Margaret “Meg” H. Whittaker, Managing Director and Chief Toxicologist of ToxServices LLC, outlines the similarities and differences between risk assessment, alternative assessments, and green chemistry. Co-hosts Anne Chappelle and David Faulkner also discover how alternative assessments can lead to safer and more sustainable products that protect animal, human, and environmental health and the importance of diversifying your portfolio when you’re a student or early career researcher.
About the Guest
Margaret H. Whittaker, PhD, MPH, CBiol, FRSB, ERT, DABT, has over 20 years of experience in both the performance and management of toxicology and human health hazard and risk assessment–related projects. She is currently the Managing Director and Chief Toxicologist of ToxServices LLC, where she serves as the project manager and technical lead of ToxServices projects for the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice Program, Clean Production Action’s GreenScreen, international certification organizations, testing laboratories, and consumer products companies that manufacture and test products such as food additives, food contact materials, cleaning chemicals, fragrance agents, electronics, cosmetics, dietary supplements, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and drinking water additives. As project manager and technical lead for contracts with these organizations, Dr. Whittaker has contributed to and/or managed the development of hundreds of human health risk assessments, chemical hazard assessments, and exposure assessments, as well as hundreds of product-specific toxicology evaluations.
Dr. Whittaker is a Diplomate of the American Board of Toxicology and earned a PhD in toxicology from the University of Maryland Baltimore and an MPH in environmental health from the University of Michigan. Dr. Whittaker is a UK/EUROTOX Registered Toxicologist, as well as a Chartered Biologist and Fellow of the UK Royal Society of Biology. Dr. Whittaker has built her career on a foundation grounded in leadership and adherence to details and timelines. One of her first career awards (1992) was a United States Coast Guard Commandant’s Award for Outstanding Civilian Service, through which her “alacrity and tenacity” displayed while working on projects associated with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 were officially recognized.
In addition to her extensive program management experience, Dr. Whittaker has extensive technical experience in hazard identification and non-cancer and cancer dose-response assessment, including quantitative risk assessment (e.g., benchmark dose modeling for both carcinogens and noncarcinogens). She specializes in conducting chemical hazard assessments and chemical alternatives assessments. Before creating ToxServices in 2003, she worked at two of the country’s leading toxicology and risk assessment consulting firms (the ENVIRON Corporation and the Weinberg Group).
The viewpoints and information presented in Adverse Reactions represent those of the participating individuals. Although the Society of Toxicology holds the copyright to the production, it does not vet or review the information presented, nor does presenting and distributing the Adverse Reactions podcast represent any proposal or endorsement of any position by the Society.
David Faulkner: Welcome to Adverse Reactions. I'm David Faulkner.
Anne Chappelle: And I'm Anne Chappelle
David Faulkner: I'm a toxicologist and a risk assessor.
Anne Chappelle: I'm a toxicologist as well. Other moms are afraid of me because they think I play with poisons.
David Faulkner: They're not wrong.
Anne Chappelle: I know.
David Faulkner: And on this show, we explore the stories behind the science.
Anne Chappelle: This is where we talk to toxicology experts from around the country and around the globe that use the field of toxicology to advance public health and also to protect the environment.
David Faulkner: In this episode of Adverse Reactions, "More Than a Color Scheme, the Future of Toxicology in Green Chemistry.”
Meg Whittaker: So, alternatives assessment got its start about 15 years ago. It's a methodology to try and stay away from chemicals that really are super hazardous and super risky.
Anne Chappelle: Featuring Meg Whittaker.
Meg Whittaker: That's when blanket edicts saying "don't buy something" can be dangerous, if the science underlying it isn't very good. So I'm always an advocate to say, look, put your cards on the table and let's see what the science tells us before you make a decision.
David Faulkner: Today we are joined by none other than Meg Whittaker, the esteemed head of ToxServices. Welcome to the show.
Meg Whittaker: Thank you for having me here today.
Anne Chappelle: A lot of our episode today is going to focus on some things that you're quite familiar with around green chemistry, sustainability, and risk assessment. Would you mind giving me an example of what you do during the day and how your science and expertise helps in these different areas?
Meg Whittaker: Well, I love toxicology. I live, eat, breathe, sleep toxicology. I spend a lot of my time in the nitty gritty, trying to help people stay away from chemicals of concern. I spend a lot of my time trying to apply test methods and predictive methods that help us stay away from testing in animals, if possible, which is really becoming more the norm as opposed to 20 years ago. I try and look at each chemical or chemical class without bias, which is sometimes challenging, but it's something that's important to me to try and be objective as a scientist.
