How green is your bromination reaction?

How green is your bromination reaction?

By Diya Zhu: Symposium Coordinator for the GCI

Electrophilic bromination is a common type of reaction in undergraduate organic laboratories. In these experiments, we rarely use Br2 as a bromine source. Why? This dense brownish-red liquid is a pain in the butt for a few reasons. First of all, it fumes. Once you open the bottle, orange fumes start migrating everywhere. Without efficient ventilation, soon you will smell an offensive and suffocating odor. Second, bromine is corrosive to human tissue as a liquid and its vapours irritate the eyes and throat. Moreover, with inhalation, bromine vapours are very toxic. Third, bromine is very dense, with a density of 3.1 g/cm3, which makes it very difficult to measure and transfer.

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Figure 1. A bottle containing bromine.1

Instead, N-bromosuccinimide (NBS) is often used as a brominating and oxidizing agent in various electrophilic addition, radical addition, and electrophilic substitution reactions. Pure NBS is a white crystalline solid with a melting point of 175-180 oC. Even though it’s a solid and easier to handle, you still need to be careful when working with NBS. Due to the higher electronegativity of nitrogen, the Br atom is partially positively charged and thus electrophilic, ready to be attacked by a nucleophile (eg. an alkene).

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Figure 2. N-bromosuccinimide (NBS)

NBS will form bromonium ions with alkenes, and when an alcohol or water is added, it will attack the bromonium ion, which will generate bromohydrins. Importantly, the nucleophilic attack only happens on the face opposite the bromonium ion.

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Figure 3. Alkene reaction with NBS showing the bromonium ion and attack of water to form a racemic mixture.

Usually, when undergraduate students preform this experiment, we also emphasized the importance of Green Chemistry. Green chemistry and its 12 principles help to improve conventional reactions. For example, increasing the efficiency of synthetic methods, reducing the steps of synthesis, and minimizing toxic reagents and solvents. In the formation of bromohydrins, compared to using Br2, NBS is less hazardous.  Also, water or alcohol can be used as the solvent which eliminates the use of organic solvents, especially chlorinated solvents.

However, the use of NBS also creates by-products. For example, succinimide and the very strong hydrobromic acid. It also has a reduced atom economy, since only one Br atom of 8 atoms in a NBS molecule is used in bromination.

With all of this taken into consideration, can it be concluded that NBS is a greener alternative to Br2? What do you think, and which reagent will you be reaching for in your next bromination experiment?

References:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bromine
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Green Chemistry Principle #12: Inherently Safer Chemistry for Accident Prevention

By Brian De La Franier, Member-at-large for the GCI

  1. Inherently Safer Chemistry for Accident Prevention: Substances and the form of a substance used in a chemical process should be chosen to minimize the potential for chemical accidents, including releases, explosions, and fires.

In the 12th and final video of the GCI series on the 12 principles of green chemistry, Gabby and Qusai investigate the 12th principle on inherently safer chemistry and note several common issues found in many labs.

The 12th principle is frequently called the safety principle and is often overlooked when considering green chemistry principles.  However, the broad nature of the 12th principle means it both incorporates many of the other principles and is almost impossible to achieve without considering all 12 of them, given that the overall goal of green chemistry is to reduce hazards and pollution.

In the Video #11 blog post, Alex wrote about how driving a car with no windows and mirrors would lead to accidents as there would be no real-time way to analyze your surroundings. The 12th principle is akin to having that car inspected before driving it.  It is insuring that all aspects of the car, from the engine, to the brakes, to the steering are all in working order so that the car is less likely to get into an accident.  With this principle we consider the ingredients of a reaction (the parts of the car), and make sure that they don’t pose excessive hazards.

An example mentioned in the Video #12 of a hazardous chemical that can be replaced in synthesis is methyl isocyanate, a molecule used in the synthesis of the insecticide carbaryl.  In 1984, this toxic compound was released into the air from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, immediately killing 3,800 people, and causing premature death in thousands more.1 This disaster could have been avoided had the plant instead used methylamine to carry out the reaction.2

GCI 12th principle blog photo 1

Figure 1. The remains of the pesticide plant that led to the Bhopal disaster. [3]

Although this principle is specifically about the avoidance of using or producing hazardous compounds, the idea of avoiding hazards can be extended to other areas of the lab.  Storing chemicals that are reactive together, such as oxidizers and flammable materials, leads to a risk of release and reaction.  If these compounds leak from their containers and react, they will create a large fire. This is a hazard that could be easily avoided by storing these chemical types separately.

