Environmental Chemistry

Toxicology in the NGO Space: My Internship at the NRDC

I really didn’t know what to expect when I started my internship at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) San Francisco office in September, 2017. Sure, I’d had a good interview and discussed a handful of interesting potential projects with my future supervisor, Dr. Miriam Rotkin-Ellman – but on that first day, I didn’t know what it meant to do advocacy work as a scientist. This isn’t a fault of the NRDC, but rather, an artifact of the academic structures that guide fledgling scientists through their doctoral research: advocacy just isn’t on the curriculum. In my (highly-subjective) experience most discussions among Molecular Toxicology PhD students and their advisors, professors, or mentors emphasize the intellectual prestige of staying in academia. These discussions present a false binary: you can stay in the ivory tower and remain a “real” scientist, or you can sell out and flee to industry where all the money is. A few of the more open-minded professors might concede the existence of a third option – government work – but using my training to support an advocacy organization isn’t even a consideration.

Fortunately, my research interests had led me to the Berkeley Center For Green Chemistry (BCGC), which would, in turn, lead me to the NRDC. The BCGC is a interdisciplinary organization by necessity, and it is due to the expansiveness and complexities of the field. Green chemistry is a highly integrative field that uses elements of engineering, physics, and toxicology to improve human and environmental health from a chemistry perspective. To fully achieve the promise of this gestalt discipline, however, we must consider not only which chemicals are used and in what their effects are, but also why are they used in the ways that they are, and what are the social, economic, and regulatory forces that foster their use. By addressing these questions through coursework, internships, mentorship, and seminars, the BCGC helps toxicology researchers like me place chemicals in their proper societal contexts, and highlights the power of toxicological research outside the lab.

Interning at the NRDC these past few months has been an incredible opportunity to contextualize my work on chemical hazard assessment within the vast and sprawling maze that is the US chemicals regulatory system. Much like the cells that make up the human body, chemicals regulation is a complex and dynamic network of systems within systems. Just as cells take in food and nutrients to produce energy and biological molecules, various groups such as companies, government groups, and advocacy organizations apply inputs to the chemical regulatory system with the hope of achieving a desired output. In most cases it is, either the prohibition or the exoneration of a chemical used in commerce. In the case of chemicals regulation, inputs may include public health studies, lobbying efforts, court cases, science advisory panels, and public comments. These create myriad and subtle changes throughout the systems within systems. While I’d had a vague sense of the complexity of this regulatory ecosystem due to my public health training, it wasn’t until I was in the thick of it that I truly understood its sophistication and scope. At the NRDC, I learned quickly about the different actors involved, and where they fit in; I learned about the legal frameworks and policies that gave structure to the ecosystem; I learned about the places where science and law were most applicable, and that they weren’t often the same places; and finally, I learned about new possibilities for applying my training as a toxicologist.

Working with Dr. Kristi Pullen Fedinick, my primary project required me to assess a new model that the EPA has proposed as an alternative testing method for an androgen disruption screening assay, and to determine its strengths and weaknesses. On its surface, the project seemed straightforward: decide if this model works well enough as a replacement for an existing test and provide an assessment in time for a science advisory panel at the EPA headquarters in Washington DC – a panel that the NRDC sent me to attend. Below the surface, however, there were several aspects of the project which carried much greater weight when placed in the context of the present regulatory environment, the most significant of which also featured prominently in my dissertation: the applicability of high-throughput screening (HTS) methods for chemical hazard screening.

HTS methods for chemical testing use advances in robotics to automate biochemical tests such that they can be conducted rapidly and in high volume; this allows thousands of chemicals to be tested fairly quickly and is common practice in the pharmaceutical industry as researchers hunt for new potential drugs. The EPA and other regulators have been expanding their use of HTS for years in an effort accelerate the pace of regulatory decision-making and to address a backlog of tens of thousands of chemicals for which very little hazard data is available. Scaling the testing process also has the benefit of significantly lowering the cost of testing. Certainly, HTS is the most practical solution to chemicals testing and is likely to play a significant role in hazard assessment for years to come. There remain significant limitations to the technology, however, in the use of HTS for regulatory purpose – as Dr. Pullen Fedinick and I determined during our evaluation of the Androgen Receptor (AR) Pathway model proposed by the EPA.

