Is Chemistry a Force for Good or Evil?

Peter Lantos

What is it you think of when someone says “chemicals” or “chemistry”? Do you shout “yeah!” or do you react the way some of the news media do, where you seldom encounter the word chemicals without the adjective toxic? As a result, many people have expressed the opinion that all chemicals should be banned. I wonder how many readers would favor that?

There is justification for concern regarding chemicals because there have been many times when they posed problems. One event that comes to mind is the disaster at Bhopal in India, the worst ever industrial disaster: a pesticide plant malfunctioned, and there were massive emissions of methyl isocyanate and other gases. Estimates range upward to 8,000 dead and half a million people injured.

There has also been the issue of fluorocarbons, which are used as propellants in aerosols and as plastic foaming agents. They are responsible for a depletion of the ozone layer, the part of the atmosphere that helps protect against the ultraviolet radiation that causes skin cancer, cataracts, and other health issues. Or to get closer to home, consider landfills where plastics packaging, designed to be durable, proves to be durable also in the landfill and adds to the massive amount of waste there and in the oceans.

To get personal, my twenty-something daughter was gardening and spreading Dursban, an organophosphate insecticide. She was taking all the prescribed precautions, including wearing protective gloves, but soon experienced severe body tremors that persisted for months.

Another example: The use of MTBE as a gasoline additive has the beneficial effect of producing a cleaner-burning gasoline, but it creates a problem. Gasoline tanks are not leak proof, and the MTBE, a water-soluble material, found its way into the water system. It was not a satisfactory approach for ensuring a cleaner-burning gasoline.

DDT was a wonderful insecticide that helped create sanitary conditions for control of typhus and malaria, diseases spread by animals. But it eventually proved to be an environmental hazard, including causing damage to wildlife, especially birds, which outweighed its beneficial effects.

So, we see that chemistry has resulted over the years in several problem situations. But let us look at the other side of the coin.

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of chemistry has been the development of medicines. Not long ago there were few remedies for allergies, diabetes, depression, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. Modern medicine, through appropriate chemicals, is helping us treat these as well as numerous other ailments and diseases. You might argue that these are the benefits of medicine, not chemistry. However, each of these medicines is a product of chemists who invented them, learned how to synthesize them, and made them available for the healthcare industry.

Surgery could not be carried out without anesthetics, although a long time ago it was performed that way; at best, the patient was given a stick on which to bite down and maybe a slug of whiskey to ease the pain. We later began to use chloroform, which itself proved to be a health hazard, followed by the use of ether which was effective—but was an explosion hazard. Today we have safe and effective anesthetic systems to help get a patient through serious procedures.

But let us leave this most obvious example. Let’s take the case of the automobile, one of America’s favorite toys. It was not so long ago that if I looked at a four-year-old car, I would see the chrome decoration (bumper, handles, grille work) badly peeling; the paint was cracking and checking in numerous places; there were rust spots on the body where the panels had rusted through; the radiator had probably been replaced at least once; the interior of the car smelled musty; and the seat was dirty.

That was then. Chemistry has brought about some major changes. Improved pickling and chrome-plating technology result in durable chrome-plated components. The paint is improved so that a four-year-old car is just as bright and shiny as it was when new, even without waxing. Undercoating chemicals and metal treatments protect the car’s body panels. I do not recall seeing a rusted-out car body in a long time. Antifreeze, which would decompose after just a year or two and result in a corroded radiator, is now stabilized, and you do not have to change the coolant. The upholstery and interior panels are no longer made of cotton, which when repeatedly wet acquires a musty, moldy odor. Instead they are made either from synthetic fibers or from plastic materials, all of which are unaffected by water or dirt. And the urethane foam makes the seats much more comfortable than did the horsehair stuffing.

There is another part of the car that has improved thanks to chemistry: the tire. Tire life used to be about 25,000 miles, and you would be careful not to drive over broken glass for fear of fatally cutting the tire. Thanks to chemistry, we now have tires that easily go past 50,000 miles, are much safer, resist damage, and can perform superbly even under the demanding conditions encountered on our high-speed interstate highways.

