Thursday, August 6, 2009

Chemistry—The Good News [Don't Laugh]

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

Chemistry—The Good News [Don’t Laugh]

Last issue, SSG told of the journey from once proud chemistry to today’s age of the C word. Quick, what’s the first word you think of when I say chemical? Dangerous? Toxic? Today’s column will not improve the image of chemistry, but it may lighten the gloom a little. As a perq, let’s go for a bit of satire.

• The first place to seek relief from the plague of man-made chemicals is in another laboratory: Mother Nature’s own clinic. She’s been at it much longer. A recent WHO study found that people who have been drinking hard water, laced with extra calcium and magnesium, are less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, even if they, too, have subjected their bodies to fried and processed foods.
• Over in India, researchers found that animals fed garlic extract were protected against the effects of arsenic, a common pollutant found in ground water.
• Air pollution occurs following combustion of coal, oil, gas, or cigarettes. The chemicals produced are classified as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). It was found in a NYC study that the effects of this classical pollutant were blocked by healthy lifestyle practices: good foods and effective exercise. Nature wins another one.
• Being outdoors in the fresh air always seemed beneficial, even if your mother thought so, too. Now, we are finding the reasons. Sunlight stimulates the skin to produce Vitamin D, and the sunshine vitamin is important for strong bones. But we already knew that. New work in genetics has found that Vitamin D regulates the expression of over 100 genes, and counting. Beyond bones & calcium regulation, Vitamin D is important for the carbohydrate metabolism cycle and immune system function. Samas, the sun god, deserves more respect.

On the way to finding a few silver bullets to fire at the 22,000 devil chemicals, we discovered something more valuable — how to think about our bodies. We learned that nutrients work through our genome as well as our chemistry. Nutrigenomics, a new combo-science, recently found that folic acid converts homocysteine to methionine through the good offices of the MTHFR gene. [Don’t snicker.] Homocysteine is one of the coronary heart disease gremlins, and it’s good to know we have evolved a way to deal with it. It is only one example of the hundreds of nutrients and thousands of genes that are partners. It is why the chemical industry needs at least 22,000 agents for taking over our bodies. We, on the other hand, have many parapets to defend. Through all the Devil’s details, we have become acutely aware of the toxic soup we used to call the environment. 22,000 chemicals out there can’t be spun by the industry into something desirable by labeling
it all “diversity.” We need to think big, think small, think all in all.

Since the early ’80s we’ve been in a free-for-all age of deregulation. The chemical industry celebrated their freedom by jiggling and juggling cyclic and in-line radicals to come up with wondrous new compounds. They knew enough not to name them Agent Orange. We the People were supposed to depend on voluntary corporate compliance with “best practices,” and we were supposed to trust their honorable CEOs. Who could have known they would disappoint us. The Europeans knew. They had experience with genetically engineered foods that Monsanto refused to label as such. The Europeans never understood why the chemical giant was so ashamed of its wonderful new products.

The EU — such untrusting souls — said to Eminent Chemistry: “If you want a green card you must register with us. No undocumented chemicals are allowed.” The program is REACH — registration, evaluation, authorization, and the rules to follow. It asks nothing fancy, just: the name of the chemical & how to pronounce it, who makes it, what it is used for, whether it is hazardous and, if so, is it bioaccumulative in the human body. The first reaction of US Chemistry was to stamp its feet and spit expletives. REACH, they said, would force the chemical corporations to reveal their secret proprietary formulas to a) competitors and b) the EPA (US) who, the Supreme Court recently decided, was required to protect the environment. In the end, DOW Chemical decided to go along with the Europeans’ strange philosophy of openness and honesty. The company said cooperation would produce a “more favorable business climate for DOW and the chemical industry.”

See, there really is some good news. Now if we can only import some of these European ideas to this side of the pond. How about an expansion of free trade to include ethics?

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