Dr. Pullen Fedinick and I are currently developing a manuscript based on our considerations of HTS used in regulatory practice, but there are a few simple conclusions that we derived over the course of my internship. The most significant point is that HTS only accommodates very simple assays that are not capable of recapitulating the complexity of biological systems. Put simply: a cell is not a person, and a single receptor does not a biochemical pathway make. Our evaluation of the EPA’s AR pathway model convinced us that even a dozen or so assays were not sufficient to capture the tremendous complexity of the endocrine signaling process, and that while HTS may be useful to supplement the hazard assessment procedure, it should not be used in lieu of standard tests. Additionally, HTS is still quite limited in terms of the “chemical space” that it can be used to evaluate, that is, metals and chemicals at the far ends of the spectrum of water solubility may not be suitable for HTS testing strategies.

In 2016, Congress passed a massive piece of legislation to update the rules for chemicals testing in the United States, and as I learned during my internship, precedent plays an outsized role in our country’s legal system. The initial implementation of this regulatory scheme, then, will have enormous consequences for the law’s future use. Given the speed and cost of HTS methods, it is easy to see their appeal in chemical hazard assessment, particularly as the EPA considers how it will employ the new rules at its disposal. Unfortunately, HTS has many limitations, and if it is not used judiciously, the potential to erroneously classify a chemical as “safe” or even “low priority for future testing” is great. This could allow hazardous chemicals to slip through the cracks and not be detected as dangerous for years following their misclassification. Therefore, in this context, it is vital that toxicologists work with advocacy organizations and regulators to ensure that chemical hazard testing is conducted in a scientifically-robust and responsible fashion to ensure the greatest possible protection of human and environmental health.

I may not have known what to expect on my first day at NRDC in September, but the last three months have given me invaluable perspective on the role of my work in the broader societal context. The work was difficult at times, but always interesting, and certainly nothing like anything I’d learned in any of my courses. I am now convinced that advocacy is an incredibly important and interesting career path for toxicologists, and that toxicology students at all levels would benefit from an earlier introduction to such opportunities. I’m extremely grateful to Drs. Rotkin-Ellman and Pullen Fedinick for their mentorship and guidance during my time at NRDC and to the Wareham Group for providing support funding. And I’m excited to be joining the ranks of the BCGC in January, where I will continue to work on challenging problems related to chemicals, society, and human and environmental health.

Environmental Chemistry

Cultivating an Environmental and Human Health Assessment Framework for Additive Manufacturing: A Journey from an Academic/Industry Partnership to a Consortia-Supported Model by Justin Bours

There often comes a point in a science graduate student’s academic career when the desire to step outside the ivory tower becomes inexorable: one step outside of academia toward industry partnership opens up a path that is tantalizingly tangible and impactful. When I took that step, I went on a journey of discovery that ultimately led to a maturing framework for measuring the environmental and human health impacts of additive manufacturing (AM) which has garnered both industry and academic credibility.

Stage 1: Initiate academic/industry collaboration

My path began with taking the Greener Solutions course at UC Berkeley, sponsored by the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC). The class brought together graduate students to solve a green chemistry issue proposed by an industry partner. The feeling of making a tangible impact by leveraging my scientific knowledge was exciting and led me to seek more of these collaborations.

In the Fall of 2014, Autodesk approached BCGC to enlist their help in understanding the health effects of the AM resins they had developed in conjunction with their stereolithography (SLA) printer, Ember. Having sought out BCGC after the Greener Solutions course, I was subsequently tasked by then BCGC director Martin Mulvihill to tackle the issue. We formed a team with Tom McKeag, BCGC’s current director, and collaborated with a wide coalition of talented staff at Autodesk, including Dawn Danby, Susan Gladwin, and Brian Adzima. The initial challenge was limited in scope: how do the health impacts of Autodesk’s PR48 resin compare to those of other stereolithography resins? Further, how can bio-inspired design and knowledge of molecular structure lead to improvement?

Stage 2:  Explore solution to initial problem, reevaluate goals and comprehensiveness of solution

The results of our investigation were that Autodesk’s PR48 was best-in-class among SLA resin-types, but molecular structural elements, such as a bio-derived polymer backbone, could lead to improvements in health impacts. While a solution was achieved, it left much to be desired. My desire to improve tangible health outcomes and Autodesk’s desire to be a leader in sustainability led to interest in a more comprehensive solution. The goals for this comprehensive solution included:

  1. Create more informed decision making: create a tool that allows for easy comparison between materials/technologies.
  2. Allow for identification of improved processes, materials.