And then I spend a lot of my time on different committees and specialty sections trying to grow and develop the next generation of toxicologists and especially toxicologists that may be underrepresented. The Society of Toxicology has been a big advocate for helping women get ahead and getting other underrepresented people into positions where they can also protect humans and protect the environment.
And then in my free time, I also do yoga and I ski, and I stay away from cooking. That's kind of what I do. It's great fun. I really love it.
Anne Chappelle: If you were going to call yourself a particular kind of toxicologist, would you brand yourself as a risk assessor?
Meg Whittaker: I started out as a risk assessor, and I still am a risk assessor, primarily for human health risk assessment, but I'm also an alternatives assessor, which is another parallel methodology. I describe myself as that, and I describe myself as someone that’s constantly learning. You never get to be an expert in anything. You have to stay humble.
David Faulkner: Yeah, that's definitely true. Toxicology is kind of a unique discipline. It's so interdisciplinary, which is nice, one of the things I really like about it. You mentioned alternatives assessment. Could you tell us a little bit more about it and possibly the relationship between alternatives assessment and green chemistry? They're often associated.
Meg Whittaker: Yes, they indeed are, and there is overlap, although they're different methodologies. So, alternatives assessment got its start about 15 years ago. It's a methodology to try and stay away from chemicals that really are super hazardous and super risky.
Green chemistry is similar as well in terms of trying to find safer substitutes or staying away from hazardous chemicals. The 12 principles of environmental chemistry have some type of hazard avoidance, but the goal of an alternatives assessment is to use either a safer chemical or a safer technology.
Now there are established frameworks to go through in a systematic way, just like we all use risk assessment and we still go through that wonderful four-step process. Alternatives assessment has a similar process to go through and try and make the best decision possible, and how to make a chemical or a material or a product that performs well, and ideally doesn't hurt people or the environment. We work with a lot of green chemists that try and avoid hazards and try and avoid, let's say, hazardous solvents. We try and figure out, oh, is this material or chemical safer or does something biodegrade? But we try and use all the available information so at the end of the day, we can make the best decision or recommendation to a client to say, yes, indeed; the solvent, for example, is safer and will biodegrade, et cetera.
Anne Chappelle: So how much would you say that what you're doing is either driven by some regulatory initiatives versus market pressures, or does it depend on the product?
Meg Whittaker: It's, uh, still very much consumer driven or market driven versus regulatory driven. In the EU, if someone wants authorization to use a substance of very high concern, they have to go through an authorization process—for example, that's regulatory driven under REACH. But in the US, it's pretty much brands and retailers. Some people call it retailer regulation, and that has a negative connotation, but it also is a market driver so that companies that do want to use safer materials or chemicals can buy those chemicals at a cheaper price because more people are buying them. So it's still in the US mostly market driven as opposed to a regulation saying, you must use something safer.
There was an article about a big online retailer—we won't name them—they've decided to ban certain classes of chemicals from consumer products that they've decided to sell. And that can be good, but it also can be harmful if the science underlying that decision doesn't either identify a hazard that translates into true harm or if there's nothing safer.
I was just answering the question to somebody as to whether propanediol—which is used in many personal care products—whether that substance is endocrine active or endocrine disruptive based on four out of 483 high-throughput screening assays in CompTox. And someone was making a decision at a very large personal care company to completely move away from that chemical, and it was borderline active and there was no dose-response. It can be a penetration enhancer, which means that if you use it with other chemicals, it could maybe increase the absorption of another chemical, but it's a very safe chemical and that's when blanket edicts saying "don't buy something" can be dangerous, if the science underlying it isn't very good.
So I'm always an advocate to say, look, put your cards on the table and let's see what the science tells us, before you make a decision saying I will never, ever buy something or my suppliers can't ever, ever supply something. You should really make sure the science is very strong before, you know, you make a decision like that. It's like swearing off: I will never, ever eat chocolate. I did that once for about six weeks, until a friend said to me, that's really stupid. Why, why did you do that? And I said, you know what? I showed I could do it. And it was the stupidest thing,
Anne Chappelle: Never good to have bad chocolate. That's really what it, it would have been, you know?
Meg Whittaker: Right.
David Faulkner: There you go.
Meg Whittaker: Alternatives assessment, right? Yeah. 60% cocoa, 50%. But people should really try and make sure the science that they're using is very sound before they make decisions. So I spend a lot of my time trying to look at that and seeing, are you seeing a consistent pattern? How good is the science supporting that? And then how also to stay away from regrettable substitution?
