Sciencegeist: Our Favorite Toxic Chemicals

Originally posted May 14, 2012

Announcing a Blog Carnival

You may have heard. Chemicals are bad for you. Especially if they are made by “Big Chem”. They are especially scary if you happen to be a male reptile or an amphibian. If this is the case, you’re in line to have your johnson shrunk or, possibly, tack on a pair of ovaries. Nick Kristof, of New York Times Op-Ed fame, is the latest in a long line of writers to sound the alarm against “chemicals” being “spewed” into the “environment” by “products” being made at “Big Chemical” corporations. These vague pronouncements of doom pop up from time to time warning us against any and all products with “chemical additives”. They have played prominently in a recent discussion on the origins of autism. The aura of bad chemicals even made its way into an interview with DOW CEO, Andrew Liveris.

Scared of chemicals? Not to worry, this chemical free chemistry set allows you to be a pretend scientist working in imaginaryland.

The point of this post isn’t to address each of these issues. Other writers with much more talent than I have already taken their shots at many of the loose arguments, lazy rhetoric, and unfettered chemophobia found in these articles. [Deborah Blum on Nick Kristof, See Arr Oh on Nick Kristof, Chemjobber on Andrew Liveris, See Arr Oh on Andrew Liveris, Dr. Rubidium on Andrew Liveris (NSFW – tho an appropriate response)]

And, I certainly don’t want to brush over the fact that chemicals can be dangerous. Certainly we need to be sure that the chemicals we use in consumer products are used in safe amounts. We also need to remain vigilant that these molecules don’t accumulate in our bodies over time. Of particular focus should be molecules that are ubiquitous in the products we buy. Bisphenol A (BPA) SHOULD be highly scrutinized because it is found in so many different consumer materials. (I’m not saying that I agree with the hysteria surrounding BPA use. BPA isn’t BPA anymore after it has been used in making plastics. My argument is that it is everywhere. So we should not shy away from extra scrutiny.) On that note, I wish that the EPA and the FDA had more power/funding to test our consumer products in a manner that the population deserves.

There are two things I wanted to do with this blog post. The first is to reiterate the argument that chemicals aren’t inherently good or bad. A chemical can be good in on situation and awful in another. In some instances, a chemical may be beneficial while also carrying risks. We need water to survive. Yet, marathon runners who consume too much water are at risk of suffering from hyponatremia. Sodium hydroxide can unclog your drains and melt your face, but we add bagels and pretzels to boiling solutions of sodium hydroxide to make them taste better. Mountain Dew is a magical color because of Yellow 5, but is it worth it to drink lots of Mountain Dew when the Yellow 5 may shrink your penis? (Sorry … that urban rumor is ENTIRELY unsubstantiated. But, I remember that rumor being pretty prominent when I was 11 or 12 years old … Or perhaps it was the fact that I was an 11 or 12 year old boy that made this rumor so serious.) The point of these examples is that just because a chemical can be toxic, doesn’t mean that we should or do stop using them. In most cases, the danger is in the dosage. It is always important to keep this in mind.

The second purpose for this post is to announce a Blog Carnival – Our Favorite Toxic Chemicals – that I am hosting next week. If you are interested, we’d love if we could get lots of people writing in about their favorite toxic chemical. It can be “natural” or “industrial”. It can be narcotic or laboratory-based. What I’m hoping is that people talk about a toxic chemical that plays some non-toxic role in their lives. If you’ve got a blog and you want to join in, just ping us over here and we’ll make note of it in our daily round-up of links. If you don’t have a blog, and still want to play along, then just write something up in the comment section of this post.

And, be sure to check here daily next week. We’ve got some great bloggers on board with this one already, and I’m even going to get a post up!

Looking forward to having everyone around next week for our Toxic Carnival!!