With these goals in mind and from analysis of the initial problem, we knew we had to take into account that AM technology and its materials are unlike others in their effects:  they create new exposure pathways, they lead to a dispersed distribution of waste, and they can potentially put sensitive populations at risk . Additionally, there is a large variety of different technologies, making one-to-one comparisons challenging. This shifted the focus from solely health effects to those who are affected. Moreover, determining who is affected required using life-cycle thinking.

Thus, we sought to define the life cycle stages of AM technologies through this new framework. This would inform who is affected and how, thereby guiding the specific tools used to measure the important impacts at each life cycle stage (i.e. chemical hazard assessment, sustainable materials management). During the development of this framework, Autodesk enhanced its academic collaboration with BCGC by partnering to create their own Greener Solutions course challenge. In it, they tasked students to develop novel green material solutions for SLA and utilize the framework to make sure that the two main goals were being achieved.[1]

Stage 3:  Reach a wider audience and gain academic credibility – publish results

With an opportunity offered by the Journal for Industry Ecology to publish our work in a AM-focused issue, there was greater impetus to further develop this framework. After all, academic affirmation of such a framework would enhance its credibility and validate its ability to adequately measure the impacts of AM. The framework and an example of its ability to compare two different AM materials/technologies was published in May of 2017.[2],[3]

Stage 4: Refine results and reach an even wider audience by getting feedback from key stakeholders

The framework was also generating interest from non-profit entities. Lauren Heine, co-creator of GreenScreen and head of Northwest Green Chemistry (NGC), had experience in collecting stakeholders in the development of human health and environmental indicators/frameworks and approached Autodesk with an interest in further developing the framework. BCGC, under the new direction of Tom McKeag, was also interested in developing the framework further. Thus, I was tapped to lead that development with the support of NGC and BCGC. In addition to strengthening certain elements such as end-of-use metrics, we sought out an extensive list of key stakeholders involved in AM systems and materials from industry, academia, government and NGOs, as well as experts of sustainability tools such as life-cycle assessment (LCA) and chemical hazard assessment (CHA). We then presented a summary of the most up-to-date framework, with the goal of obtaining feedback on how to improve it.

The result from the first roundtable discussion with stakeholders was a set of agreements, as well as concerns, about the goal of an appropriate assessment tool that supports decision making for material selection and product design. The agreements included the following:

  1. Results should be simple and visual
  2. There will always be tradeoffs and imperfect information
  3. Tradeoffs should be transparent
  4. No one assessment tool can provide all of the answers on sustainability.

Stakeholders were particularly concerned about the following:

  1. At what scale and scope of the assessment can a comparison be performed (i.e. how does one account for quantity of prints, can you compare materials between technologies?)?,
  2. How can all the variables that enter into decision making that includes metrics beyond sustainability (cost, function, performance) be balanced?
  3. How is a material reutilization or circularity addressed?

Stage 5:  Based on feedback from initial consortium, create and present a variety of prototypes that are modulations of the initial framework

The feedback from the roundtable discussion led us to bring in additional subject matter experts (SMEs) such as Alysia Garmulewicz who has authored papers on how 3D printing can unlock value in the circular economy [4], and Jeremy Faludi, an LCA expert, and former BCGC SAGE fellow, who has written numerous publications[5],[6],[7] on measuring the environmental impacts of AM using LCA. With Jeremy’s guidance, we determined that to best address the concerns in the previous discussion, we should create several different prototypes of modulated frameworks that target the concerns specifically. In our second discussion call with the stakeholder group, we discussed these prototypes and the feedback we obtained has allowed us to further refine the framework and the path forward.

Stage  ?: What’s Next

Throughout this process, the goals have remained the same – all involved hope to create a decision-making framework that 1) allows for easy, appropriate comparison between AM materials/technologies and 2) allows for identification of improved processes, materials. The form and breadth of that decision-making framework has yet to be determined, whether as a tool for government policy, as an internal tool for AM industry to make decisions, or as a standard like EPEAT or Cradle to Cradle Certified that AM industry can adopt to verify the safety and sustainability of their materials/printers. All remain exciting possibilities, however. What is certain is the great potential impact of academic and industry collaboration to create change-making mechanisms for improving the impacts of materials and technologies on our health and the environment.  So, for those peaking outside their ivory tower windows, or those in industry peaking inside, take a leap and prepare for a fruitful journey of discovery!


