Who Caused Chemistry's Toxic Image?

Chemists are beginning to recognize that chemistry, or at least chemicals, frighten the average person. “Chemical” is used to mean “unnatural,” and is usually preceded by “toxic.” How did this bad public image of chemicals and chemistry develop?

By | December 15, 1986

Chemists are beginning to recognize that chemistry, or at least chemicals, frighten the average person. “Chemical” is used to mean “unnatural,” and is usually preceded by “toxic.” How did this bad public image of chemicals and chemistry develop? I believe chemists themselves are primarily responsible for the public image of chemistry.

First, we all are more or less responsible for our choice of project. In academic re search, we can work on almost anything for which we can get funding. While the choices are more limited in industry, we can still choose. Imagine the impact on public opinion (both positive and negative) if chemists as a group refused to work on weapons development.

As company experts on chemicals, we also have some control over the product's contents and safety and over the wording of warning labels. Frequently we fail to defend public safety when it conflicts with our self-interest. Tom Lehrer's song is too often appropriate: “ 'I make the rockets go up. Who knows where they come down? That's not my department,' says Werner von Braun.”

We are also the people in the company best able to estimate the risk to workers and to organize the workplace to protect them. Workers have a right to a safe environment and to know the properties of the materials with which they are working. If they know the dangers, they will be more likely to com ply with safety regulations. The recent proposed standards from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for safety in research laboratories recognize the expertise of the workers and the small amounts of chemicals used. Perhaps with our cooperation, similar reasonable standards can be developed for other environments.

Teachers, too, must be responsible for helping their students develop good safety habits at both the undergraduate and graduate levels—even first-year graduate students seldom know enough to work safely.

Toxic wastes and plant and shipping accidents worry the public. Chemists are morally responsible for what they make and, should proposed federal legislation be enacted, would also become legally responsible for the ultimate use—or misuse—and disposal of their products. Such extreme legislation seems unfair. Chemists must get involved to ensure a just standard of legal responsibility for chemicals. Only chemists know how to devise ways for disposing of chemicals safely, yet most remain ignorant of what happens to their waste, and pass on responsibility when they pass the can to the disposer.

Dangerous plant accidents can result from design and operation errors by chemists and chemical engineers who then refuse to provide needed information about the danger to the public. The recent large spill of pesticides and mercury into the Rhine River, which contaminated water and killed fish in four countries, is a good example. Analysis downstream initially provided more information on the nature of the spill than did the company. Shipping accidents cannot be blamed entirely on the trucking industry— we chemists are the people who design the synthetic routes that include such unsafe practices as transporting toxic intermediates across the country. We are all guilty. What chemist has never poured an organic solvent down the drain?

We tend to dismiss fraud as an aberration, but we have all met people who fudged the data a little bit, and we have all faced that temptation. Perhaps it is these little frauds that have resulted in the failure of companies to detect toxicity in ingredients in their products, increased disease levels in their employees, or inadequate plant safety. Nor are academics immune: it is unlikely that a graduate student would fake a thesis that did not agree with the adviser's prediction. Our students and employees learn to commit little frauds because we reward them for getting the “right” answer instead of taking the time to be sure that they have done the experiments carefully. Educators and managers must analyze carefully the hidden messages they transmit.

In our society, waste is generally considered to be a government problem, not an individual one. Our attitude to our individual waste is to find someone s back yard to dump it in. Chemists must help educate industry and the public that the real costs of producing any item include the cost of the product's damage to the air, water and land—and the manufacturer's neighbors.

Chemists should be in the forefront of lobbying for strict and appropriate regulations for industrial and academic use and disposal of toxic materials, and for right-to-know legislation. If we do not begin some constructive criticism of our own behavior, not even our responsible critics will spare us, let alone the less-responsible ones. We have a choice—change our attitudes and behavior or let the courts and Congress legislate us into paralysis.

Sweeting is a professor of chemistry at Towson State University, Towson, MD 21204. This article is based on a presentation at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society, September 8, 1986.

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