EPA Honors Chemistry Alumna-Mellon College of Science - Carnegie Mellon University

Monday, July 21, 2008

EPA Honors Chemistry Alumna

If you happen to notice new green cleaning products on the shelves the next time you’re at the supermarket, be sure to thank Melanie Vrabel, a Carnegie Mellon chemistry alumna, for making these safe and environmental friendly products available to you. Marked by the DfE (Design for the Environment) logo, these products have been formulated with green chemistry principles resulting in a safer product for human health and the environment.

Vrabel, who works for the Design for the Environment Branch in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT) of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), personally assists companies like Clorox, Method, and SC Johnson in choosing safer ingredients for their products. Recently, Vrabel and four of her colleagues were presented with the James W. Craig Pollution Prevention Leadership Award, a national EPA Honor Award, in recognition of developing practical pollution prevention solutions to environmental problems. Together, the five make up the DfE Formulator Team, working with industry partners to eliminate hazardous chemicals and develop safer products. In 2007, the Formulator Team’s efforts reduced the use of more than 80 million pounds of chemicals of concern, such as those that pollute the environment and are toxic to humans and animals.

To help manufacturers like Clorox substitute green chemicals for hazardous ones in their product formulations, DfE has helped to develop an online resource for green formulation called the CleanGredients® database. This “electronic marketplace” allows raw material manufacturers to showcase their safer chemicals offerings and helps cleaning product manufacturers to select safer ingredients for their products. All of these efforts accelerate industry by making a substantial number of safer chemical products available.

“The accomplishments of Vrabel and her colleagues, including the establishment of these technologies, set the stage for the development of a new standard for safer chemicals on an international level,” according to a nomination letter for the award.

“It is incredibly rewarding to be able to have had such noticeable, positive impact,” Vrabel says of her work.

Vrabel’s passion for green chemistry dates back to her days at Carnegie Mellon. Using Fe-TAML® activator technology, synthetic catalysts made with elements found in nature, she was able to break down in water the natural estrogens and the active ingredients in the birth control pill. These natural and synthetic compounds can mimic or block the activities of hormones in wildlife and humans, which may disrupt the normal functions of the endocrine system and impair development. Vrabel’s discovery holds practical promise for eliminating water of pollutants that feminize aquatic organisms. Vrabel’s work recently appeared in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

“Melanie was an excellent chemistry student in my group, with a passion for public service,” said Terry Collins, Thomas Lord Professor of Chemistry.  “I am delighted to see her and her colleagues’ work leading to their receipt of the prestigious James W. Craig Pollution Prevention Leadership Award."

By: Jill Perkins