David Faulkner: A few years back, there was, the big push began to remove BPA from everything, and BPA is used in a lot of different things. Then there's all the BPA-free products. This is a big movement. But then the question that I always had was, What are they putting in instead? It's performing a function in there; they're not just putting it in there for the heck of it. And then if you just get rid of it, it's like, well, now what's in there? Is it something that we know anything about?
Anne Chappelle: Is that really safer?
David Faulkner: Yeah. Have you actually improved the situation?
Meg Whittaker: You do a lot of testing. You've got some data behind it. You have to work with good polymer chemists. What I do is I tend to look at the published literature and I see, well, what's been done out there? What other types of tests have been done on similar polymers? And then, design a test approach with lots of different types of foods and acidities and solvents, and take the test and see how it goes.
And usually, formulators that are making polymers like that, it takes three to five years. It takes a lot of patience. So I also try and help new companies. Most of the big companies out there have in-house researchers or consultants that are external.
I'm one of many that does that, where we try and say, okay, where do you want to go? And here's the roadmap. And just like when you go out and buy a car, what's your budget? And we can try and optimize. You're not going to have a heated massage seat, perhaps, but if you're making a new polymer, these are costs-effective ways to make sure we can establish regulatory compliance and safety within a budget.
You just kind of learn as you go along. You have to actually roll up your sleeves, just like when we're in the laboratory, and go back and test and test again and look at the data and see what it tells you.
Anne Chappelle: I think that's one of the fears about importing so much that we do from other countries. Sometimes, because you don't know if they really follow the rules. Is it really safer or not? There's a whole world out there of products and things that could raise basic health standards by this kind of assessment, so how do we automate it? Well not automate it, but if you spread the gospel here in a way that can really help some of those in those other regions.
Meg Whittaker: Uh, I spend a lot of my time doing that. I work with numerous certification companies around the world, and you have to be humble and you have to be willing to share your methods, share your approaches. We lead by example. We're members of a really esteemed Society, and I take it to heart. Um, and I live by the golden role. It's something that's important to me.
The fact is, I've been helped by many people in life. I had the best teachers at both the University of Michigan and University of Maryland that were some of the best toxicologists. I was always amazed by how they were so willing to share, and that was really important to them. So, you know, I've drunk the juice, and it's my job to teach people in other countries. So I spend a lot of my time working with younger toxicologists, some in Hong Kong, and I learn a lot from them, too.
I think that if more of us in the Society took a quick look at that Code of Ethics and we lived by it, it would be a better world. I disagree all the time with toxicologists, and I'm respectful about it. And that's something that's really important to me, where we can agree to disagree and that's OK. We're all entitled to our opinion or a different approach, and I think our world would be better off if we lived like that.
But in terms of what are approaches to finding safer chemicals? Those should be easily accessible and not a secret.
David Faulkner: Back to some of the things that we were talking about earlier. You know, you talked about training the next generation. I think science, more so than people realize, is very much an apprenticeship. You sort of learn at the feet of an expert when you're doing a PhD, when you're studying and learning how to do methods and how to do analysis and how all this works.
It's not dissimilar to blacksmithing in that way. Start simple and you work your way up. What sort of recommendations do you have for earlier career listeners who may say, I want to be a Meg Whittaker when I grow up?
Meg Whittaker: I would say, start out as an intern. You have to be persistent. I think my first internship was with the US Coast Guard's Oil Pollution Act Office.
David Faulkner: Really?
Meg Whittaker: Yeah, it was great fun. I was one of 500 applicants, and my grades were good, but they weren't straight A’s, and then I also had to work to support myself from my masters. And I was persistent. I got in touch with the person. I said, "I have no money, but I'll get a second job, and I believe so strongly in this. You've got to give me a chance." I got hired by them. And it was funny, during the summer, there was this massive box at Coast Guard Headquarters, and it was full of other applicants. And I said, "Why did you hire me?" And he said, "Because you wanted that job more than anybody else, and I knew you'd work really hard." And I worked there for a few summers. It was a really good experience.
You've got to show you can go to school, you can be in clubs, you can ideally work. That sets you out as someone different. There's nothing worse than having a CV, and you may have gone to a wonderful school, but if you haven't been volunteering or being involved, no one's going to look at your CV. And then, work with your professor. It's all who you know. I drive my staff crazy. I'm like, "You've got to keep your CV updated, and time to submit an abstract to SOT." You've got to really keep trying. And you've got to network and join Specialty Sections and SOT regional sections, because that's how I see so many people network and get jobs. It works.
Anne Chappelle: I've always worked within the chemical industry, and sometimes, people think of that as this big, bad place to work. So how do you convince them that what you're doing, and what a lot of people working in industry is doing, is not evil?
