Published 2019-10-07

This post is also available in Swedish

Mistra SafeChem to change views of chemistry and chemists

In the late summer, Mistra SafeChem, Mistra’s largest programme to date, got off to a quiet start. Members of the programme management have held meetings with the participating companies.

Foto: Jonas Tobin

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‘There’s a lot of commitment in the group, which is particularly noticeable among the companies involved. They don’t just have a narrow interest in the parts that concern them personally: they’re also interested in the big picture. I think that’s key,’ says Programme Director John Munthe. He is affiliated with IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute, which belongs to the consortium and is the programme’s main contractor.

Universities and institutes in Sweden and Denmark are also participating. Swedish chemical and pharmaceutical industries are represented in Mistra SafeChem by AstraZeneca, Perstorp and Nouryon, for example.
The Mistra SafeChem research will take a holistic view of the chemicals in our environment. In various work packages, scientists and companies will investigate the entire chain, from the design stage itself (where chemicals are developed) to life-cycle analyses, which also include circularity issues.

‘The overall goal is that people, animals and nature must be less exposed to hazardous chemicals,’ Munthe says.

One of the work packages will involve developing new methods and processes to better assess the various risks of chemicals. How they, individually and in groups, affect the environment and people from a lifecycle perspective, and the nature of various thresholds and their implications in various environments, will be investigated. The scientists will also propose ways of replacing hazardous chemicals and processes.

Ian Cotgreave of Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) will lead this group, which consists of researchers from five parts of RISE and from IVL, ChemSec and Stockholm University. Cotgreave himself comes from the pharmaceutical industry where, he argues, there are particularly good skills to make such assessments.

‘Demands on those involved in drug development are and have been stringent. They’re looking for potent chemicals that affect humans but whose undesirable effects are limited and under control. That’s been the driving force in toxicology,’ he says.

Experts from the former Swetox institute were absorbed by RISE and are now at Mistra SafeChem’s disposal. These are people with long experience from the pharmaceutical industry.

‘During AstraZeneca’s time in Södertälje, a core of highly experienced and skilled risk assessors emerged. That core has persisted, and it remains,’ Cotgreave says.

Green chemistry, another theme in Mistra SafeChem, is coordinated by Lennart Bergström, Professor of Materials and Environmental Chemistry at Stockholm University. Green chemistry is a different way of viewing chemicals. The aim is to develop principles to reduce environmental impact, and ways of producing chemicals with efficient processes that generate minimal residual products.

‘‘Chemical production is used to make pharmaceuticals, advanced materials and much more. It’s been successful there, but it’s also associated with environmental problems,’ Bergström says.

With support and backing from industry, work in the fourth work package will include developing new waste-free production processes of commodity chemicals, methods of detecting and removing small particles in engine oils, and circular solutions for textile recycling.

‘It’s clear that the chemical industry wants this,’ Bergström says.

He plans to focus on strategic coordination. First, he wants to strengthen the links between organic chemistry and toxicology. Second, he aims to change the fundamental view of what chemistry is among students training to be chemists. Mistra SafeChem will have a system-changing effect on chemistry education.

‘I think we need to train up different kinds of chemists in future. They’ll have a better and deeper understanding of sustainable chemistry and toxicology, and a different skills profile, more appropriate for today’s challenges. I also hope it will result in more people wanting to become chemists,’ Bergström says.

For the first four years, the programme will focus on research and collaboration with the companies involved.
‘Here in the first phase, we haven’t focused so much on policy issues, but we will in a possible next phase,’ Munthe explains.

‘For many of the questions we deal with, Implementation requires policy changes, and we’re going to invite relevant government agencies, such as the Swedish Chemicals Agency, to take part in the work.’

One key task is to build a stable organisational structure for the programme. This will comprise scientific and administrative management and a programme board. The research organisations and participating companies alike must be represented in the programme management and governance.

‘Those of us who were most involved in writing the application are forming an interim programme management, with me as the programme director, since we have to take responsibility for getting this started. In the meantime, we’ll also review the kind of stable long-term programme management we need, and probably recruit a new programme director.’