Archive for the ‘An introduction to chemicals’ Category

The Original Common Core: Why Aren’t We Teaching Rachel Carson in Schools?

by Robert Shetterly

August 08, 2014

by Common Dreams

This is what you shall do: love the earth and the sun and the animals… — Walt Whitman

Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962, but I suspect for most people reading it today the information would be fresh, enlightening, and alarming. I can say that with some confidence because though I had read the book many years ago, have been an activist on many environmental causes that build on Carson’s work, keep up to date on ecological issues, and painted her portrait, I was shocked when I read her book. Don’t take my word for it. Go to your library and get a copy, read it on some electronic device, buy it used, but read it!

The shock arises form a number of factors. By 1962 she knew an enormous amount about the workings of chemicals and pesticides at micro and macro levels; she could describe the potent mechanisms that made them into carcinogens; it was already clear to her—to science—that most pesticides were counter-productive: Insects adapted to them and became resistant very quickly. More and stronger pesticides were always needed, and the poisons persisted in the environment, useless to kill pests, but incredibly potent in destroying the health and fate of many other species—including humans. In fact, nature did a better job of handling insect predation than chemicals. Carson accepted that pesticides were occasionally necessary but only with extreme care.

However, at the core of my response to Silent Spring are a profound sense of an opportunity missed and a profound failure of education. Think for a moment about the term “common core” that is used to describe the basic goal of education today. What is the core that all living things share in common? It’s the reality of nature, this Earth, the laws of nature, our connections in the biological web to all living species, our common evolution and destiny, our sacred duty to pass on a healthy environment. Any system of education for all children must teach that common core—from nursery school on. If we fail to teach that reality, we have failed as educators. Period. Our common core is not math and reading and critical thinking. Those are important skills. I’m sure the CEOs of Monsanto, Dow, and Exxon are critical thinkers. Our common core is our integral relationship to nature. First teach reality, then the skills needed to live in harmony with it. Then find a unique passion for learning and living in every child. Then teach that all economies must adhere to nature’s laws—not the other way around.

I wish that after 1962, every school in this country had started teaching the science and values of Rachel Carson’s book. Rachel Carson would have agreed with Russell Libby, a great advocate of local and organic farming from Maine who said, “If contamination is the price of modern society, then modern society has failed us.” She put it this way: “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called ‘insecticides’, but ‘biocides.’”

By the third grade every kid in this country should know what Rachel Carson meant by: “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and the convenience of man.” We should all know what she meant when she said, “…we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look around and see what other course is open to us.” And everyone should understand that cancer is an environmental disease. It’s epidemic because of the pollutants and poisons we have put in the environment. To continue to treat the symptoms —trying to find cures—rather than confronting the causes, serves the profits of the medical and drug and chemical industries. By the 5th grade, we should understand the function of the liver and what happens to it when overtaxed by chemical pollutants. We should know that the leading cause of death in children is cancer.

Why don’t we teach our kids these things? Aren’t they supposed to learn facts that will make their lives better and healthier? And the values to implement them? Is Rachel Carson’s work not taught because she is too political? Why are facts about the essentials of biology and ecology political? Should Rachel Carson be taught as evolution and climate change are taught in many schools — one of several possible ways to think about “facts?”

Listen up students, it just could be that God put elements in nature so we could recombine them into malathion and dieldrin. Praise God. He put mountains over coal so we could have fun blowing them up to get it. Hallelujah! He created all living species in 6 days. Awesome! And He promised, if we would burn enough fossil fuel, a nice warm blanket of carbon dioxide to tuck us under at night. Thank You, God.

What a gift Rachel Carson gave us! What a tour de force to have done all that research. She collected scientific data from all over the world and had the temerity to write it all down when the US was in thrall to the chemical companies. With great clarity that anyone can understand—unusual for a scientist—she explains the biological mechanism of chemically induced mutations. She explains how poisons kill, how toxins interrupt the reproductive process of many species and why cancers have different gestation periods. And her science is woven into an ecologically moral philosophy.

