What's on my mind.

30 January 2008

Chemicals are EVERYWHERE!!!

I watched a rerun of CSI the other day (when will the mid-season break end?) and at the end the D.A. was thanking Gil and --- for their work and explained that the company that had polluted the lake and groundwater (that ultimately lead to a suicide and a murder) wouldn't be prosecuted because their lawyers would argue that you can't prove that the chemicals in the water were at fault because there are chemicals in everything we touch, eat, drink, even in the air we breathe.

Then last night, I caught part of an interview on Market Place with the author of "Fugitive Denim", in which she said:
It's been said that there are three-quarters of a pound of chemicals used in the production and manufacture of our jeans. A lot of those chemicals are washed off by the time they get to our shelves, but they do have to go somewhere. I think the environmental consequences are far graver.
My first thought was "really? just 3/4 a pound?"; my second was "what is she considering 'chemicals'?" I won't argue the fact that many of the chemical compounds used in the production of clothing have serious environmental consequences*. I will argue the slightly derogatory use of the word 'chemicals' in both examples

Everything you can see, taste, smell and touch is a chemical, many chemicals can't be seen, tasted, or smelled and you might not realize you are touching them (like air molecules). Every thing is a chemical, some are natural, some are man-made, some are good, some bad, some indifferent, but they are all chemicals. Most things you come into daily contact with are not pure substances but a mixture of many chemicals**.

Chemicals should not be a scary word. It is often used to mean man-made, not found in nature, chemical substances. It is understandable that this has occurred and that usage doesn't always piss me off. But sometimes it does. Particularly when someone is trying to scare the public using the word. In the CSI episode the DA is assuming that the lawyers will be successful in arguing that common chemicals in our lives could have caused the problems. They would have used the juror's fear of *CHEMICALS* and feared pervasiveness in our lives to their advantage. Scummy and misleading use of the word but not usually going to set off my I-can-be-a-prick-about-science sensors. Same with the author - she's not misusing the word horribly.

What does set off my bells is when someone says that some cleaning product, food item, whatever doesn't contain chemicals or was produced without chemicals. Without harmful, synthetic, or man-made chemicals is OK. With only natural ingredients is OK. But it is full of chemicals.

Organic farmers can use chemicals - otherwise they couldn't even water their crops. They can also use natural fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. There was a "Dirty Jobs" episode where Mike worked on an organic coffee plantation in Hawaii. They used goats to take care of a lot of the weeds and to produce the raw material for fertilizer.:D

There is no difference in caffeine whether it is from a tea leaf, coffee bean, cola nut, or test tube. This applies to everything. The reason artificial vanilla flavoring doesn't taste like real vanilla extract is not because there is a difference in the vanillin molecules (main constituent of the extract) produced in a factory but because the extract of the vanilla bean contains many trace chemicals that are not in the artificial flavoring. If (and probably when) the complete composition of vanilla extract was known then the artificial would taste the same. You can substitute the artificial flavor/scent of your choice here, the same reasoning applies to most of them. Smells and tastes are produced by complex mixtures of individual chemicals and are difficult to replicate in a lab. There are many things that are too complex to begin to be accurately produce in a lab (like spider silk) but don't worry scientists are working on it.

So in short: Please don't be afraid of all chemicals - water is one of my favorites. Please don't try and live without them - dying of dehydration has got to suck and very few people really want to see you naked. STOP trying to scare people by using the word 'chemical'.

*Just to produce and harvest the cotton for the pants I'm wearing, pesticides, herbicides, and defoliants were used, that doesn't even begin to touch the processing of the raw cotton boles, spinning, dyeing, weaving, sewing, any treatments to improve colorfastness, wrinkle resistance, or the production of man-made fibers and 'hardware' (buttons, zippers, rivets...) used in the jeans. Or all the energy sources used to allow for this production. Something to think about next time you buy clothes.

**For example, one of the reasons green tea's (dried tea leaves) health benefits has been studied so much is that it has a simpler chemical make-up than black tea (fermented dried tea leaves), making it easier to determine which chemicals are doing what. Black tea has many of the same chemicals it is just much harder to figure out how much of what is in there. Coffee, too, probably.

Give yourself a gold star in science today if you've read all the way through my ramblings.

1 comment:

Debbie said...

Good point about chemicals - aren't our bodies basically chemical compositions? But the point is that some are naturally occurring, some are synthetic and potentially destructive.