Meg Whittaker: It's not. No, it's not. And I think people who try and say, "Oh, industry is bad, but I'm going to use all the things industry makes"—that's a little two-faced. Industry jobs, just like consulting or working for the government, you've got variety. Industry technically, usually, has funding to do great studies and to send people to training. I think people need to hopefully listen to their mentors in academia, who generally do work with industry. I think there's nothing wrong with working for industry.
My only advice would be, just make sure that you have some variety for future job security. Don't get pegged into doing only one thing just so you make sure that you're going to be employable. Employers will look at, Have you been presenting at SOT or EUROTOX or BTS, for example, or SRA, or have you just been sitting in your cubicle not doing a lot? That would hurt someone's chances to get employment somewhere else.
Anne Chappelle: But, you know, in some positions, you can't always present, so you’ve got to find other creative ways to keep yourself educated. And maybe you can't present on the compound you're living and breathing, but you'll find another way to contribute to the overall science.
Meg Whittaker: True. Take free online CE courses, you know, especially if there's no funding. And that's reality; if there's, like, 50 toxicologist in your division, well, there are lots of chances to do things online for free. I'm a blogger for SOT during the meetings. I know David is, too. It gets you out and it gets you meeting people. I'm not, like, "Miss Extrovert,” but I love writing. So it gets me out there and it gets me asking questions during the Workshops and the Symposiums, so.
David Faulkner: It's a lot of fun. I really, I do recommend the blogging program for anybody who's interested. It's a good time. On the topic of different ways of making a splash, let's talk a little bit about the Specialty Section that you've helped to start.
Meg Whittaker: Sustainable Chemicals in Contemporary Toxicology, SCCT. Kind of rolls off your tongue. We're one of the newest Specialty Sections. The nice thing about SCCT is that we're still small enough so that you can get to know all of the officers and the other members, and we're dedicated to trying to advance sustainable concepts or test methods.
We have some overlap with some of the other Specialty Sections, but we really want to try and advance those concepts and advance concepts of NAMs as well. I was really excited when SOT accepted our proposal. So it's a great way to get involved. It's a great way to network and to get to know the real players. Some of our newer members have said, oh, I really want to move into this field. What are good options for trying to meet people to get new jobs? Or just for, how would you approach this? Or I'm having problems with QSAR Toolbox; what would you do? It's nice to be focused on a topic I feel very strongly about. I hope people who are listening want to join us. It's a great time.
David Faulkner: Oh, yeah.
Anne Chappelle: In the grand scheme of things, right now, we're recording this in the middle of a lockdown pandemic, and I think you're going to start to see a massive flux of people into these fields because they've never heard of epidemiology and public health. And, you know, even toxicology is being thrown around, and adverse reactions to this and that and the other. So how do we as toxicologists kind of capture this interest in science, communicating science? I just look at this whole ripe set of brand-new people. You know, they're impressionable. They've got lots of energy. Where do we go to find them to tell them about toxicology? Well, only half of them, of course, are going to come because it's toxicology. You know, LD50?
David Faulkner: Ah.
Meg Whittaker: You like that? That was really—I like that, yeah. She was going to do stand-up before she went to grad school, you know. Most people don't even know about toxicology, other than, obviously, our forensic toxicologist friends. My undergraduate degree is actually economics, and I started volunteering with a local environmental organization helping recycle tons and tons of newspapers in Michigan.
And someone mentioned, "Well, that's interesting. You're kind of interested in public health, aren't you?" And I said, "Well, yeah, I guess so." And one of my neighbors said, "Well, there's a school in Ann Arbor, and well, why don't you go get an MPH?" And I didn't even know about it, even though my undergraduate is from the University of Michigan. I'd never ventured across campus by the School of Public Health.
Somehow, we have to get to people before they decide, "Oh, I'm going to go to medical school or I'm going to do something else." We've got this great field. How do we work together to reach out? It's been a challenge with the local, the regional section. We're always trying to reach out to local universities.
I visited some local universities with some of the other Regional Chapter officers, especially historically black colleges and universities, to talk to them about, well, what do we do? To try and say, you've got all these options. Just most people haven't heard of it. We have to make it exciting and interesting so that they understand: this is the pathway you go to get into these programs.
There's less than 15 undergraduate programs in toxicology. It's still very heavily weighted towards master's and PhD programs. And that's challenging to try and get students that are in debt. They would just want to get out and get to work. To try and say, "Wait a second, you've got to get into debt a little bit more for your master's." That's challenging, and we have to somehow convince them, no, it's really worth it.
David Faulkner: I'm curious to know: What big, interesting problems are you interested in in the near term and in the long term with respect to sustainability, safer chemistry?