[1] See Autodesk’s blog posts about this collaboration in a three part series: 1, 2, 3.

[2] Bours, J., B. Adzima, S. Gladwin, J. Cabral, S. Mau. 2017. Addressing Hazardous Implications of Additive Manufacturing: Complementing Life Cycle Assessment with a Framework for Evaluating Direct Human Health and Environmental Impacts. Journal of Industrial Ecology. DOI: 10.1111/jiec.12587.

[3] Academic feedback was further garnered from presentation of the work at the Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference in June of 2017.

[4] Despeisse, M., M. Baumers, P. Brown, F. Charnley, S.J. Ford, A. Garmulewicz, S. Knowles, T.H.W. Minshall, L. Mortara, F.P. Reed-Tsochoas, J. Rowley. 2017.Unlocking value for a circular economy through 3D printing: a research agenda. Technological Forecasting & Social Change  115: 75-84.

[5] Faludi, J., C. Bayley, S. Bhogal, and M. Iribarne. 2015. Comparing environmental impacts of additive manufacturing vs traditional machining via life-cycle assessment. Rapid Prototyping Journal 21(1): 14–33.

[6] Faludi, J. 2016. Estimating the environmental impacts of widespread additive manufacturing. Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

[7] Faludi, J., T. Hoang, M. Mulvihill, and P. Gorman. 2016. Aiding alternatives assessment with an uncertainty-tolerant hazard scoring method. Journal of Environmental Management 182: 111–125.

Environmental Chemistry

Where are SAGE Fellows Now? October’s Feature

Every month we will be posting updates on current and previous SAGE fellows. This month’s feature fellows are Jeremy Faludi and Jennifer Lawrence.

Jeremy Faludi has just started as an assistant professor of engineering at Dartmouth.  There he is continuing his research on the environmental impacts of 3D printing; his chapter in the OECD book “The Next Production Revolution” was published over the summer, and he now has a PhD student beginning to investigate compostable biomaterials that enable low-energy 3D printing (rather than melting plastics or metals).  He also continues his work on green product design methodology.  He recently presented a paper at the ICED conference, “What Green Design Activities and Mindsets Drive Innovation and Sustainability in Student Teams?”   Finally, he has a grant from VentureWell to add sustainable design training to their website, encouraging university entrepreneurs to invent greener products and services.  He is interested in finding partners for research projects related to sustainable design methods and green 3D printing.

Jennifer Lawrence is interested in the development of microbial technologies for sustainable water and wastewater treatment.  She is currently a PhD Candidate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, within the Alvarez-Cohen Research Group.  There, she is studying the interactions among microorganisms within an anaerobic ammonium oxidation (anammox) reactor to better understand the reactor’s performance.  Ultimately, this research will inform and increase the efficiency of reactive nitrogen removal from municipal wastewater effluent streams.

Since 2015, Jennifer has also been an active member of the Engineers Without Borders – San Francisco Professional Chapter, and in 2017 she became co-manager of the Fiji Project Team.  In collaboration with her team members, Jennifer is working with a rural Fijian community to improve their access to safe and reliable drinking water through the implementation of small, community-led water improvement projects.


Alternatives assessment frameworks

A big part of implementing green chemistry in industry is the task of identifying and selecting product or process chemistries that are safer, less resource-intensive, and also functionally better than those we currently use. That involves complex judgments and comparisons with many dimensions. Figuring out how to make multifaceted comparisons to support scientifically informed judgments is the domain of alternatives assessment (AA). Anyone involved in green chemistry should be familiar with this idea.

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Environmental Chemistry

Meet the SAGE Trainees!*Updated*

The SAGE IGERT Fellowship at BCGC supports UC Berkeley graduate students conducting research related to green chemistry and green energy. The fellowship began in 2013 and now, two years later, there are nineteen trainees and alum doing amazing green work on campus.

We went out to speak to them about their research…and a few other fun things. We asked all the trainees to describe their work in the simplest terms possible: using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language (thanks to the Up-goer text editor). We also asked the students for a recommendation–a bright new green idea in the world that they’re excited about–and got some great responses. So click through the gallery and get to know the BCGC SAGE IGERT trainees!