Another hazard in the lab is liquid spills. Anything that has been spilled should be immediately cleaned up to prevent people from slipping on it or receiving chemical burns from an unknown substance.  If someone comes across an acid spill, but does not know what it is they could easily be burned in attempting to clean it up.  Returning to the car analogy, leaving an unknown spill would be like giving someone a damaged car to drive without telling them. The unfortunate driver could be injured as a result of faulty brakes, just as another lab member could be injured by your spill in the lab.

As with our car, the lab should be kept safe and in good repair. If there are damaged parts in a car you should always repair them before driving it, just as if there are hazardous chemicals or situations in our lab they should be replaced before performing reactions.

References:

  1. Broughton, E. (2005). The Bhopal disaster and its aftermath: a review. Environmental Health, 4(1), 6.
  2. Thomas A. Unger (1996). Pesticide Synthesis Handbook (Google Books excerpt). William Andrew. pp. 67–68.
  3. https://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-bhopal-gas-tragedy-will-the-suffering-ever-end-2040370

 

The Future of Sustainability in the Younger Generations’ Hands

The Future of Sustainability in the Younger Generations’ Hands

By Alex Waked, Co-chair for the GCI

In the last couple decades, there has been an increasing focus on developing sustainable practices in society to reduce our environmental impact. Probably the most notable effort in this endeavour is the signing of the Paris Agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in which 194 states and the European Union have set goals to reduce the global carbon footprint to reasonable levels.

As we progress forward, there will be a need to propagate this mindset to the coming generations. Fortunately, I don’t think there will be too much difficulty in achieving this. A growing number of schools have been instituting environmental- and sustainability-related courses in their curricula. In my opinion, this strategy has been the most effective in conveying the importance of being conscious of any consequences of our actions and learning how to improve.

In the last few years, many of the chemistry courses at the University of Toronto have incorporated green chemistry and safety modules in both the laboratory and theory sections of the courses. The number of factors that we now consider when designing experiments is much larger than in the past. For instance, are the molecules we’re synthesizing going to be very toxic? Can they be safely disposed of? Do we use harmful substances or solvents during the experiment? How much chemical waste is produced?

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Figure 1. Graphic of the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry, which currently play an important role in designing safe and environmentally benign chemical processes.1

These are all questions that have traditionally been overlooked in the past. However, the description of the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry by Anastas and Warner in 19982 was a huge and essential step forward in the current direction we’re heading of thinking about chemistry from a sustainability and safety perspective. Many student-led groups and schools are now taking initiative in this endeavour.

The earlier and more the students are taught about these topics, the greater the chance it will have of the students developing genuine interests in them. In June of this year, the University of Toronto Schools held their first Sustainability Fair, in which grade 8-9 students participated in a science fair-like event where they worked on sustainability-related projects.

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Figure 2. Examples of posters at the University of Toronto Schools’ Sustainability Fair in June 2018.3

The GCI was invited to participate in listening to the students’ presentations describing their projects and to give any advice and encouragement to them; three of us, myself included, attended it. I would say there were at least 40 projects in total. These are just a few examples of some the projects:

  • Calculating how much water was saved by reducing shower time over a 2-week period
  • Collecting and recycling e-waste (any old electrical parts) that would traditionally be thrown away in the garbage
  • Calculating the reduction of carbon footprint by biking to work or school instead of driving

There were two things that really stood out to us: one being the range of topics (water reduction, carbon footprint reduction, recycling plastics and electronic waste, and minimizing food waste), and two being the genuine enthusiasm and interest of the students in their projects.

These are the students that will develop into people that will have important leadership roles in society in the future. The prospect of this is what excites me and gives me confidence that the future generations will continue to propel society forward in terms of being even more environmentally conscious and actually walk the walk, and not only talk the talk!

References:

  1. The Green Chemistry Initiative website. Accessed September 13, 2018. <http://greenchemuoft.ca/resources.php&gt;
  2. Anastas, P. T.; Warner, J. C. Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, Oxford University Press: New York, 1998, p. 30.
  3. Obtained with permission of the University of Toronto Schools.

