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Safe and Effective

Making sure common household products won't harm the environment

People wash and clean their homes every day in every community in the world. The commercial products they use in these ubiquitous domestic activities contain a wide variety of chemicals that go down drains, into sewers or septic tanks, and then can find their way into the natural environment. From her laboratory at Procter & Gamble’s Sharon Woods Technical Center in Cincinnati, Pamela J. Kloepper-Sams keeps a vigilant eye on the fate and the effects of chemicals in her company’s laundry and cleaning products, assessing their potential toxicity to animals and plants.

Kloepper-Sams, who received her doctorate in biological oceanography in 1989 from the MIT/WHOI Joint Program, heads an interdisciplinary team of scientists responsible for worldwide environmental safety for Procter & Gamble’s Fabric and Home Care Division. Known for its name-brand personal care and household products, the company does business in more than 140 countries.

Chemicals in these products could get into the environment easily and in large amounts, Kloepper-Sams pointed out. “After consumers use it, what happens to a substance? How can we make sure that the typical form of disposal is proper for the product? How can we improve the product?”

Her team develops methods for assessing environmental risks of products, ensuring their safety and regulatory compliance. “If a product has an (environmental) issue, we have to catch it early,” she said.

Kloepper-Sams first developed a passion for marine biology after a fourth-grade project on living under the ocean. As an undergraduate biology major at the University of California, Irvine, she was exposed to the new molecular approaches that were emerging in biology during the 1970s. She spent her junior and senior years at the University of Göttingen in Germany, where she learned genetic techniques as a research assistant at the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine and where she met Henning Kloepper, a German undergraduate majoring in literature and history. They married in 1981.

But her interest in the marine environment steered her toward oceanography, and the couple came to the US in 1983 when Kloepper-Sams began graduate school at WHOI. Her interest in understanding how genes work led her to work with John Stegeman in the Biology Department. Stegeman and his students were studying how marine animals responded at the molecular level to pollutants in the ocean.

Research in Stegeman’s lab focuses on a group of enzymes found in fish that break down foreign chemicals and transform them into other substances. They are members of a family of proteins called cytochrome P-450, so named because they absorb light at a peak wavelength of 450 nanometers. Because certain contaminants induce production of these enzymes, this process serves as a “biomarker,” an explicit indicator that the fish have been exposed to these foreign substances.

Kloepper-Sams conducted her thesis research on the molecular processes that regulate cytochrome P-450E (now known as P-4501A) induction in Fundulus, an estuarine fish. She helped develop methods for using antibodies to detect amounts of proteins present, and she conducted the first studies of the rates at which the genes that trigger protein production are turned on and off, Stegeman said.

“We faculty learn an enormous amount from the JP students, and their energy keeps us going,” he added. “She certainly made a lasting contribution to this lab, and the work we do today still is influenced by what Pam learned ‘at the bench’ here. She was unusually good in helping others and no doubt still is.”

The first of Kloepper-Sams’s two children was born in 1989, the year she received her doctorate. While she was nursing, she recalled, she saw an ad for a job as a scientist at Procter & Gamble that offered an opportunity to establish an environmental biomarker laboratory. She turned down a university post-doctoral position to go into industry.

Her first major project at Procter & Gamble was a multidisciplinary suite of measurements to assess the impact of effluent from a pulp mill in northern Canada on fish communities in receiving waters. These included studies of P-450 induction, hormone levels and chemical residues in fish, and fish population fecundity and dynamics. Following that work, she transferred to Brussels, Belgium, to address environmental issues for P&G’s European businesses. She was promoted to her present position in 1996, and management rather than research takes up most of her time now.

Kloepper-Sams is building a collaborative group of researchers who have a mixture of backgrounds in environmental sciences and whose work is applied directly to the development of new products. “We catch problems and assist in designing new molecules from the perspective of environmental safety,” she said. “The opportunity to work with global colleagues to develop better methods to predict and assess the environmental fate and effects of chemicals is especially rewarding. It’s a different type of influence—making sure that a major company, which sets standards for other companies, does it right.”

—By Margaret C. Bowles

Originally published: October 1, 1999