What toxins lurk in your cell phone?
Ten years ago, Willamette Riverkeeper asked environmental writer Elizabeth Grossman to research and author a report on Willamette water quality. What she found came as a huge surprise: toxins from our everyday high-tech devises, like computers and cell phones, had become a major source of local water pollution.
As part of PSU’s Earth Week celebration, Grossman visited Portland State on Tuesday to discuss her decade-long research that has led to two books and numerous articles about the effects of toxic products on human and environmental health.
Grossman highlighted our society’s tendency to value longevity and durability—historic buildings, national monuments, ruins of ancient civilizations. Following suit, modern manufacturers create everyday products from durable chemical compounds. The problem is, many modern products containing these chemicals are not designed to last for generations.
Think about the lifespan of a plastic sandwich bag: one lunch, cell phone: maybe one year, or computer: five years if you’re lucky. “We’ve taken these very durable chemicals meant to last a really long time, and put them into short-lived products,” Grossman said.
Historically, conservation efforts have focused around cleaning up large-scale pollution sources—toxic sewage pipes or factory smokestacks pumping out black soot. But society has changed, and with it our pollution sources have changed. Much of our current toxic pollution comes from everyday household products, leaving us to figure out new approaches for dealing with these hazards.
According to Grossman and other proponents of green chemistry, conservation efforts should be focused on prevention, designing materials and products with potential hazards in mind. By educating and training scientists differently (interdisciplinary education, anyone?) our 21st century product designers will be able to create useful products while diminishing or eliminating adverse effects on society and the environment.
"Instead of stopping pollution after it's occurred, we have to stop it before it's occurred. And that's the basic idea behind green chemistry."