And after discussing the atomic structure of chlorinated hydrocarbons (DDT is one), she describes the death throes of robins and squirrels as their collateral damage. The deaths she witnessed happened in the 1950s, but her writing is so vivid, so present, that I found myself outraged and grieving for each one. What she did not know yet, but was implicitly predicting, was the mass extinction of species that is taking place now.

People often date the beginning of the modern environmental movement from the publication of Silent Spring. The reaction to the book is credited with the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. And Earth Day. But those outcomes have done little to stem the flood of over 80,000 chemicals in our environment now, 98% of them untested for human and ecological health. Rachel Carson is our common core. Our survival. Our kids need to be growing up with a firm ethic that would stem this flood of chemicals no matter how much money is involved.

Rachel Carson said, “The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to call itself civilized.”

Do we have the right to call ourselves civilized because of our wealth and power and ingenuity, or only when we act with the wisdom our children and grandchildren can emulate for generations, treating the environment and their bodies with the care they deserve?

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Childhood Cancers – An Excerpt – Chemical Carcinogenesis And Cancers by W.C. Hueper, M.D. (Chief Environment Cancer Section of National Cancer Institute) & W.D. Conway, PhD (Former Senior Chemist Environmental Cancer Section of National Cancer Institute) – 1964

d. Childhood Cancers

The observed rise in cancers during childhood may finally be cited as another illustration of the changing epidemiologic cancer panorama which may reflect the influence of the growing chemicalization of the human economy and its pollution with carcinogenic chemicals. Childhood cancers arising on an exogenous basis may have their origin from two sources. Carcinogens may be introduced into the fetal organism through a transplacental penetration of carcinogens with which the maternal organism came in contact before or during pregnancy (Hueper). Such exposures may result in the development of cancers as well as of “congenital” malformations in the offspring, according to observations made in experimental animals with various chemical carcinogens (ionizing radiation, thiouracil, methycholanthrene, urethane, selenium, 2-acetylaminfluorene, trypan blue) (Shay et al.; Nurnberger and Lipscomb; Porteous; Williams and Schrum; Dargeon; Saye, Watt, Foushee and Palmer; Wilson et al.; Wilson, Brent, and Jordon; Russell and Russell; Danforth; Schinz and Fritz-Niggli; Aaron et al.; Nishimura and Kiginuki; Gruenwald; Hisaoka; Ford, Paterson, and Treuting; Holmberg, Nelson and Wallgren; Manning and Carroll; Peller; Stewart, Webb, Giles and Hewitt; Wilson; Gillman et al.; Larsen). The co-existence of mongolism and leukemia increasingly reported in recent years may be one of the associations related to such transplacental action of carcinogens. (Ingalls; Steyn; O’Connor et al.; Fischler and Farchy; Schunk and Lehman).

Chemicals which modify the mitotic process should primarily be suspected as teratogenic and cancerigenic agents (Steyn; Lawrence and Donlan; Stewart and Barber; Tuchmann-Duplessis and Mercier-Parot).

The second route by which carcinogens are transferred from the mother to the child is through the milk. Many chemicals, including carcinogenic ones (arsenicals, goitrogenic chemicals, chloroform, methylcholanthrene, DDT isoniazid, sulfonamides, radioactive chemicals, mouse milk factor) are excreted with the milk (Clements; Briziarelli; Dao et al.; Sapeika; Shay et al.; Rieben and Druey). The production of cancers in the suckling offspring of mothers excreting such carcinogens with the milk has been reported. Conditions prevailing in modern postnatal life provide for infants an increasingly common contact with environmental and especially dietary, sanitary, and medicinal carcinogenic factors of various types (radioactive chemicals, waxes in milk, and mineral oil in vaccines, x-radiation, etc) sustained by the very young may be of especially serious significance as to the subsequent development of cancers in later life, because observations made recently on newborn animals have shown that such very young animals react with cancerous responses to much smaller doses of carcinogens than adult animals (Pietra et al.; Svec and Hlavayova; Roe et al.; Stich; Kelly and O’Gara; Fiore-Donati et al.; Smith and Rous; Poel and Kammer; Lijinsky; Boutwell and Bosch).

