Advertisers long ago learned that they could increase the sales of many products simply by adding the word "natural" to the packaging. But what is natural? To many people, the natural world is a chemical-free world. In his new book Chemicals & Society: A Guide to the New Chemical Age (Cambridge University Press, 1986), Hugh D. Crone of the Materials Research Laboratories in Melbourne, Australia, bemoans the "plethora of chemical fact and fancy with which the public is bombarded," including the twin fancies that the natural world holds no chemicals and that the chemical world is completely toxic. In this adaptation from the book, Crone discusses the role chemists can play in explaining chemicals to the public and in working for effective laws to control chemical pollution.

I think we are seeing a departure from rationalism in a number of aspects of the Chemical Age. In 1945, we saw the...

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