The Chemistry All Around Us

As I think almost everybody knows by now, 2011 was the
International Year of Chemistry (IYC) and it’s almost over. Nigel Davis, a good friend, who writes a column on the industry for ICIS, told me about a video (“Chemistry – it’s all about you”)released at the fall meeting of the European Petrochemical Association, which celebrates the contributions that chemistry of all kinds has made to our lives. This relatively short Youtube video gives a
series of examples of the role that chemicals make in everybody’s life, from
insulation for clothing to plastic piping for irrigation, catalysts for
emission reduction in cars, paints and other coatings for construction,
synthetic fibers for textiles, etc. etc.

I know that I am favorably inclined toward the chemical
industry in which I have spent most of my career. I am also very much aware of
a number of things have given the word “chemical” a bad name (Toxic chemicals,
plant explosions, dumping of wastes, etc.) Starting at the time a number of
pieces of legislation were passed in the 1970s (Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act,
Toxic Substances Control Act, Formation of the EPA), the industry has “cleaned
up its act” very dramatically over the last several decades and is continuing
to reduce vapor and liquid emissions, to make plants safer, and to be
responsive to issues that come up in the communities it operates and elsewhere.

Some young people may be negatively influenced by bad publicity about the chemical industry and decide not to choose a career in this field. I feel it is extremely important for young people, in particular, to understand that there is a balance between accepting all the benefits brought by chemicals, which are essential to every aspect of our life, and the fact that the manufacture of chemicals and their use in some cases entails a certain amount of inevitable risk.   I strongly recommend a book entitled “Technological Risk” by H.W. Lewis, a physics professor at University  of California, written in  1990, addresses two key questions about the risks facing us from, eg. pesticides,  nuclear power, greenhouse gases, etc.: How real are these risks? How do we  manage our lives in order to avoid personal danger from them?

So, in this IYC, let’s increase our understanding of the benefits brought by the industry while continuing to urge its leaders to do everything possible to mitigate the risks involved in the manufacture and use of its products.

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