Dirty Dozen Chemicals

Dirty dozen chemicalsWe live in an age of chemophobia, an insidious disease that threatens our way of life, precludes R & D that might solve many of the environmental issues we face and prevents disease-stopping compounds being deployed where they are most needed in the developing world. Chemophobia is an irrational fear of all things chemical and is usually contracted by those already with naturophilia, the irrational love of all things natural.

It usually starts with a dose of nostalgia, pangs for a time when the world was simpler, and an aching for a natural world that we have long since lost. Unfortunately for sufferers, there never was a time of simplicity and natural living. In those halcyon days of yore, infectious disease was rife, infant mortality rates were high, and life expectancy was very low.

Natural, at that time meant, inept remedies for lethal diseases such as polio, tuberculosis, bacterial infections, and plague. It meant poor harvests and widespread famine, and if disease didn’t catch you young, only those who kept their heads very low were safe from interminable wars, rock-breaking on distant sun-bleached shores, or the hangman’s noose, guilty or otherwise. Today, we may have more obesity and diabetes and certainly fare more incidences of the diseases of old age, but that’s because we have more food to eat (in the developed world, at least) and live longer.

Certainly, natural does not equate to good for you – think snake venom, belladonna, and deadly toadstools, whereas most synthetic chemicals have a strong pedigree and have tested safety and toxicity. But throw in the fact that most chemophobics also have risk assessment blindness as well as dystatistica and we see pronouncements on all things chemical and synthetic as being bad.

It is from this, that the UNEP Dirty Dozen Chemicals list emerges. Not only has it a far too conveniently tabloid name to be believed, but several of the entries are not single chemicals but whole families.

Needless to say, several of these, while appearing to be the harbinger’s of doom media hyperbole would have us believe, are not necessarily as dangerous to us or the environment as you might think, and others, such as DDT could be used to help eradicate one of the biggest global killers. Indeed, the WHO now allows for the use of DDT to fight malaria-bearing mosquitoes.

  • Aldrin (pesticide)
  • Chlordane (pesticide)
  • DDT (pesticide, highly effective against malaria-carrying mosquitoes)
  • Dieldrin
  • Heptachlor
  • Mirex
  • Toxaphene
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, a whole group of diverse compounds, each with
    its own properties)
  • Hexachlorobenzene
  • Dioxins (a whole diverse group of compounds)
  • Furans (a whole diverse group of compounds, each with its own properties)

These compounds are now banned under UNEP, but were not used in manufacturing before this list was created.

There are other lists, such as the List of RoHO prohibited substances, which includes lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants, which is fair enough. And, industry-specific lists, such as the Volvo manufacturing black list, which lists all the compounds that may not be used in its production lines, including CFC cooling agents, the paint hardener methylenedianiline, and the previously discussed carbon tetrachloride

In a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Sustainable Manufacturing (2008, 1, 41-57), Jack Jeswiet, of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada and Michael Hauschild of the Danish Technical University, Denmark, argue the case that market forces need to inform environmental design. One can only assume that this should be one of the drivers rather than media scare stories, chemophobia and the simplistic blanket precautions of lists.

Greenhouse gas emissions, environmental impact, and toxic substances to be avoided must all be addressed by the EcoDesigner in any design situation, they say. The ecodesigner cannot control market forces, but must aware of them and rules should be followed to reduce the eco footprint.

At the time of writing, a news release from the UK’s Royal Society’s summer science exhibition presented findings from consumers tests being carried out during the event which is open to the public. The researchers involved, from the National Physical Laboratory, are working towards producing the world’s first model that will predict how we perceive “naturalness”. They claim that the results could help manufacturers produce synthetic products that are so good they seem “natural” to our senses and are fully equivalent to the “real thing”, but with the benefits of reduced environmental impact and increased durability.

Meanwhile, a new study shows that companies are significantly hijacking the language of environmentalists to their own marketing ends, presumably hoping to leverage the best out of the movement in selling their products.

11 thoughts on “Dirty Dozen Chemicals

  1. Nothing changed in the registration or regulation of DDT in 2006. DDT has been available for use against malaria under the 1970 restrictions in Europe, under the 1972 and later restrictions in the U.S., and under the 2001 POPs Treaty.

    Sure, there is a lot of chemophobia — much of it related to misinformation and disinformation.

    Anyone who rides in an automobile but has a little bit of fear in an airplane suffers from a displaced risk assessment sense — but we muddle on anyway.

