A Flood of Man-Made Chemicals
THIS century could well be called the age of chemistry. Man-made chemical compounds have changed our lives. Our homes, offices, and factories are filled with aerosols, artificial sweeteners, cosmetics, dyes, inks, paints, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, plastics, refrigerants, synthetic fabrics—the list could fill volumes.
To satisfy the world’s demand for these products, the annual global production of chemicals, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), amounts to about $1.5 trillion. WHO reports that some 100,000 chemicals are now on the market and that from 1,000 to 2,000 new ones are added each year.
However, this flood of chemicals invites questions regarding how they affect the environment as well as our own health. Clearly, we are sailing into uncharted waters. “We are all part of an experimental generation, and the full effects will not be known for decades to come,” said one doctor.
More Chemicals, More Risks?
The people most often affected by chemical pollutants, observes WHO, are “poor, illiterate people with little or no access to appropriate training or basic information on the risks posed by chemicals to which they are exposed directly or indirectly every day.” This is especially true of pesticides. But we are all affected by chemicals.
Some 20 percent of California’s water wells, says the book A Green History of the World, have pollution levels, including pesticides, above official safety limits. “In Florida,” the book adds, “1,000 wells have been closed because of contamination; in Hungary 773 towns and villages have water that is unfit for consumption, in Britain ten per cent of aquifers are polluted above World Health Organisation safety limits and in parts of both Britain and the United States tap water cannot be given to new born babies because of high nitrate levels.”
Mercury is another useful but potentially toxic chemical. It finds its way into the environment through sources ranging from industrial smokestacks to billions of fluorescent lights. Similarly, lead can be found in many products, from fuel to paint. But like mercury, it can be toxic, especially to children. Exposure to leaded emissions may shave up to “four points from the I.Q.” of the average child, says one report from Cairo, Egypt.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, each year some 100 tons of mercury, 3,800 tons of lead, 3,600 tons of phosphates, and 60,000 tons of detergents enter the Mediterranean Sea as a result of human activities. Understandably, the sea is in crisis. But it is not alone. In fact, the United Nations declared 1998 the International Year of the Ocean. Worldwide, all oceans are in trouble, particularly because of pollution.
While chemical technology has given us many helpful products, we use and dispose of many of them at considerable cost to the environment. Have we, as one newspaper columnist recently said, made ourselves “hostages to progress”?
[Box on page 4]
Chemicals and Chemical Reactions
The term “chemical” applies to all the basic substances that make up the world around us, including the more than one hundred fundamental elements, such as iron, lead, mercury, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen. Chemical compounds, or combinations of different elements, include such things as water, acids, salts, and alcohol. Many of these compounds occur naturally.
A “chemical reaction” has been defined as “a process in which one substance is chemically converted to another.” Fire is a chemical reaction; it converts one combustible substance—paper, gasoline, hydrogen, and so forth—into a totally different substance or substances. Many chemical reactions occur unceasingly, both around us and inside us.
[Picture on page 3]
The poor suffer the most from chemical pollutants