Thursday, August 6, 2009

Chemistry: Servant or Master

Salud, Salut, Gesund—As Long As You’re Healthy
by Mort Malkin

Chemistry: Servant or Master

Back in the Sixties I had a neighbor who considered himself a fellow environmentalist. Neither of us made a living from our avocation — environmental science wasn’t even offered as a liberal arts college course. Professionally, he was a chemist and proud that his work was beneficial to society. The American Chemical Council advertised: “Miracles through Modern Chemistry.” Indeed, the chemists did create wondrous solvents, emulsifiers, coatings, glues, and the next generation of antibiotics beyond penicillin.

It is now 40 years on. As with other inventions and technologies we take for granted — electricity, the auto, the airplane, television, cell phones — chemistry has not been purely beneficent. The wild excesses of chemistry have turned the servant of mankind into a malevolent master. Indeed, the very word “chemical” appears regularly in our language preceded by the adjective “toxic.” Today, 22,000 different chemicals are produced worldwide in moderate to high quantities. They grace our households in the form of cleansers, polishes, personal products, and even our foods. They pervade the planet’s earth, air and water. Our bodies have accumulated a wide assortment of the nasties — every one of us.

Various artificial chemicals have caused human harm on a scale to rival the number of miracles the industry so proudly claims. It may be worse than we know. Chemicals are tested for toxicity one at a time. Yet, in their various applications, they are usually used in combinations, and their toxic effect is often synergistic. Do we need 22,000 different chemicals, so many of which have the same purpose?

The harm caused comes in a variety of ways. Herbicides, even those not quite as toxic as Agent Orange, can cause cancer, respiratory distress, and neurodegenerative disorders. Pesticides used in the home environment during pregnancy can double the incidence of childhood leukemias. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, largely generated form fossil fuels and ubiquitous in the air we breathe, cause fetal growth restriction and increase the likelihood of pre-term birth.

Radioactive chemicals can enter the environment in a number of ways — from the mining of uranium ore to deep gas well drilling that can release other radioactive elements. The High Delaware Valley has measurable radon levels from the natural degradation of radium. Radioactive mineral levels in drinking water have been found to cause endocrine disruption leading to increases in reproductive organ cancer. Radioactivity exposure also affects fetus growth and survival. A Czech study of women pregnant at the time of the Chernobyl accident of April 1986 reported a significant decline in male births in November of that year.

The elemental metals cadmium, arsenic, and mercury are also known to disrupt endocrine function. A Taiwan study found that arsenic in well water caused erectile dysfunction and testosterone suppression.

Researchers have examined the effects of various chemical compounds on different organ systems of the body — lungs, kidneys, liver, brain, heart & vasculature, and so on. They discovered that chemicals usually affected multiple organs and organ systems. The pan-toxicity rule is evident in immune system function. The immune system is a network of several organs and tissues: bone marrow, lymphoid tissues, thymus gland, pineal gland, adrenal cortex, blood, and a couple of others we are just starting to understand. The bottom line is that the immune system in one or more parts reacts badly to chemical environments. As example, a class of chemicals commonly used in consumer products, perfluoroalkyls, depresses immune function in humans. The products often enter the environments of wildlife and fish and depresses their immune systems, leaving them at the mercy of parasites and viruses.

We have been given stewardship of the Earth and all its creatures. We have not honored that trust. Too often we have measured success and progress in terms of GNP and individual net worth. But we can hold to higher values. Clean air and pure drinking water cannot be measured in dollars — they are priceless.

In Part 2 of this mini-series, we will report on a number of hopeful signs. But, we may have to learn from and cooperate with Mother Nature. Tune in next month.

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