    What we should not do is think that the restrictions on the dirty dozen chemicals are irrational or unjustified. DDT is regarded with fear in Africa today not so much because of what people read in newspapers — you’re giving way too much credit to the credibility and circulation of newspapers — but instead because in several rather famous cases DDT killed off a lot of the local fish populations, bringing starvation. If there is a culprit for fear learned through newspapers, please look no farther than the tobacco and cotton growing businesses in Africa who sue to stop the use of DDT, and don’t blame it on environmental organizations like Environmental Defense who have argued for DDT’s use in Africa for many years, or writers like Rachel Carson, who said accurately that indiscriminate use of DDT would drive resistance to it by mosquitoes, which was in fact the chief cause of the failure of the malaria eradication campaign of the 1960s.

    DDT disrupts the environment and is uncontrollable in the wild. It takes out non-target, keystone species. Manufacturing plants of the stuff are notorious for their hazards to neighbors, both historically in the U.S., and currently in places like India. DDT has a special carve out for use against malaria, but that carve out is done without any evidence that the stuff can ever be used safely.

    No, it won’t kill humans quickly. It will give cancer to your daughters, shrink the testes of your sons, and give the sons female-like mammaries, and make all your children sterile — but it’s not “toxic” in the sense that you’d die a quick death.

    “Not toxic” does not mean “not harmless” nor “safe.”

    In history, chemophobia has proven less dangerous than chemophilia. In the end, both of those diseases can be cured with information, but to cure and not aggravate the problem, the information must be good and accurate.

  2. Actually the bulk chemicals (about 90%) in use have not gone through a ecotoxicological assessment. So they still might harm the environment, given the concentration is high enough. Here in Europe this problem is being tackled by an initiative called REACH (since 01.07.07), making it mandatory for every newly marketed chemical to go through a full assessment. What to do with the other 90% in circulation already? I don’t know, since the system (referring to Dr. Hall) is already in place and all the agents widely in use, it is quite a task to change it.

    But generally I agree with publishing this dozen, it gives a good idea what kind a chemicals may harm the environment.

    By the way, you missed one: Endrin! :)

  3. I’ll agree with David Brown. As a chemist, I support the appropriate, informed use of well characterized and understood synthetic products. On the other hand, I still shudder when I remember the maintenance guy here at work boasting “I found a bunch of pesticide jugs with the labels gone, so I mixed ’em all together and sprayed it on all the trees.” Several years later, I still won’t take any fruit home when it’s offered.

  4. David,

    You’re right about the chemophobia of course. But basically it’s a gut response to many decades of careless use of chemicals in agriculture and industry. Please, do read “Food for Nought.”

    Here are two quotes from Chapter 11: The fabrication of Technologic man:

    Alice Shabecoff, a former executive director of the National Consumers League commenting on the land-grant college system asked, “…when the colleges were perfecting these systems of stepped up production, where was the coordinated research that proved there would be no ill-effect upon the food thus produced?”

    Dr. Hall’s comment: “To operate efficiently the system must remain remote and impenetrable. The public must remain passive and absorbent. To open up the system to scrutiny and judgment is to threaten the existence of the system in its present form. Is it any wonder that all the educational forces conspire to prevent the public from learning how to scrutinize and judge the system?”

    In some respects, the chemophobia response is similar to the response to nuclear power plants, except that nuclear power industry has a far better safety track record than the chemical industry.

  5. Yes, Ed, you’re right, that changed in 2006. Incidentally, Prof Jeswiet was happy with what I wrote about his paper and I don’t think I’d disagree with some of what Mr Brown says, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that there is a lot of intrinsic chemophobia where natural is considered safe and synthetic automatically assume to be dangerous.

  6. DDT is banned from use on food crops, and banned from uses that would make it less effective against malaria. DDT is specifically NOT banned for uses fighting malaria.

    What else were you misinformed about?

    It sounds as if Mr. Brown knows what he’s talking about.

  7. I recommend “Food for Nought” by Ross Hume Hall, PhD. Dr. Hall points out that, “Nature does not make anything that Nature cannot take apart.

    The problem with synthetics is that they tend to persist and accumulate in the environment if they are chemically configured in such a way that they cannot be taken apart by natural (microbial feeding) processes. Damage to human, animal, or plant health occurs when the amount of synthetic chemical accumulated in living tissue interferes with an organism’s growth and reproductive processes by either defeating or overwhelming the organisms “natural” biochemical mechanisms designed to detoxify the internal cellular environment.

    If synthetics are to be safely used in manufacturing and agriculture, it is important to track their movement in and effects on the environment. It they can be utilized without damaging or destroying the health of any life forms, fine with me.

  8. Eradicating the malaria mosquito has been tried and proven not really all that effective, doesn’t make DDT any less useful though but don’t think the malaria mosquitos will be making the list of endangered species any time soon.

    It’s funny to see though how there’s being complained about such poisons which were developed in controlled settings and are even applied under controlled situations in most locations whereas other poisons like botulinum toxin (botox) which might be natural but remains a poison in higher and higher percentages of the population is shot into their faces :P.

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