Back when he repainted a kitchen in his newly purchased Delaware home, Sen. Chris Coons (D) remembers a stench of old oil-based paint so strong the family dog wrinkled its nose and ran away.
Coons and his wife, Annie, used newer latex paint on the kitchen, but the old owners' oil-based paint that was left behind reeked, prompting them to buy a can of turpentine to dilute it. But it got him wondering -- if that was how the dog reacted, what did it mean for his young children?
Because of how the chemical industry developed, whoever invented that particular brand of paint probably was thinking about how well it would work on Coons' walls -- not what would happen when its fumes filled his house, scientists say.
Across the country, scientists are working to change how the chemical industry designs its products, so that researchers inventing the next generation of chemicals avoid the mistakes of the past -- which left companies and communities with environmental liabilities, health problems and Superfund cleanups.
Aided by Coons, the federal government could take its biggest step yet to urge companies to design chemicals by thinking of their health and environmental impacts from the beginning, under language in a pending congressional overhaul to U.S. EPA's regulatory system. But some scientists question if the plan will lead to real changes at EPA.
Though he doesn't sit on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over chemicals policy, Coons pushed to fold part of his stand-alone bill, S. 1447, or the "Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act," into a larger piece of legislation to update the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, S. 697, or the "Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act" (E&E Daily, May 22, 2015).
Lawmakers in the House and Senate are ironing out differences in two related bills as they seek to send final legislation to President Obama soon (E&E Daily, Jan. 7).
Coons' provisions in S. 697 would create an interagency sustainable chemistry program to promote sustainable chemistry research and development, technology transfer and commercialization, among other things. The program would be run by officials from the National Science Foundation and U.S. EPA, while officials from the National Institute of Standards and Technology; the Energy, Agriculture and Defense departments; and the National Institutes of Health would also participate. Within two years, the group would produce a report for Congress on existing sustainable chemistry research and the benefits of expanding and centralizing the activities.
The current lack of attention to chemicals' health and safety profiles at the beginning is "absolutely absurd," said Paul Anastas, director of the Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering at Yale University and a former U.S. EPA assistant administrator.
Anastas likes to use hypotheticals to make the problem more relatable.
An architect wouldn't say, "Oh, I make beautiful, luxurious buildings. Yes, they collapse unexpectedly and kill people, but other people are working on sustainable housing," Anastas said.
The public would hardly tolerate a car designer who thought, "I have the fastest cars in the world, but the tires fall off and they explode, but other people are working on sustainable cars," Anastas added.
Laboratories in Coons' home state produced some of the 20th century's biggest chemical innovations, but the lawmaker says he knows the regulatory system didn't always keep up. Coons was studying chemistry as an undergraduate at Amherst College in Massachusetts in the early 1980s, just a few years after lawmakers passed the original TSCA.
Touted as a big step to protect the public, it was soon criticized as ineffective and toothless.
"Only a handful of compounds have actually been fully and successfully characterized under TSCA," Coons said in an interview. "It hasn't worked."
Aiding industry, and the environment
Coons' career in federal politics started with an assist from the GOP.
In an unusual development for the insular world of Delaware politics, the former New Castle County executive jumped a rung on the ladder when he was elected in 2010, joining the Senate without having held statewide office.
His easy victory came after a GOP primary race in which heavy turnout by conservative tea party Republicans saw unknown activist Christine O'Donnell knock off then-Rep. Mike Castle, a former governor.
O'Donnell's win "really opened things up for Coons to have a much easier first election," said Jason Mycoff, a political science professor at the University of Delaware. "If he had been going against Castle in that first election, there's no way to prove one way or another what would have happened."
Unlike O'Donnell, Coons' connections to Delaware's chemical industry and political circles began when he was young.
After his parents' divorce, Coons' mother married Robert Gore, the chairman of W.L. Gore & Associates, maker of the outdoor fabric Gore-Tex and other performance materials, when Coons was 14.
Coons' time at Amherst College, where he graduated with a degree in chemistry and political science, took him abroad to study in Nairobi, Kenya, and then to the Yale Divinity School, where he earned a Master of Arts degree in religion, specializing in ethics.
After law school, he served as a clerk to Judge Jane Roth of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the wife of former Sen. William Roth (R) of Delaware.
In 1996, Coons joined W.L. Gore as a staff attorney, where he worked on ethics training and government relations.
Gore-Tex, the company's key product, was a big profit generator as a crucial component of many outdoor products, but came with a catch -- it was made with long-chain PFOAs, or perfluorooctanoic acid, the same type of chemical that DuPont Co. used to make Teflon at a Parkersburg, W.Va., plant and that was found recently in high levels in the drinking water of an upstate New York town (Greenwire, Jan. 26). Acting with others in the industry, Gore completed a phaseout of long-chain PFOAs from its products by the end of 2013.
