"This is not to say that all chemicals are evil"

The title of this post is taken from today's opinion piece by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, which focuses on carcinogens in our daily life and our failure to regulate exposure to dangerous compounds.

Kristof's point is that we should do a better job of protecting ourselves and our environment from industrial compounds. No argument there. He goes on to say that a "proliferation of chemicals in water, foods, air and household products" is suspected as a factor in rising cancer rates. Yes, argument here.

Because, geez, water is a chemical compound (hydrogen and oxygen). And the atmosphere has always been a wonderfully mixed up soup of gases, mostly nitrogen (78.08 percent) and oxygen (20.95 percent), with a sprinkle of argon (.93 percent) and a dash of carbon dioxide, neon, helium, methane, krypton, nitrous oxide, hydrogen and ozone. (Ozone, by the way, is just another way of saying three oxygen atoms bonded together). And everything we eat or drink- although we don't usually consider it - is made of nothing but, yes, chemicals. Take table sugar or sucrose. Nothing but a collection of very familiar chemicals: C12H22O11 (12 carbon atoms, 22 hydrogen and 11 oxygen).

After proposing a link between too much chemistry and not just cancer but diabetes, obesity and autism, Kristof goes on to note "This is not to say that chemicals are evil...". Darn right they're not. We're made of them ourselves; scientists have tallied up some 41 chemical elements in body's construction, the largest proportion (87 percent) being hydrogen and oxygen. In other words, we're mostly made of H2O, also known as water.

So let's give chemicals a break, okay? They're not the problem. The problems come from the way we mix them up, the way we fail to appreciate how dangerously experimental some of these compounds are, the casual way we stir them into our daily lives, and - here I agree with Kristof - our failure to fully fund research into the consequences of these compounds or to regulate them with any enthusiasm.

But we won't begin to fix any of this if we don't get the basics right. And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to drown my frustrations in a glass of C2H5OH, preferably of the sauvignon blanc variety.

More like this

And by tapping into a chemist's biggest pet peeve, you've won yourself a reader! The number of wags I deal with who think chemicals are scary and "unnatural" is mind-boggling. Terrified of chlorine in the water (yeah, I wish I had water-borne diseases too), but not the slightest bit worried about the herbal meds they swallow by the handful. Ya know, cause those have never had any contaminants have they? Nooo, cause they're so natural! I would love to see more entries on the chemistry behind pseudomedicines and intoxicants if you're looking for blog fodder suggestions.

Incidentally, while I love some C2H5OH, (â)-(6aR,10aR)-6,6,9-trimethyl-3-pentyl-6a,7,8,10a-tetrahydro-6H-benzo[c]chromen-1-ol is also a friend (I'll leave the googling to anyone nerdy/curious enough to want to find out)

Welcome to Sb!

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 10 May 2010 #permalink

Welcome Deborah and thanks for this post. I had the same reaction to Kristof's article. I appreciate your eloquence in taking this subject on.

We met in London last year. I hope to see you again soon

What does the word 'natural' mean? In a sense, everything that exists is 'natural,' but for the term to be meaningful it must be used so as to distinguish man-made substances from those that exist in nature and were not synthesized or accumulated by human artifice. Used thusly, compounds that have long existed in nature may have a long history of physiological exposure to them, allowing selection to mitigate their toxicity or even turn them into nutrients. Synthetic compounds have no such history of exposure and hence, no selection has occurred in response to them. Then there is the whole question of synergisms, agonisms & antagonisms among & between compounds. It's unusual for the toxicity of a novel compound to have been evaluated in any depth or detail. It's virtually unknown for the toxicity of two or more compounds to have been evaluated together. Often 1 + 1 >>> 2 in such cases. Often substances interact non-additively so that the toxicity of two compounds taken together is much worse than the sum of either taken alone. The precautionary principle should apply: a novel substance should be considered toxic and environmentally harmful until demonstrated otherwise. Under profit driven capitalism this is never the case. Because corporate profit is deemed more important than public health and environmental integrity, environmental toxicity is a major cause of morbidity & mortality for humans and wildlife.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 10 May 2010 #permalink

I like a couple of shots of 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine diluted in hot water everyday.

By john wilkerson (not verified) on 10 May 2010 #permalink

I'm sorry that Kristof's semantics upset some chemists out there, but the this entry really sidesteps any substantive discussion of the issues.

Comment #3 is right on the money, and I would like to hear more about studies that examine how synthetic compounds interact with each other and the environment.

By Eff Gwazdor (not verified) on 10 May 2010 #permalink

I blame the electrons.

Thanks, Pam. It's great to hear from you. Hope we catch a moment again too.

Regulate? I've worked in regulatory for chemicals......that is one HUGE can of worms. There is really no incentive for pharma or biotech to really spend the kind of money they would really need to spend in order to properly regulate chemicals. Bottom line is this: figure out the minimum amount of money you can spend for the amount of risk you are willing to take on and then hope nothing bad happens. Unfortunately, a company cannot make a profit unless they adopt this sort of attitude. Therefore, we can never monitor/regulate products thoroughly at the pace at which they are introduced onto the market. In some cases we have not done enough research on these chemicals by the time of their release to be able to properly notify the customer of their dangers. This isn't a regulatory issue in this particular case but just a lack of knowledge problem. I really don't see a viable solution to this problem as long as the free market allows competition between companies. (and I am in favor of the free market despite this little glitch.
I'm happy to see a journalist focus on chemistry. It isn't a typical topic of science journalism.