 

Green Chemistry Principle #11: Real-Time Analysis for Pollution Prevention

Green Chemistry Principle #11: Real-Time Analysis for Pollution Prevention

By Alex Waked, Co-chair for the GCI

  1. Analytical methodologies need to be further developed to allow for real-time, in-process monitoring and control prior to the formation of hazardous substances.

In Video #11, Rachel and I discuss the importance of continuously monitoring chemical processes in real-time.

Most of us have driven a car before. Picture yourself driving down the highway in a car that doesn’t have any windows or rearview mirrors. I’d imagine it would be hard to not get into some sort of accident. Now add all the windows and the mirrors. It’d probably be safer to drive now, right?

So what does this have to do with chemistry, or with green chemistry principle #11 in particular? Windows and rearview mirrors provide the driver with means to monitor their surroundings in real time and allows them to react and adjust. This is exactly the idea behind principle #11 – the design of analytical methodologies to monitor chemical reactions in real time and allow for adjustments. We can think of the windows and rearview mirrors as examples of such “analytical methodologies”.

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Figure 1. An NMR Spectrometer (left) and a TLC place under UV light (right) [1, 2].

As chemists, we conduct several experiments every day. Depending on the type of chemistry, the goal of these experiments can be to synthesize a novel target compound, design newer chemical processes, or simply study the properties and reactivity of a compound of interest. In a lot of these cases, it is necessary to use various analytical techniques to monitor the reaction. In the case of the simplest chemical reaction, reactants A and B react together to form a product C. How do we know when the reaction is complete? Typically, we can use techniques such as NMR or TLC (Figure 1) to see how far along the reaction has proceeded.

In many industrial settings, it’s crucial to have suitable analytical methods to monitor reactions in real-time. The scale of the reactions performed at these plants are big enough such that issues that we typically consider being only minor ones at the research lab scale can become very problematic.

An example of such a case is an exothermic reaction, in which energy is released as heat. At bench scale (grams), one can use a simple ice bath to cool down an exothermic reaction. And even if the solution’s temperature does end up rising, this usually doesn’t pose a great risk due to the small scale of the reaction.

If we now look at a similar exothermic reaction at an increased scale (kilograms), even a small increase in the solution’s temperature poses a much greater problem. The reaction rate increases at higher temperatures, further increasing the temperature as the reaction proceeds, and hence a rapid increase in the reaction rate. This is called a thermal runaway. At this point it’s nearly impossible to stop the cycle and can result in an explosion. One of the most notable examples is the Texas City disaster in 1947,3 in which a cargo ship containing more than 2000 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated, initiating a chain-reaction of additional fires and explosions in other nearby ships, killing more than 400 people (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Aerial view of the Texas City disaster [4].

Suffice to say, there is currently a huge emphasis in industrial settings to monitor and control large-scale processes in real-time.4 Changes in temperature are monitored by internal thermometers, changes in pressure can be monitored by barometers, and changes in pH can be monitored by pH meters. With the help of these analytical tools, it’s easy to verify if a reaction’s conditions exceed the safe limits, and subsequently halt the process before anything gets out of hand.

 

References:

(1) http://researchservices.pitt.edu/facilities/nmr-spectroscopy-lab

(2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZzA9M0H40U

(3) “Texas City explosion of 1947”, Encyclopædia Britannica. April 9, 2018. Accessed May 2, 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/event/Texas-City-explosion-of-1947&gt;

(4) https://sputniknews.com/in_depth/201509011026442762/

(5) “Green Chemistry Principle #11: Real-time analysis for Pollution Prevention”, American Chemical Society. Accessed May 2, 2018. <https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/greenchemistry/what-is-green-chemistry/principles/green-chemistry-principle–11.html&gt;

ACS Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy 2018

ACS Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy 2018

By Kevin Szkop and Rachel Hems

The Colorado School of Mines in Golden, CO is a wonderful campus with cutting-edge facilities and a great place to spend a week with 60 young scientists interested in green chemistry. This is where the ACS Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy was held from July 10 – 17. The group consisted of chemists and chemical engineers from North and South America, all with unique perspectives, experiences, and attitudes towards sustainability. Below is a photo of our awesome class!

