Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Chemist Shares His Thoughts

I'm one of those people that listens to NPR from the moment I wake up until the moment I turn off the radio in the middle of the night because I just need to get some sleep. I love NPR. I love it. I really do. One of my favorite segments on Friday morning is "This I Believe". People share stories about important things they believe. While it isn't always about activism or global warming or why the irresponsible use of unregulated chemicals are harming our communities and what mass mobilization and engagement can do to stop it, it is comforting to hear how similar we all are in this society.

A couple days ago I was taking a coffee break with a colleague. We were wondering a couple blocks from our office and in front of us were three young boys. Maybe around 12 or 13. They were taunting an older man walking in front of them. They were running around him and screaming in his ear. I watched nervously thinking that this older man should be taking care of himself somehow but he walked quickly pretending this children were not even there. Begging for attention of any kind, they started to throw rocks at the back of his head. At this point I was no longer in control of my own actions. I screamed, "What are you doing?". My mother came out through my flared nostrils and quicken heartbeat and scared the shit out of those boys. The man kept walking and I kept yelling. "What do you think you are doing? Show some respect for yourself. And pull up those pants!!" And as I waited for a reaction, I mean I just yelled at three young boys that could easily have chosen a physical altercation to settle my problem, I thought about the fact that I just told these kids to pull up their pants. As if that was the biggest issue I had.

And they did. They stopped tormenting the older man, pulled up their pants, and crossed the street. My colleague hadn't even noticed what they were doing in front of us, but I had been so upset and felt it was within my place to act that afternoon. I think that what this shows and what the segment This I Believe shows is that we are a closer community then we think. Those kids didn't question my authority, they did what I told them and because I was well within my right that day.

Anyways . . read on.

Asking the Right Questions
by John Warner

Chemist John Warner
Jack Hartzman
John Warner is co-founder of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry in Woburn, Mass., where he develops environmentally benign chemicals. A one-time rock musician, Warner encourages young people to express their creativity by studying science.

"I believe the most important question -- the right question that has not been asked -- is a simple one, really: 'Why?'"

NPR.org, March 24, 2008 · I'm a chemist, and I thrive on laboratory work. In college and graduate school, I would arrive at my lab before the sun came up, and spend 60 hours a week or more there. After graduation, I got a job in industry and my passion for lab work resulted in several patents and the synthesis of countless chemical compounds.

My success, I believed, came in asking the right questions.

As my career evolved, so did my family, but my son John was born with a birth defect called biliary atresia. I spent many nights in the hospital with him. I would review Excel spreadsheets in the wee hours of the night. One file showed my son's blood electrolyte levels, and another file charted how my chemical compounds were performing back at work. By this time in my career I figure I must have synthesized over 2,500 compounds.

This story doesn't have a happy ending. At the age of two, my son John died after a failed liver transplant. I can't begin to describe the anguish that followed - the nights I lay awake wondering how did this happen? No one knows the cause of this disease. What if some chemical I worked on caused my son's illness?

I had prided myself on my ability to make compounds, and on the ability to ask myself the "right" questions. But it hit me, that for eight years of undergraduate and graduate education, at no time in my schooling did I ever have a class in chemical toxicology or environmental impacts of chemistry. Come to think of it, no universities in the world require chemists to learn these things. It's just not in our curriculum. So the people inventing products for industry - people like me - have not been taught how to do it any other way.

Now, I believe the most important question - the right question that has not been asked - is a simple one, really: "Why?" "Why do we have hazardous chemicals?" "Why do we make things the way we do?"

I believe that the right questions are not being asked enough. And perhaps more troubling, the response rings out: "But that's the way we've always done it!" And that is exactly the point. We chemists need to take a look at our relationship with the community we serve, focusing on the cumulative effects of the compounds we release into the environment. We can start by changing how we teach chemistry to future chemists and to the general public.

Society is demanding safer materials, industry wants to make safer materials; the next generation of chemists needs to learn how to do this. We need armies of students to go into chemistry and materials science to learn to invent safer products.

I understand the physiological causes for my son's disease are complicated, and it is very unlikely that my son's illness and subsequent death were linked to any chemicals from my lab. Still, a father can find ways to blame himself when his son dies. Blame won't change the past. But I believe by asking the right questions - by challenging the old assumptions - maybe we can change the future.

Independently produced for NPR Digital Media by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.


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