Greening Labs

Students campaign for safer chemicals

Mar 13, 2006

University labs may produce a fraction as much chemical waste as large companies, but kilo for kilo, it can be just as toxic. At MIT, the challenge of finding safer alternatives to toxic lab chemicals is especially daunting. MIT labs are far flung and difficult to monitor centrally. Tight budgets demand that purchased chemicals be as effective as possible. And because researchers are often focused on lab results, with grades and degrees that hang in the balance, they can be reluctant to break with proven methods.

A half-dozen MIT students, faculty, and administrators hope to change researchers’ minds. For the past three years, under the direction of chemistry

professor Jeffrey Steinfeld ‘62, the group has worked to introduce “green chemicals” – biodegradable and less toxic alternatives – into research labs. Initially funded by the Paul M. Cook Innovation Fund in Chemistry, the project last May was given a $40,000 People, Prosperity, and the Planet Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

With support from the EPA, the chemistry department, and MIT’s Environmental Programs Office, undergraduate chemistry students Kendra Bussey ‘05 and Jacqueline Tio ‘06 surveyed a dozen chemistry labs to determine which chemicals represented the greatest hazards in terms of toxicity and volume used. In addition to lists of chemicals, the students collected data about researcher attitudes. “The biggest message was that most graduate students are under so much pressure to produce results that they don’t have time to look for safer chemicals,” says Tio.

To promote healthier lab conditions, project members have compiled information on alternatives for some commonly used solvents at http://web.mit.edu/environment/academic/alternatives.html. An interactive safe-substitute wizard program, with links to MIT’s purchasing system, is in the works. The wizard will be accessible to researchers both within and beyond the MIT community.

Undergraduate biology students have already tried out a green chemical called SYBR Safe as a replacement for ethidium bromide, a mutagen commonly used to stain DNA. Thanks to the EPA grant, a case study about the students’ success with SYBR Safe will be added as a link – along with peer-reviewed papers about other alternative chemicals­ – to the Web-based purchasing system.

The EPA grant will also be used to publicize courses on aspects of green chemistry, such as toxicity training. Project liaison Susan Leite ‘93 of MIT’s Environment, Health, and Safety Office says that drug companies like Pfizer look for that kind of training in prospective employees – proof that being green can pay off both environmentally and financially.