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The 2018 ACS Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy class

The program consisted of technical and professional development sessions. A highlight was a life cycle assessment group project and presentation, led by Prof. Philip Jessop from Queen’s University. During Professor Jessop’s lectures, we learned how to think about the “greenness” of a process, and how this often-nebulous concept is best used as a comparative tool. While every process likely has downfalls, using the green chemistry principles and metrics allowed us to think critically about which process has the least downfalls, and how to address these in our work. The assignment included a group project, during which groups of students had to evaluate the merits and drawbacks of 5 synthetic routes to the same product. In this context, we learned that it is not only the reagents that go into a flask, but everything that happens behind the scenes, including shipping of reagents, the type of waste generated, amount of energy consumed, and much, much more. As a synthetic chemist (Kevin), it really made me think about solvent consumption and work up techniques in my own work!

In addition to learning about green chemistry and sustainable energy, there were some great professional development lectures and activities. Dr. Nancy Jenson, the program manager for the Petroleum Research Fund at the ACS, gave an engaging talk on tips for writing research proposals and common mistakes that are made. While she gave examples from her experience at the Petroleum Research Fund, there were many lessons that could be applied to any type of proposal writing.

Another great professional development lecture was given by Joerg Schlatterer from the American Chemical Society. He gave an overview of the ACS’s many resources for young chemists, such as the Chem IDP website for career planning, workshops for prospective faculty organized by the Graduate & Postdoctoral Scholars Office, and the new Catalyzing Career Networking program at ACS National Meetings. As part of the career planning case study, we took some time to make some SMART goals for ourselves for the next two years. I (Rachel) found it’s really helpful to have others share their goals and give suggestions for yours to make them the SMARTest they can be!

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Rafting down Clear Creek

Of course, we also had time to have fun! On the Saturday (also Rachel’s birthday!) we went white water rafting on Clear Creek. The river is mountain fed, so it was very cold, but it was a beautiful warm and sunny day! We had a great time rafting down the river, with a quick stop to jump in for a swim. It was a great way to spend my birthday! Throughout the week-long summer school, there was a decent amount of free time to enjoy the sunshine and the sights around Golden. Some of the fun things we got to do were swim in and raft down the river that goes through ‘downtown’ Golden, an early morning hike up the South Table Mountain, tour the Coors Brewery, and get to know all the other awesome chemists!

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Kevin and Rachel enjoying the Golden nightlife after a long day of learning!

We highly recommend attending this summer school. It is a great opportunity to learn and to meet great people who care about sustainable chemistry! Read more about past GCI members that have attended the ACS Summer School in 2014 and  2017.

More information on the summer school and how to apply can be found online here.

The plastic problem – accumulation before alternatives

The plastic problem – accumulation before alternatives

By Karlee Bamford, Treasurer for the GCI

Plastics undoubtedly play a central role in our daily lives and played a pivotal role in the development of consumer societies across the globe for over a century. Concurrent with newfound materials and newfound possibilities, unprecedented environmental problems have emerged as a result of our reliance on plastics. The accumulation of plastics in allocated disposal sites (e.g. landfills) and in otherwise uninhabited spaces (e.g. beaches, open ocean) present threats to human health, water security, and food supply. These challenges now impact communities globally, irrespective of their actual contribution to the generation of plastic waste, and affect individuals of all economic backgrounds.

Figure 1. Examples of waste plastic accumulation in landfills and the environment. Images source: Pixabay.

Given the scale and significance of these challenges, is there anything that chemists can do to resolve this panhuman problem? A recent blog post from the Green Chemistry Initiative (https://greenchemuoft.wordpress.com/category/author/molly-sung/) highlighted the advances that have been made in synthetic and materials chemistry towards plant-derived and biodegradable plastics as alternatives to traditional petroleum-derived plastics. While this is undoubtedly a crucial area of research as humanity has become permanently dependent on plastics, the design of next generation plastics that are inherently sustainable will not mitigate the overwhelming impacts of existing plastic waste. Arguably, attenuating the problem of plastic waste is more important than finding alternatives to traditional plastics. Indeed, the decomposition time for products made from the top four families of commodity plastics (PP, PE, PVC, PET), produced on a 224.6 million tonne-scale alone in 2017,1 is estimated at 1 to 600 years in marine environments2 and considerably longer in landfills due to lack of moisture.4