The recent increase in frequency of cancers in infants and children is strikingly illustrated by the fact that twenty years ago cancer was not listed among the ten most frequent causes of death in children, while it has become now the third most frequent cause among children one to four years of age (Ariel and Pack). During 1954 to 1956, the cancer death rate among white males rose from 9.2 per 100,000 population under age one, to 12.7 of the same number. Kiesewetter and Mason quoted statistical data of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare as showing that in 1945 cancers accounted for 6.9 per cent of all deaths in children under fourteen years of age, while they formed 8.3 per cent of the causes of death among children in 1955. This percentage stood at 7.3 in 1948 (Andersen). Similar observations have been recorded in England (Campbell, Gaisford, Paterson and Steward; Brown and Doll). Apart from chemical factors, genetic influence as well as prenatal and postnatal exposures to ionizing radiation have been considered as possible causes of this development (Stewart and Barber). The importance of carcinogenic exposures sustained before puberty in the development of cancers later in life are indicated by the suggestion of Kennaway and Kennaway that cancers of the stomach are arising after the second twenty-five years of life may be predestined to occur by factors to which the body was exposed during the first twenty-five years. The existence of such time-relations between exposure to a carcinogen (smegma) during the first few years of life and the appearance of penile cancer in adult life is well established (Kennaway).

These observations and considerations supply a substantial scientific basis for the assumption that exposures of pregnant mothers and infants to environmental carcinogenic chemicals, including radioactive agents, sustained to an increasing degree during recent decades, are at least in part, responsible for the observed rise in cancers and especially leukemias, in childhood (Kiesewetter and Mason; Dargeon; Andersen; Ariel and Pack; Stewart and Barber; Burnett; Brown and Doll; Campbell, Gaisford, Paterson and Steward).

pages 158 – 160

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Chasing Molecules by Elizabeth Grossman

“I’ve synthesized over a hundred molecules that never existed before,” Warner tells me. By the time he finished graduate school at Princeton in 1988, with a PhD in organic chemistry, Warner had published seventeen scientific papers–many on compounds related to pharmaceuticals, particularly anticancer drugs–a volume of research publication he immodestly but matter-of-factly says is “perhaps unprecedented.”

One day Warner got a call from Polaroid offering him a job in their exploratory research division. So he went to work synthesizing new materials for the company, inventing compounds for photographic and film processes. Describing his industrial chemistry work in an article for the Royal Chemistry Society, Warner wrote: “I synthesized more and more new compounds. I put methyl groups and ethyl groups in places where they had never been. This was my pathway to success.” There was even a series of compounds he invented that, in his honor, became known as “Warner complexes.”

Warner had married in graduate school and while working at Polaroid had three children. His youngest and second son, John–born in 1991–was born with a serious birth defect. It was a liver disease, Warner tells me, caused by the absence of a working billiary system (which creates the secretions necessary for digestion). Despite intensive medical care, surgery, and a liver transplant, John died in 1993 at age two. “You can’t imagine what it was like,” says Warner. “Laying awake at night, I started wondering if there was something I worked with, some chemical that could possibly have caused this birth defect,” Warner recalls. He knows it’s unlikely that this was the case, but contemplating this possibility made him acutely aware of how little attention he and his colleagues devoted to the toxicity or ecological impacts of the materials they were creating….

“I never had a class in toxicology or environmental hazards,” Warner tells me. “I have synthesized over 2,500 compounds! I have never been taught what makes a chemical toxic! I have no idea what makes a chemical an environmental hazard! I have synthesized over 2,500 compounds! I have no idea what makes a chemical toxic!” “We’ve been monkeys typing Shakespeare,” he adds.

“The chemical synthesis toolbox is really full, and 90 percent of what’s in that toolbox is really nasty stuff.” It’s a coincidence and reality of history, Warner tells me, but the petroleum industry has been the primary creator of materials for our society. “Most of our materials’ feedstock is petroleum. As petroleum is running out, things will have to change.” But, he says, it’s an oversimplification to say that using naturally occurring, non petroleum materials will automatically be safe.

