With the recent change in guidelines from the AHA and ACC, as many as 70 million Americans may end up taking Statins to reduce their chance of heart attack and stroke. Already, Lipitor (atorvastatin) was the greatest selling medication of modern times with over 40 million Americans taking the drug at its peak. At an average of 20 mg per pill, this resulted in over 292 metric tons of lipitor produced per year*.

At 250 Tons, Hong Kong’s Tian Tan Buddha weighs less than the lipitor consumed every year in the US

Despite this large scale, few outside of the Green Chemistry field are aware of the myriad of environmental impacts from the supply chains used to produce Lipitor.  Creating Lipitor requires a complex series of chemical reactions. Along the way, various different solvents, raw materials and catalysts are needed to finally create the active pharmacological ingredient that can reduce cholesterol in humans.


Synthesis of Atorvastatin(Lipitor), courtesy of newdrugapprovals.wordpress.com

Acetonitrile is one solvent used in the synthesis of Lipitor. Acetontirile is produced from the catalytic ammoxidation of propylene. Propylene (aka propene) is itself derived from fossil fuels, namely natural gas and coal.  The industrially produced ammonia used in the process comes from Natural Gas. Aside from the odd fact that your cholesterol is lowered at least in part thanks to fossil fuels, there is also the case of the Beijing Olympics.

Beijing’s Air – The Olympics were a temporary respite

Beijing’s notorious air pollution was under the microscope prior to the 2008 Olympic Games. The Chinese authorities instituted a number of measures, such as shutting down factories near the city and reducing car use, to clean up the air. Some of these factories were producers of Acetonitrile. Those closures, combined with the shutdown of Texan facilities impacted by Hurricane Ike, resulted in a global shortage of Acetonitrile.  The shortage of Acetonitrile resulted in a price spike, directly impacting the bottom line of all those that use the solvent, including pharmaceutical companies.

This small lesson highlights how understanding the supply chain of your products could have potentially resulted in avoiding a commodity price spike…and the embarrassing, or potentially liable, connection to worsening health outcomes in heavily polluted developing countries…

On the flip side of these petrochemical derived substances is a potential opening for renewable supplies and green chemistry. Ammonia, which accounts for over 1% of total global energy use, is possible to derive from renewable electricity when using Hydrogen derived by hydrolysis (see Iceland). Propylene is also a target of green chemistry with some companies using microbes to synthesize the needed compound rather than relying on natural gas or coal.


J. Craig Venter is collaborating with Exxon to create biofuels from algae

But back to Big Pharma. Supply chain accountability starts at the bench: each solvent, catlalyst and substrate has its own set of sources and associated impacts. Following the principles of Green Chemistry keeps the focus in the right direction, but a broader view is needed in the industry to ensure that price spikes such as the Acetonitrile incident don’t happen again. If Acentonitrile came from sustainable sources, or if a green alternative was found, Pharma companies could have used their engagement with the manufacturers to not only show their commitment to the environment but also ensure a reliable source of solvent  with less potential liability from the downstream health effects of their suppliers. And that’s a strategy that works for the triple bottom line.

*Unofficial back of the envelope calculations figuring 20mg avg statin pill API * 1 dose per day * 40,000,000 patients * 365 days/yr = 292,000,000,0000 mg or 292 metric tonnes.