Figure 2. Examples of the top five most-produced commodity polymers and their production scale in 2017.1,3

Traditional plastic-recycling methods are not equipped to resolve the issue of waste plastic accumulation either. Recycling can be broken down into three distinct varieties: primary, secondary, and tertiary.5 Primary recycling, which is equivalent to repurposing or reusing, is used limitedly for products such as plastic bottles, typically made of PET, which be directly reused following the necessary sterilization. Secondary recycling involves mechanical processing of plastics into new materials and frequently results in reduction of the plastics overall quality or durability due to the thermal or chemical processes involved. Primary and secondary recycling account for the majority of recycling efforts, however, as a consequence of poor consumer compliance (e.g. <10 % in the US and 30-40 % in the EU)6 and the deteriorating value of plastics with repeated secondary recycling, all plastics eventually become waste. The last and most underutilized form of recycling is tertiary recycling, the degradation or depolymerization of plastics into useful chemicals or materials. In the last year alone, numerous high profile editorial and review articles have appeared in Science7,8,9 and Nature6,10 emphasizing the incredible potential of chemical (tertiary) recycling as means of reducing plastic waste and as a new, sustainable chemical feedstock for the polymer (plastics) industry.

The challenge of chemical recycling is immediately evident: plastics have been expertly designed to be highly durable and chemically resistant, and thus, plastics cannot be easily transformed chemically. Ideally, polymers used in plastics could be depolymerized to monomer for subsequent repolymerization. For condensation polymers, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the reverse of the polymerization reaction is the addition of a small molecule to the polymer to reform monomer. While completely reversible on paper or in theory, such depolymerization strategies have had limited success for PET.

Reacting the polymeric PET material with protic reagents (e.g. amines, alcohols) followed by hydrolysis to give monomers that can be repolymerized, if of sufficient purity (Figure 3), requires high temperature (250-300 °C) and high pressure (0.1-4 MPa) conditions unless additives, such as strong acids and bases or metal salts, are used.11 The action of many additives is not well understood, thus precluding rational improvement of the system. Hydrolysis of PET itself, especially at neutral pH, is the most challenging approach to PET chemical recycling as water is a relatively poor nucleophile. Hence stronger nucleophiles, such as ethylene glycol, are preferred.

Figure 3. Depolymerization of PET by glycolysis.

One practical problem in the chemical recycling of any plastic is its insolubility. Phase transfer catalysts –  species capable of transferring from one phase to another – have been used to address the insolubility of PET12 and have permitted the direct hydrolysis of PET at operating temperatures as low as 80 °C, as in the work of Karayannidis and coworkers (Figure 4). The phases in these systems are the insoluble PET polymer (the organic phase) and the basic solution (the aqueous phase) surrounding it.13

Figure 4. Phase transfer catalyzed hydrolysis of PET (catalyst shown in blue).

Addition polymers, such as polypropylene (PP) or polyethylene (PE), cannot be depolymerized to monomer form using the above strategies as their polymerization does not involve the loss of small molecules. Until very recently, the best end-of-life purpose for the majority of plastics has been energy recovery through incineration. The work of Huang and coworkers on the chemical degradation of PE plastics is a break-through for the field of plastic recycling. While previous studies have reported that thermolysis of PE yields poorly defined mixtures of hydrocarbons, these authors have found a remarkable, highly targeted method for converting PE to a narrow distribution of fuels (3 to 30 carbons in length) using a dehydrogenative metathesis strategy (Figure 5).14 The homogeneous iridium catalysts employed were previously reported in the literature for alkane dehydrogenation (step 1) and hydrogenation (step 3), but no such polymer substrates had apparently been attempted for main-chain dehydrogenation. Similarly, the authors used a previously-established rhenium oxide/aluminium oxide catalyst for olefin metathesis (step 2).

Figure 5. The transition-metal catalyzed degradation of PE to liquid fuels reported by Huang and Guan (catalysts shown in blue).14

The chemical recycling of PET by phase transfer catalysis and of PE by dehydrogenative-metathesis have very little in common with one another on a technical level. What unites these two strategies is the desire to transform the problematic, highly abundant and inexpensive resource that is waste plastic into useful commodities. Perhaps more importantly, these two examples both take revolutionary approaches to old problems through inspiration from fundamental research and parallels found in small molecule catalysis. Rethinking the plastic problem into a challenge for catalysis, rather than solely a call for clever materials design, is critical if we wish to reduce the threats that waste plastics pose to our health and our environment.

