Clunk – goes the falcon tube into the trash. Oh, and some pipette tips too. Heck, the whole pipette tip box. And maybe a few thousand KimWipes. Plus gloves. That should do it!
This amount of waste is not unusual for a single morning of science by one researcher. Maybe a thousand KimWipes is an exaggeration, but we use a lot of them!
After speaking with Nicole Chabaneix last year about her work with World Wildlife Foundation and proposals put forth in the COP21 this fall, I thought a lot about the amount of waste I produce daily. And, even more frightening, the amount of (often hazardous) waste produced annually by the scientific fields as a whole.
Clearly, science is doing a whole slew of positive things for the world. Developing treatments and preventative measures against disease, furthering our understanding of others, employing millions of people, and helping us ask fundamental questions about ourselves and the universe at large. However, these findings come at great cost to our environment. In this mini-series, I hope to bring some of these problems to your attention and offer some small things even the youngest researcher can do to shrink their scientific footprint.
This series was also inspired by PhD student Jessica Murray, who is pursuing her thesis in pharmacological and environmental health. I spoke with her in December about her research and more largely about the environmental effects of science. She is currently studying the impact of diesel exhaust components on human health.
“I’m interested in looking at the metabolic activation of diesel exhaust components. Diesel engine exhaust is a known human carcinogen; it was added to the list of known carcinogens in 2012. It’s a ubiquitous exposure and a big component of air pollution is vehicular exhaust. It also accounts for about 6% of the annual lung cancer burden.”
Jess notes that while 6% may not seem like a large percentage of the lung cancer population, its impact is quite significant given the deadliness of the disease. Interestingly, a low percentage of people exposed to exhaust are ever impacted by it. So the question is: why are only some people susceptible? “We are hoping that by looking at various enzymes that are able to activate certain components and either toxify or detoxify them, we can get an idea of biomarkers for susceptibility.”
In conjunction with her PhD work within the Center for Excellence in Environmental Toxicology (CEET), Jess participates in community outreach work in the Greater Philadelphia area. This past summer, she helped with risk-assessment in Eastwick, PA. “They are right next to the oil refineries, the airport, and a superfund site.”
Superfund Site = Badly polluted region that the government designates as requiring long-term hazardous waste clean-up, starting in 1980
“Community residents are naturally concerned about living next door to a superfund site.”
Some of these superfund sites are filled with lab waste. Prior to the 1970s, there were few restrictions on the dumping of biohazardous waste into landfills, including lab animal carcasses, chemicals, and everything else you can imagine that you throw out on a daily basis in your lab. Although regulations are certainly stricter today, this waste still must go somewhere. To see where waste goes in both the past and present, you can check out TOXMAP from the NIH.
In addition, these facilities disproportionately affect communities with lower socioeconomic status. “No one wants to have a medical waste facility in their backyard, so you can imagine which communities [the waste] is going to go into. The communities that can’t fight against it. It’s unfortunate.”
So, what can individual scientists do to reduce their scientific footprint? In this multi-part series, we investigate what YOU can do to reduce the amount of hazardous materials that make their way into our communities as well as curb other problems stemming from the massive amount of waste we produce.