Creative Chemistry: Greener Bench Work

Students in lab

The Office of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) oversees our compliance with the use of chemicals in the labs and the disposal of hazardous waste. EHS serves as a resource to the research community and is leading many initiatives toward better practices. One of the best ways to help the planet is to reduce the amount of the most toxic substances used in the lab, or change the types of chemicals used for experimentation. Researchers want to go as green as possible in consideration of the health and safety of the lab staff, as well as helping the earth.

EHS Guide

Weill Cornell Medical College has a four page Waste Minimization guide that helps labs create better policies and practices to reduce pollution from chemical waste disposal. The guide includes internal re-sourcing procedures and is a quick reference guide is a great starting point to organizing the lab to operate in a greener way.

Chemical Substitution Wizard

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has a terrific web-based tool called The Green Chemical Alternatives Purchasing Wizard . The wizard is a guided process that allows the user to search from a select list of solvents commonly used in the laboratory, and the associated process. The Wizard identifies less hazardous and more environmentally benign chemicals or processes that may be substituted, and provides journal references as well as URLs to information that is available online. Users may print article information or have email sent with the URL for the article reference.

Why switch? - Read all about it!

In 2007 book The Secret History of the War on Cancer, Devra Davis, PhD, MPH raised issues regarding the health and environmental impact of multiple exposures to the many chemicals encountered by humans every day, as well as those used in research. The book is an in-depth look at cancer research, challenging the industry to study the environmental causes rather than limiting research to finding a cure. The author also includes some examples of research worker health issues, creating an awareness of the possible risks of scientific work. The detailed analysis and overarching tale of political spin by industrialists make it worth the considerable investment to read the book.

In addition to full length books, there have been many recent articles on greener research. A recent article in Scientist magazine entitled “Green at the Bench: Replacing your lab’s chemical “worst offenders” with less toxic alternatives,” for example, takes a very practical look at some first steps to find the safer practices and less toxic lab chemicals for both the world and our immediate work environment.

For the July 2009 issue of The Scientist, Amy Coombs interviewed experts in the field to look at four chemicals (Ethidium Bromide, Xylene, Mercury, and Formalyn) providing snapshots of how the chemical is used, the major impacts to health and to the environment, as well as providing some suggestions on alternative products. The article points out some problems in making a switch, including proprietary chemical ingredients lists. Recycling is suggested for some chemicals. But in lab recycling can increase exposure to the lab workers if not done with extreme care. Click on the MIT Wizard tool noted above and look up the chemicals that are used in your lab, or type in some the suggestions below, to learn more and link to journal references.

  • Ethidium Bromide: Known mutagen, requiring hazardous waste disposal. Some alternatives: SYBR Safe, GelRed, GelGreen, MegaFluor.
  • Xylene: Volatile organic compound, easily introduced into the air. Some alternatives: AmeriClear, Histoclear, mineral oil.
  • Mercury: Found as trace element in lab chemicals, requires hazardous waste disposal. Some alterntatives: Mercury Free Products (Univ. of Minnesota)
  • Formalyn: Contains formaldehyde. Alternatives not yet identified, some labs are using improved technology to recycle.

If you have a technique or a good source for going green in the lab, contact us and we will post it to this site.

Did you know

NewYork Presbyterian and Columbia have partered with - Greenmarket offering a farmer's market every Tuesday from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm through November on Fort Washington Avenue between 168th and 169th streets.

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