References:

  1. Tavazzi, L., et al., The Excellence of the Plastics Supply Chain in Relaunching Manufacturing in Italy and Europe, The European House, Ambrosetti, 2013 (as cited in Bühler‐Vidal, J. O. The Business of Polyethylene. In Handbook of Industrial Polyethylene and Technology; Spalding, M. A.; Chatterjee, A. M., Eds.; John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ, 2017; p. 1305).
  2. Mote Marine Laboratory Biodegradation Timeline; 1993. Available from: https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2016/08/pq/pocket-guide-2003.pdf ; accessed July 10, 2018.
  3. Image sources: Image sources: (Plastic recycling symbols) http://naturalsociety.com/recycling-symbols-numbers-plastic-bottles-meaning/ ; (PP) https://www.screwfix.com/p/stranded-polypropylene-rope-blue-6mm-x-30m/98570 ; (LLDPE) https://www.polymersolutions.com/blog/differences-between-ldpe-and-hdpe/ ; (HDPE) https://chemglass.com/bottles-high-density-polyethylene-hdpe-wide-mouths ; (PVC) https://omnexus.specialchem.com/selection-guide/polyvinyl-chloride-pvc-plastic ; (PET) https://ecosumo.wordpress.com/2009/06/04/what-does-the-recycle-symbol-mean-part-2/
  4. Andrady, A. L. Journal of Macromolecular Science, Part C: Polymer Reviews, 1994, 34(1), 25-76.
  5. Hopewell, J.; Dvorak, R.; Kosior, E. Trans. R. Soc. B, 2009, 364, 2115–2126.
  6. Rahimi, A.; García, J. M. Nature Reviews Chemistry, 2017, 1, 0046.
  7. MacArthur, E. Science, 2017, 358 (6365), 843.
  8. García, J. M.; Robertson, M. L. Science, 2017, 358(6365), 870-872.
  9. Sardon, H.; Dove, A. P. Science, 2018, 360(6387), 380-381.
  10. The Future of Plastic. Nature Communications, 2018, 9, 2157.
  11. Venkatachalam, S.; Nayak, S. G.; Labde, J. V.; Gharal, P. R.; Rao, K.; Kelkar, A. K. Degradation and Recyclability of Poly (Ethylene Terephthalate). In Polyester; Saleh, H. E. M., Ed.; InTech: London, 2004; p. 78.
  12. Glatzer, H. J.; Doraiswamy, L. K. Eng. Sci. 2000, 55(21), 5149-5160.
  13. Kosmidis, V. A.; Achilias, D. S.; Karayannidis, G. P. Mater. Eng. 2001, 286(10), 640-647.
  14. Jia, X.; Qin, C.; Friedberger, T.; Guan, Z.; Huang, Z. Science Advances 2016, 2(6), e1501591.

The Indian Vulture Crisis and its Relationship to Sustainable Chemistry

The Indian Vulture Crisis and its Relationship to Sustainable Chemistry

This month, the University of Toronto’s Green Chemistry Initiative and the Gainesville ToxSquad teamed up to co-author a post about the Indian Vulture Crisis…

By Shira Joudan (GCI) and Alexis Wormington (ToxSquad)

Pharmaceuticals have drastically changed our society, quality of life, and life expectancy. Advances in chemistry are the driving forces behind the optimization of pharmaceuticals and other synthetic chemicals which have shaped the way we live our lives.  Sometimes, a chemical used has undesired side effects, such as non-target toxicity to animals in the environment. A historic example of the consequences of chemical use is the toxicity of the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) to eagles, which was profiled in Rachel Carson’s famous book Silent Spring. Although current regulations require extensive toxicity testing for new chemicals, those with a high production volume can still elicit unforeseen environmental effects on the environment.

