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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? 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 fo

Linda Sweeting

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...

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