We 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)
- Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, a whole group of diverse compounds, each with
its own properties)
- 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.