A call for objectivity and wisdom in a complex chemical age

Chemicals and Society: A Guide to the New Chemical Age, by Hugh D. Crone. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. 240 pp. $44.50 hard cover. $14.95 paperback. Look around you. Do you see any chemicals? If you're not sure, imagine what you would see with no chemicals at all. The scene would be drab (no paints or dyes), shoddy (no plastics for building materials or food packaging), buggy (no pesticides), and perhaps even embarrassing (much of our clothing is made from synthetic fibers). The ink of the words you read is a chemical.

If we are indeed in the midst of the chemical age, why is ``toxic'' the most common modifier of ``chemicals''? Why do chemicals evoke more fear than respect? Australian Hugh Crone, a chemist who heads the Personnel Protection Group in a Melbourne laboratory, takes on these and other questions in a nontechnical guide that is balanced, rational, and often witty.

Crone defines a chemical as ``something that has been made in a factory from less complex ingredients,'' but he notes that the same substance may also occur naturally. He briefly summarizes the use of chemicals from medieval times, concluding that World War II marks the onset of the Chemical Age. Crone emphasizes that society has readily accepted the benefits of this age and asks us to make judgments on the basis of our social values.

Although this book is about chemicals, it is not just about chemistry. An early chapter raises the central issue of toxicology: When is something poisonous? ``The dose makes the poison,'' as a related book by Alice Ottoboni is named (Vincenti Books, 1984). Many chemicals are toxic at high dosage levels but harmless or even beneficial at lower levels. Crone concludes, ``If we are to understand the significance of chemicals in our world, we must stop seeing toxicity as an absolute, and appreciate the shades of grey.''

Crone explains how chemicals get into the body and how they are eliminated. He describes the great sensitivity of modern chemical methods for determining what chemicals are present (qualitative analysis) and in what amounts (quantitative analysis), but warns that there are statistical uncertainties in such measurement. ``There is no completely nontoxic chemical; there is no totally pure chemical. There are no absolutes, for we live in a relative world.''

In a chapter on chemical hazards, Crone shows how difficult it is to find unambiguous cause-and-effect relationships between chemicals in the surroundings and the increase of disease. He examines the evidence for claims that chemicals cause cancer and concludes that, other than the increase in lung cancer attributed to cigarette smoking, there is no indication that exposure to chemicals in the home, workplace, or environment increases the cancer mortality rate.

No treatment of chemicals in society would be complete without a discussion of drugs. Crone defines a drug as either a chemical used to cure disease or a chemical having a powerful effect on the body. Both pharmaceuticals and behavior-modifying substances such as alcohol meet this definition.

With chemicals in such abundant production and use, some are bound to show up in the environment. Crone deals at length with the problem of dioxin as a contaminant in 2,4,5-T, the widely used herbicide. Whereas 2,4,5-T is no more toxic than thousands of other agricultural and industrial chemicals, dioxin is extremely toxic. Even so, the intensive use of 2,4,5-T over 35 years has not resulted in any health problem among spray operators or the general public, he concludes. In a perceptive chapter on the public's perception of the herbicide problem, he attributes the widespread confusion and fear of dioxin to the poor information provided on this issue. In a gentle poke at the American legal system, he attributes the settlement in 1984 of the Vietnam veterans' class-action suit to the fact that ``... there are 600,000 lawyers in the US.''

In a chapter with the intriguing title ``Religion, Food, and Chemicals,'' the author plays the detached observer of society but reveals his own biases. In less than a page he notes that religion appears to satisfy a basic human need for reassurance and for ceremony in all societies. He does not mention the role of religion in developing the human values by which the use of chemicals is judged. He then takes on the health food trend, presenting compelling evidence for the irrational nature of most of the nutrition cults.

Other chapters are on chemical warfare, protection against chemicals, and how the public can find out about chemicals. One of his sobering conclusions is that we are seeing a departure from rationalism in a number of major aspects of the Chemical Age. But his call for objectivity and wisdom in working through these complex issues is welcome. ``Chemicals and Society'' is an engaging book, required reading for anyone concerned about the impact of technology, particularly those shaping public policy.

Allan Smith teaches chemistry at Drexel University.

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