At the time, the company said it was "one of the first companies in the sector to successfully manage the changeover to PFOA-free raw materials for its entire range of textile products."
Both short- and long-chain PFOAs break down slowly in the environment, which concerns environmentalists and regulators. In outdoor products like those made by Gore, PFOAs help repel water and dirt. A study by environmental group Greenpeace released this week found high levels of short-chain PFOA chemicals in a variety of outdoor apparel, including those containing Gore-Tex liner.
"It's a tricky issue," said Arlene Blum, director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "It's a very useful product, but there's a huge potential for harm."
Managing PFOAs has been a challenge for many chemical companies, Coons said, adding that his role at W.L. Gore did not involve making decisions about their use.
In the Senate, Coons uses his scientific and legal experience to translate chemical issues for his colleagues.
Fewer than five senators "have any real training in hard sciences," Coons told the American Chemical Society's Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference in Bethesda, Md., last year.
Coons' efforts to advance sustainable chemistry began in New Castle County, where he and then-Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Collin O'Mara -- now the president of the National Wildlife Federation -- worked with a group of businesses, the Delaware Sustainable Chemistry Alliance, to push companies to integrate sustainability in their research and development processes.
The Hercules Chemical Co., now part of Ashland Inc., was the alliance's first big booster, Coons said, because it saw sustainability as a competitive advantage.
"It's harder chemistry to do," Coons said. "Frankly, the easier chemistry is chemistry that uses volatile organic solvents, that uses petroleum inputs."
Launched in 2010, the alliance is seeking to expand beyond Delaware into the broader Mid-Atlantic region, said Bryan Tracy, the CEO of Elcriton Inc. and the group's president. Tracy's company is working on new bio-based chemicals that can be used to manufacture other substances using less fossil fuels.
The group can make key connections between startup founders and the established leaders they need to secure investment funding and market share, Tracy said.
"It's a very, very difficult task of figuring out who to talk to, who are the decisionmakers, who actually cares about what I'm doing, and how do I sell my technology to them," Tracy said.
Groups like his are especially important because of the steep challenges to breaking through in the established chemical industry, where plants and processes are optimized for the status quo, Tracy said.
In Silicon Valley, people think startups like Uber Technologies Inc. or Lyft are "disruptive," Tracy said, but sustainable chemical companies face longer odds to go up against traditional chemical manufacturing processes, which are cheaper but not always beneficial for the planet.
"Gasoline is cheaper than water right now," Tracy said.
Solving a 'weird' problem
Though many experts praise Coons' TSCA provisions as an important step, others note it's just the beginning.
Debate remains over to what extent the legislation would force changes at EPA. The text also does not define the term "sustainable chemistry," which some scientists said could create confusion. Tracy said one might assume the United Nations' definition of sustainability applies -- something that provides "for a decent standard of living for everyone today without compromising the needs of future generations."
To get his plan on the larger TSCA bill, Coons had to leave out provisions to create a grant program for sustainable chemistry, which would have needed annual appropriations. Though new spending can face a tough road from austerity-minded politicians in Washington, D.C., many scientists say the proposed grants were the most effective part of the original "Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act."
Others warn that some language may not do enough to change the status quo at EPA.
The concern is that the text could be "so broad and so nebulous that it covers what you're already doing anyway," in the industry and at EPA, said one scientist familiar with the issue who did not want to be named.
"These things don't happen by accident," the scientist noted.
Speaking at a recent green chemistry forum on Capitol Hill, scientists say they were surprised that at some high-profile universities, no green chemistry courses are available. Most blame the gap on the chemical industry's evolution amid a focus on performance and cost, but not a substance's environmental or safety profile.
Often, the corporate chemists designing new chemicals may have never taken a course in toxicology, which could help them understand if they should tweak their inventions to prevent future health or environmental damage, the scientists say.
Coons compares the field to green building. By his logic, not offering training in these principles would be like not telling architects what building materials are more sustainable, or which techniques reduce energy usage in a new structure.
While studying for her doctorate in organometallic chemistry at Yale University in the mid-2000s, Adelina Voutchkova, now a professor at George Washington University, said she was shocked to find few options for pursuing a sustainable angle to her studies.
"I was surprised that green chemistry wasn't something we had in our curriculum, even at an Ivy League university," Voutchkova said at the forum.
Similar programs, she noted, are fairly common in Europe and Canada. The United States, meanwhile, has been "very slow" to change course curricula to encourage sustainable chemistry, Voutchkova said.
This "weird aberration" is harmful to the field, said John Warner, president and chief technology officer of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry.
"The reason we have unintended consequences is not because people wanted to do evil things," Yale's Anastas said, "it's that they were trying to do the right things and did them wrong without thinking about it."