Meg Whittaker: A big interest of mine right now is how to connect safer chemistry, safer or green toxicology, and sustainability, and how we can try and make things more circular and look at the bigger picture. And hopefully, I want to make a positive difference. And we can do that, I think, I feel, in a better way through toxicology. And then, obviously, helping companies make things better or stay away from chemicals, maybe, that they've already gotten into and how to move to something safer.
Anne Chappelle: I think that's a noble and lofty goal, that I could see maybe how discouraging it can be. Sometimes, you're like, it's right there the whole time. And if they would've done X, they would have gotten, would have taken care of it. But it also just shows your optimism, I guess, towards leaving the planet a better place.
David Faulkner: What is the most significant adverse reaction that you've experienced? It could be a professional one. It could be something in life in general.
Anne Chappelle: Mine's a bee sting
Meg Whittaker: Oh, yours is a bee sting. Let's see. I'm really into yoga, but mine is, I went to Bikram Yoga with just six ounces of water and not knowing it was heated yoga and going to the back of the class. And then they lock the door for 90 minutes. So I had—oh, and these were, like, hardcore, yogis.
I had six ounces of water and I had to be very active. I said to myself, dear Lord—this is about three years ago—I cannot die; I’ve got two children. And I had to, like, carefully titrate out that six ounces of water, but I survived. So what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
No, I only do, like, nidra yoga now, only non-heated yoga. I have a lot of respect for Bikram Yoga, but oh my goodness. That'll do you in.
Anne Chappelle: I did a Groupon for Bikram Yoga, and I just laid there. And it was, like, at 5:45 in the morning, and I'm just—
Meg Whittaker: Oh, you’re hardcore, Anne.
David Faulkner: Why?
Anne Chappelle: But I only did three classes of a 10-class Groupon, so I'm not really all that hardcore.
David Faulkner: Another fun question that we like to ask is if you weren't doing what you're doing now, what would you be doing?
Meg Whittaker: I would probably own a bookstore slash wine bar. And I think someday when I retire—my cottage is in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, where President James Buchanan is from, and it's a great little town. And so I have my eye on a very old—hopefully it'll still be there in 20 years—little bar and I'd have a toxicology corner. Maybe people would have come up and visit. But that's kind of, that's something else I'd really, I love writing and I love books. I'm a big book collector, fiction and nonfiction. That's what I'd be doing.
Anne Chappelle: Well, thank you for your time and spending it with us and helping us to understand a little bit how toxicology just isn't sitting behind a bench with test tubes. It's working through problems on paper and talking to all the different levels of an organization, and so that's great. Thank you for your time. This has been really fun.
Meg Whittaker: Thank you for having me.
David Faulkner: Thanks so much.
Meg Whittaker: Yeah. It's been great.
David Faulkner: I cannot wait to visit Meg's combination wine bar slash bookstore. What do you think you'll get to drink when you go to visit?
Anne Chappelle: I think I'm going to order a Paracelsus.
David Faulkner: Well, as long as you pick your poison.
Anne Chappelle: It's my favorite part of the episode.
David Faulkner: This is the teaser.
Anne Chappelle: "All the Toxicology That's Fit to Print . . . or Present . . . or to Blog."
David Faulkner: An interview with Jeff Peters, the Editor-in-Chief for the Toxicological Sciences journal,
Anne Chappelle: the official journal of the Society of Toxicology.
Jeffrey Peters: You can't just make a blanket policy and say, we will or will not publish negative data. I'm open-minded to anything as long as it's impactful.
Anne Chappelle: Thank you, all, for joining us for this episode of Adverse Reactions, presented by the Society of Toxicology.
David Faulkner: And thank you to Dave Leve at Ma3stro Studios.
Anne Chappelle: That's Ma3stro with a three, not an E.
David Faulkner: Who created and produced all the music for Adverse Reactions, including the theme song, "Decompose."
Anne Chappelle: The viewpoints and information presented in Adverse Reactions represent those of the participating individuals. Although the Society of Toxicology holds the copyright to this production, it has,
David Faulkner: definitely,
Anne Chappelle: not vetted or reviewed the information presented herein,
David Faulkner: nor does presenting and distributing this podcast represent any proposal or endorsement of any position by the Society.
Anne Chappelle: You can find out more information about the show at AdverseReactionsPodcast.com,
David Faulkner: and more information about the Society of Toxicology on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
Anne Chappelle: I'm Anne Chappelle.
David Faulkner: And I'm David Faulkner. Hopefully, at least half of you make it back for the next episode.
Anne Chappelle: This podcast was approved by Anne's mom.