More recently, there have been unforeseen environmental implications of chemical use in another essential bird population in India, a phenomenon now known as the Indian Vulture Crisis. Between 1993 and 2000, Indian vultures (Gyps bengalensis, Figure 1) began to mysteriously disappear, with the population declining by over 97% in less than 10 years (Figure 2).1 Researchers worked frantically to identify the cause, and came up with several theories ranging from infectious disease to food shortage to chemical exposure. Scientists began noticing visceral gout on a majority of the dead vultures,2 which is a sign of kidney failure in birds, and from there it didn’t take long to determine the culprit was a chemical contaminant. In 2004, a paper reported startling amounts of diclofenac (Figure 3) in the tissues of the dead vultures, providing compelling evidence that the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) was the cause of the population collapse.3 To figure out how to restore the vulture population, or at least slow down its decline, researchers needed to figure out how the vultures were being exposed to diclofenac, why it was killing them, and if there was a chemical alternative to the deadly pharmaceutical.

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Figure 1. Two G. bengalensis adults with a dead chick.

Shira_Alexis_blog2

Figure 2. Catastrophic decline in Gyps vultures in India over a 10-year period. Results from vulture nest monitoring in Koeladeo National Park from 1985 through 2001. [4]

So, what happened?

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Figure 3. Chemical structure of diclofenac, the pharmaceutical implicated as the cause of the Indian Vulture Crisis.

The problem began when diclofenac was approved for veterinary use in India in the early 1990s, where it was widely utilized to treat inflammation in cattle due to its efficacy and affordable cost. As a result, many livestock carcasses in India were contaminated with diclofenac, which brought catastrophic consequences to any vulture that consumed the carcasses. Vultures within the Gyps genus cannot metabolize diclofenac, and are extremely sensitive to the drug, with toxic doses ranging from just 0.1-0.8 mg/kg depending on the species.1 A vulture would receive a lethal dose of diclofenac after consuming a small amount of contaminated tissue, and die of renal failure within 48 hours. Just one contaminated carcass affected several vultures at once due to their group feeding behaviour, and because of this, diclofenac contamination in as little as 1 of every 200 carcasses would have been enough to cause the decline in the vulture population.5

Although diclofenac is either banned or not used for veterinary purposes in most countries, it is still legally utilized throughout Europe, which has drawn controversy in those countries where it is approved for use in food animals.6

Human-Health Impact of the Vulture Crisis

India is a developing country and relies more on natural processes for the removal of dead animals, where scavengers like vultures play a huge role. With the loss of the vultures, less efficient scavengers such as rats and dogs have moved in to replace them, leading to major problems with disease in the affected areas. Unlike vultures, which are terminal hosts for pathogens due to their strong stomach acid, dogs and rats are reservoirs for diseases – and now these animals are the primary scavengers in India. A rise in feral dogs has caused an increase in the number of rabies cases in humans, which has cost India approximately 998-1095 billion Rupees in healthcare costs between 1992 and 2006 (15-16.5 billion USD).7

In addition to the economic and health costs associated with a rise in infectious diseases, the disappearance of the vultures has also lead to issues with the prolonged decomposition of carcasses. Vultures play a major role in the decomposition process – a group of them can skeletonize a body within a few hours.8 But in their absence, bodies take days or months to decompose, which can lead to issues with water or food contamination. This ‘carcass crisis’ has had cultural implications as well, threatening the ancient Parsi burial tradition where bodies are not buried, but disposed of through natural means (i.e. vultures). Without the vultures, the Parsis struggle to continue the two-thousand-year-long practice9 and are forced to seek alternative methods of body disposal, causing a deep divide within the community.

Diclofenac and Green Chemistry – Could this have been prevented?

The short answer: probably not. For a drug to be approved for human or animal use, toxicity research must be conducted (although these requirements vary by country, read more about how drugs are approved in Canada10 and how drugs are approved in the USA11). Unfortunately, potential ecosystem toxicity (ecotoxicity) is not often at the forefront of the drug-approval process. Even if ecotoxicity studies were performed with diclofenac, it is unlikely that the toxicity to vultures would have been discovered before drug approval, as vultures are not a common test animal used in these types of studies. Only a full chemical assessment with ecosystem modelling and subsequent toxicity tests could have predicted the toxicity to the vultures; but these tests are expensive, time consuming, and not the norm during the current drug-approval process.

In India, farmers cannot afford to lose animals, and rely on affordable NSAIDs such as diclofenac to improve the health and quality of life of their livestock. Since NSAID use cannot be prevented, it is up to green chemists to find a suitable replacement for diclofenac that is efficient, affordable, and less toxic to vultures.