Industrial chemistry has relied on the criteria of performance and cost. But safety, Warner adds has not been an equal part of the equation. Green chemistry puts safety as well as material and energy efficiency on a par with performance and cost. This sounds like common sense, but our economic system’s overwhelming focus on performance–combined with the past century’s reliance on what have been inexpensive petroleum-based feedstocks (or base materials)–have created a vast number of high-performing but environmentally inefficient and detrimental materials.

What we need to do, says Warner, is link the design and function of the new materials and new molecular synthesis with an assessment of their hazard and risk. “Historically, we’ve mitigated risk,” explains Warner, “and we’ve done this by trying to limit exposure,” If we eliminate hazard in the first place, the issue of quibbling over exposure limits–where all of our chemical pollutant regulatory energy has been focused–goes away. If you haven’t created and put materials with inherent hazards into introduction and commercial uses, you do not have to decide, for example, if it’s safe to expose high school but not elementary and middle school students to lead dust emanating from artificial turf, or wonder why New York allows its residents to be exposed to higher levels of a potentially carcinogenic agent than does California.

“We’ve taken it as a fait accompli that chemistry must be dangerous. But the cost of using hazardous materials is exponentially more costly,” says Warner. “There is no reason that a molecule must be toxic in order to perform a particular task.” the cost of storing, transporting, treating, and disposing hazardous materials, not to mention the expense of liability, and corporate responsibility for worker health and safety, are among the high costs associated with using hazardous materials. Corporations have seldom been required to take responsibility for hazardous materials they use or produced–apart from product failures–beyond some aspects of the manufacturing stage. The costs of environmental impacts were not considered an explicit cost of doing business; they were what are referred to technically as externalities. As that view has slowly begun to change, with pressure from consumers, unions, government regulators, and the courts, manufacturers are increasingly motivated to find ways to reduce these costs. Green chemists argue that one of the most effective ways to do so is by designing more environmentally benign and efficient products.

“What you do in industrial chemistry,” says Warner, “is make and break bonds–bonds that come together and apart again, that assemble and reassemble, and are reversible–dominate.” This is important, he tells me, because “if we can learn what molecules ‘want’ to do–if we can learn what they do in nature–we should be able to make better, less toxic products.” If we can do that, we won’t be fighting nature or introducing ultimately unwanted, often hazardous, and inefficient elements into the synthetic process.

“…I had a great relationship with Polaroid,” recalls Warner, “But after my son died, I left because I wanted to create the world’s first green chemistry PhD program” –which he did, at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell in 2002… Warner tells me, “Chemistry for nonscientists is all about the environment, but the American Chemical Society that accredits U.S. academic chemistry programs includes no environmental studies in its requirements.”

“One of the astonishing things I learned while talking to green chemistry advocates and chemical engineers–and that helps explain why there has been so little attention to anything like footprint analysis–is that neither toxicology nor ecology has been required as part of a chemist’s academic training” – Elizabeth Grossman

Listen to the discussions of environmental impact and product life and you’ll likely hear the phrases “life cycle analysis,” “cradle-to-cradle,” “cradle-to-grave,” and “cradle-to-gate.” All can be variously and subjectively defined. A life cycle analysis is generally understood to analyze and account for the environmental impacts of a product’s entire manufacturing process, its impacts while in use, and its impacts when a product is no longer useful. Cradle-to-cradle assumes the premise of a closed loop production and product life-cycle loop–in which materials are reclaimed and reused, while cradle-to-grave assumes disposal rather than reuse or recycling for at least some portion of the product when it’s discarded. Cradle-to-gate, meanwhile, has cropped up as a way for companies to measure the environmental footprint of their products but to stop at the factory gate–excluding what happens when the product goes out into the world. The proliferation of terms indicates that assessing environmental impacts is far from a standardized process and is often more of an afterthought than an integral consideration from the beginning of the manufacturing process for synthetic chemicals or any other product.

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