Faculty to Research Safer Ingredients in Everyday Products
By Karen Angelo
Washing clothes, disinfecting surfaces and using glues – common tasks in everyday life that unfortunately could be exposing people to toxics and harming the environment. Safer substances might exist but do they work as well as the toxics? UMass Lowell researchers are searching for answers with funding from the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI).
“I was very impressed with the proposals from UMass Lowell faculty that addressed potential solutions for Massachusetts industry’s use of toxic chemicals,” said Pam Eliason, TURI’s industry research program manager who implements the academic grant program. “Not only is this research critical to public and worker health, it’s also critical to keep businesses competitive and innovative as global policy restrictions on certain toxics continue to mount.”
TURI awarded $20K each in grants to the following faculty:
Assistant Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan of Plastics Engineering will test safer surfactants for laundry detergents. This is a continuation of last year’s research for which his student received two best poster awards from the American Chemical Society and the Green Chemistry Institute. Nagarajan will collaborate with Alpha Chemical of Stoughton, a manufacturer of cleaning products for institutional and industrial markets. The goal is to identify an alternative to nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), a class of toxic chemicals that are highly toxic to aquatic organisms and break down into the more persistent and toxic nonylphenol chemicals that have been linked to developmental and reproductive disorders and are suspected of disrupting the hormone system. The surfactants that Nagarajan synthesized last year, from natural sources such as fruit pectin, show promise as an alternative to NPEs.
Assistant Prof. Nancy Goodyear of Clinical Laboratories and Nutritional Sciences will evaluate disinfection in homes and hospitals. The goal is to limit worker exposures to toxic commercial disinfection formulations. Working with the TURI Laboratory, Goodyear will evaluate three methods for detecting residual microorganisms from cleaned and disinfected surfaces. The results could lead to a quick and affordable measurement to determine the effectiveness of safer disinfectants such as vinegar.
Associate Prof. Daniel Schmidt of Plastics Engineering will develop and test a safer formulation for adhesives based on plant oils and other less hazardous ingredients. His plans for synthesizing new adhesives include the possibility to create materials that may be diluted and react in neutral aqueous solution. Typical adhesive formulations include isocyanates, which can cause chemical sensitization and asthma, formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, and endocrine disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol A. Schmidt will collaborate with ITW Devcon, an adhesives distributor and manufacturer located in Danvers.
TURI’s research program connects the challenges currently facing industry with the expertise and innovation present at UMass Lowell.
“The requirement to have an industrial partner ensures that I have a reality check on the work – and while it means more effort up front to establish the right relationships, in the end this is really helpful because it allows me to have some confidence that what I’m doing is as practical and relevant to real-world needs,” says Schmidt. “I love pure science, but at the same time I have always been motivated to see my ideas progress beyond the lab and realize the broader impacts of research that are very often described but far less often realized.”