routines and saying we need to do some things differently -- I think that's extremely positive," Peoples said. "He's the right man at the right place at the right time."