Consider the fuel for cars. Engines with high compression ratio require high-octane fuel, which used to be made by adding tetraethyl lead to the gasoline. But eventually we realized that the lead in this additive is a major environmental hazard. What came to the rescue? Chemistry. Now, through innovations in refinery catalysis, petroleum can be refined to produce high-octane gasoline without requiring a lead additive.

While on the subject of lead, let’s leave the car and look at the paint used in the home. Here again there used to be a health hazard: the lead that was present in many pigments as well as in some paint stabilizers. But chemistry has allowed us to make paints totally free of lead, so it is easy to comply with regulations aimed at eliminating lead from houses. An added bonus from chemistry: we now have waterborne paints instead of solvent-based ones, eliminating odors as well as enabling easy cleanup.

Also in the home, soiled fabrics and carpeting are readily cleaned because they are treated with soil repellents. I recall a rather expensive couch my family had. Even though kids were allowed to camp on it only infrequently, after just two years it was badly soiled, and the fabric had pilled and was shabby. Today’s upholstery fabrics benefit from fade-resistant dyes and soil and water repellents, and the fabrics made from synthetic fibers are durable and no longer pill.

Let’s turn to the human element. Both women and men will appreciate modern cosmetics—the lipstick, face powder, glosses, and UV screens that make people more attractive and feel better about themselves. And we do this with safe chemical ingredients.

Do we recall the days of doing the laundry with soap? If so, do we remember the dubious job soap did, not removing ring around the collar, in addition to forming scum? Do the modern detergents, used not only in laundry detergent but in dish soap and in shampoos, represent a significant advance? Do many of us enjoy the use of water that is no longer “hard” because of water-softening resins?

How about our clothes? I remember only too well when a raincoat allowed water to pass through it readily; when socks developed holes after just a few days of wear; when silk stockings were expensive and fragile; when trousers developed baggy knees; and you would not even think of wearing a laundered shirt or other garment that had not been ironed. All that has changed. Shirts, even those made from cotton, can be worn without ironing (if you are not too fussy) because the fabric has been treated with permanent-press resins. And the same water repellents and stain repellents mentioned earlier in connection with upholstery fabrics and carpeting are applied to garments with equally beneficial effect.

So, we have heard of serious problems caused by chemicals. You may have even heard the absurd suggestion that all chemicals should be banned. But is that possible? How about the rocks out there? They are made of chemicals: carbonates, silicates. The trees? They are cellulose, lignin, and chlorophyllin. Meat is nothing other than proteins and fats. The salt we put on our food, or spread on ice, is sodium chloride, and the air is nothing but a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen.

To take it to an extreme: our body is a conglomeration of chemicals ranging from proteins, fats, and keratin to a profusion of water. Let’s face it: chemicals are us!

Some suggest that we should concentrate on using only chemicals that are “natural.” Natural chemicals would include poisonous belladonna; mercury and heavy-metal pigments found in rocks; or even the flatulence of cows, methane, which contributes even more than we used to think to climate change.

So, here we are. You have now heard about a lot of problems and a lot of benefits that are the products of chemistry. Because literally every substance is a chemical, we can neither ban chemicals nor permit only the use of so-called natural chemicals. Most of the problems have been caused not by the chemicals but by their misuse or by human ignorance.

Peter Lantos

Peter Lantos is a retired chemical engineer. He has a PhD from Cornell University and spent thirty years in senior management positions at Du Pont, Celanese, Atlantic Richfield, and other places. After that he formed a management consulting firm, served for twenty-five years as its head, and was as an expert witness in twenty-four cases.

What is it you think of when someone says “chemicals” or “chemistry”? Do you shout “yeah!” or do you react the way some of the news media do, where you seldom encounter the word chemicals without the adjective toxic? As a result, many people have expressed the opinion that all chemicals should be banned. I …

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