Uneven effort to simplify science.

Posted by Wim Thielemans at Jan 20, 2012 06:00 AM | Permalink

The Montreal Gazette prints 20 key points to help the public interpret chemical science but a scientist specializing in green chemistry explains why not all of them hit the mark.

In an article in the Montreal Gazette, Joe Schwarcz of McGill University lists 20 points he believes are important to address when interpreting chemistry for the public. His ideas – distilled from a year of lecturing to public audiences – touch on some very good points but also lack other key ideas.

In the article, Schwarcz welcomes criticism and comments of his personal views on the subject. My main concerns are with omissions in some of the individual points as well as a contradiction between his points.

• #2 – Everything is comprised of chemicals. Citing examples of common chemicals in nature – such as oxygen, water and kitchen salt – would have bolstered his point.

• #3 – There are no dangerous or safe chemicals. I would argue there are dangerous chemicals. A highly toxic or explosive chemical always has an inherent danger associated with it, irrespective of how it is used. This is one reason industrial processes – when using these chemicals to create other chemicals or products – will make them and then immediately react them to change them into a safer product. An example would be phosgene, a gas well known for its use as a chemical weapon in World War I. Because it reacts every quickly, it is used to produce polycarbonates. These widely used polymers are in glass lenses, for example. So phosgene is made but then directly converted into a safe product by reaction with other chemicals.

• #5 – Animal studies do not necessarily reflect humans. This paints a very limited picture. It is true that animal studies do not reveal everything about how chemicals might affect people. However, they do give some important indications, especially when acute toxicity – short-term toxic effects – is concerned. Brushed over is one of the main problems with current toxicology: adults respond differently than embryos and children at various stages of development. So even within humans, important differences in toxic responses are seen.

#6 – Chemical presence does not equal risk. No, other issues matter, such as dose and those mentioned above: a person or animal and stage of life – embryo, young or adult – that is exposed to the chemical. All may respond differently.

• # 9 – Affirming there are hazardous chemicals appears to contradict point #3: There are no inherently dangerous or safe substances. Indeed, even kitchen salt can kill if taken in too high an amount. I would therefore describe “green chemistry” as replacing current chemicals with less hazardous ones.

• #16 – It is nonsense that the body can heal itself with the right natural substances. This idea should be carefully interpreted. As a scientist, I know we have a limited understanding of the human body. Maybe some day, science will help us better understand if and how naturally occurring chemicals could cure ailments. Scientific progress has a knack for proving the impossible possible.

I applaud the attempt to come up with a top 20 list of chemical science considerations for the public. While not an easy feat – and certainly one that easily draws criticism – it also generates constructive debate about important issues surrounding the public understanding of science. Read more science at Environmental Health News.