To predict the potential toxicity of a pharmaceutical or chemical to humans and the environment, it is important to consider all interactions that occur once the compound enters the body. Every pharmaceutical has a “therapeutic index” (the difference between an effective and toxic dose),  which can vary between different species or susceptible populations (e.g. infants, elderly). If the concentration of a drug exceeds the toxic level, toxic endpoints such as renal failure or death could be observed. The toxic level of a drug depends on two major processes: drug excretion and metabolism. The sum of these two processes determines how quickly a pharmaceutical is broken down and eliminated from the body. In the case of diclofenac, vultures could not metabolize or eliminate the drug, so it was free to wreak havoc on susceptible organ systems. For an NSAID to be a suitable replacement for diclofenac, vultures should be able to break it down and excrete it safely.

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Figure 4. Meloxicam, an NSAID alternative to diclofenac.

Currently, meloxicam has replaced diclofenac as an NSAID for livestock in India. Both drugs have a similar mechanism of action in the treatment of inflammation; however, unlike diclofenac, meloxicam is rapidly metabolized and excreted by vultures. In a study where different vulture species were administered meloxicam, researchers observed the production of three metabolites identical to those observed in humans during clinical trials.12 Vultures have the enzymes required for the metabolism of meloxicam (specifically cytochrome P450s and glucuronide transferase). The formation of metabolites alters the biological activity of meloxicam, increasing its water solubility and allowing for faster renal excretion.

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Figure 5. Aceclofenac, an NSAID that would not be suitable as a replacement for diclofenac.

Understanding the biological interactions of a drug can also help us eliminate potential replacements for diclofenac. An example of a poor replacement for diclofenac in cattle would be aceclofenac, because it is metabolized to form diclofenac via hydrolysis.13 This particular pharmaceutical would not do anything to improve the vulture population, and should not be selected as a replacement for diclofenac.

Current status and remaining challenges

In 2016, the Indian minister of the environment launched the Gyps Vulture Reintroduction Programme with the hope of restoring the vulture population to 40 million individuals within the next decade through breeding programs.14 Although this effort to restore the Indian vultures is a step in the right direction, there are still many challenges in way of their recovery. Despite the fact that meloxicam is a safer NSAID for use in livestock, diclofenac is still obtained and used illegally among farmers in India due to its affordability. Since the ban of diclofenac for veterinary use in 2006, the decline rate of Gyps has decreased, but vultures are still likely to decline by 18% per year despite the ban.15 Until the drug is completely removed from the equation, the reintroduction and recovery of the vultures remains a challenge.

 

 

References

  1. Swan et al. Biology Letters 2006, 2, 279-282. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2005.0425
  2. Pain et al. Conservation Biology 2003, 17, 661-671. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1523-1739.2003.01740.x
  3. Shultz et al. R. Soc. Lond. B 2004, 271, S458-460. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2004.0223
  4. Prakash et al. Biological Conservation 2003, 109, 381-390. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0006-3207(02)00164-7
  5. Green et al. Journal of Applied Ecology 2004, 41, 793-800. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0021-8901.2004.00954.x
  6. Becker, R. Nature News 2016 https://www.nature.com/news/cattle-drug-threatens-thousands-of-vultures-1.19839
  7. Markandya et al. Ecological Economics 2008, 67, 194-204. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2008.04.020
  8. Reeves, N. Journal of forensic sciences2009, 54, 523-528. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1556-4029.2009.01020.x
  9. India’s Parsis search for new funeral arrangements as there are not enough vultures to dispose of bodies. https://www.independent.co.uk/node/6669506
  10. Government of Canada https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/drugs-health-products/drug-products/fact-sheets/drugs-reviewed-canada.html
  11. S. Food & Drug Administration https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DevelopmentApprovalProcess/default.htm
  12. Naidoo et al. Vet. Pharmacol. Therap. 2008, 31, 128-134. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2885.2007.00923.x
  13. Galligan et al. Conservation Biology 2015, 30, 1122-1127. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12711
  14. Government of India, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=145965
  15. Cuthbert, et al. PLoS One2011, 6, e19069. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0019069

Image Credits

Feature image: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0040061

Figure 1: https://scroll.in/magazine/868116/with-indias-vulture-population-at-deaths-door-a-human-health-crisis-may-not-be-far-off