The Green Chemistry Narrative

Dr. John Warner begins his presentation with a description and photo of his 11-member family, the 35-cousins who lived within two miles of his childhood home, and his high-school band.

Dr. John Warner

Dr. John Warner

He then takes you through his nearly happenstance run-in with chemistry, and then his meteoric rise into academia and industry — breaking records for the numbers of papers he publishes in high-school, undergraduate and graduate school, and authoring over 100 patents.

Then he shows two photos of a little boy, his son, who passed away at the age of two. He asks you to imagine how he felt the night after his son’s funeral, as he wondered which of the thousands of substances he had handled might have caused the liver condition that killed his child. In all his years of training, of work and of unbridled academic and scientific success, from Princeton University to the the Polaroid Corporation, John Warner had never been required to take a course on toxicity.

Green Chemistry Book CoverI had the privilege to hear John Warner tell his story at a recent Renewable Energy Business Network event at Warner’s company, the Warner Babcock Institute. During the first part of the evening, an informal gathering and networking period, I met Dr. Warner briefly. I probably wasn’t the only one to meet him and then think, “this shy scientist will probably bore us with long descriptions of molecules and elements.” But when he presented, he wove a tale that had his audience mesmerized. His story made me want to go back to high school and take chemistry. More importantly, he demonstrated how to tell a great story, and how to use PowerPoint to complement a verbal narrative. While he covered significant ground about green chemistry, the story was illustrated with the simplest of images and words, including photos of his grandmother and high-school band. And it worked beautifully! (Note that he used no animations or sounds!)

Warner realized some years ago that while toxicity studies are well-funded and ubiquitous (in other words, we are good at figuring out how bad the things we make are for us, and how to regulate their handling), we have missed the boat on creating safe products in the first place. At one point he pulls the name tag off his shirt and says, If I want to study how the adhesive on this tag causes breast cancer, I can get funding easily. But if I want a grant to create a safe adhesive, everyone will love the idea but there’s no money set aside for that kind of work.

Warner’s for-profit and non-profit work focuses on changing that.  He has co-authored THE book on green chemistry: Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, which has been translated into numerous languages and has a strong following the world over. In addition, he leads the charge to change legislation and industrial practices to advance us towards a world where the term “green chemistry” no longer applies — where toxicity study in everything from early chemistry classes to product development provides a fundamental safety level in every product we create and use. As his Web site notes, “His recent patents in the fields of semiconductor design, biodegradable plastics, personal care products and polymeric photoresists are examples of how green chemistry principles can be immediately incorporated into commercially relevant applications.”

Aside from the occasional worry about certain products I learned about through the media, such as BPA, I haven’t given much thought to chemistry. Dr. Warner makes it clear that every product with which we interact, from cosmetics to cars, was designed for function first, and then studied — to a greater or lesser extent — for safety. How alarming! And how reassuring that such a brilliant and talented mind has focused on reversing the trend. More reassuring yet, it’s catching on: Warner’s book has been translated into numerous languages and “green chemistry” has become a key concept in curricula across the country. Pending legislation will ensure greater adoption and move us towards a cleaner, safer world.

Read more about Dr. Warner’s work and The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry.

Read an interesting interview with John Warner on CNET News: “From Blue Collar to Green Chemistry”

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