By Dr Paul Baxter, Warwick Chemicals
If you ask the average person in the street about their attitude to chemicals you are likely to get largely negative comments. In the public mind they cause pollution, are not natural and are insidiously poisoning us and our children. A straw poll of non-chemists I know, showed that most of them did not believe that natural products are made up of chemicals at all. I was greeted with incredulity when I then said that organic food contains 100% chemicals, it’s just that they are made by a plant rather than a synthetic process!
So, why has it got to this state? I think that there are several reasons.
The lack of good science education in schools is part of the cause. If my son’s GSCE syllabus in chemistry is anything to go by, chemistry has become an amalgam of environmental science and geography with very little teaching of basic chemical understanding. Perhaps because of this lack of education and the idea that good news is no news, the media almost exclusively portray the chemical industry in a negative light with a constant stream of stories about the how we are poisoning ourselves and the environment through everything from babies’ bottles to plastic packaging.
Neither have politicians helped. The European chemical regulation REACH has reinforced the notion that natural chemicals are inherently safe and don’t need regulating while all synthetic chemicals are inherently dangerous and need close attention.
But, we in the chemical industry, also can’t avoid our share of the blame. We need to engage more with young people and our local communities to tell them about the huge benefits that the chemical industry has brought to the world.
According to the World Health Organisation 3.4 million people die every year from water borne diseases, making it the world’s leading killer with 99% of deaths occurring in the developing world. These deaths are wholly avoidable if drinking water is properly treated with chlorine, as it is in most of the developed world. It is a startling statistic of the power of a single simple chemical, when used correctly. Yet if you search the internet for stories about chlorine, there are more that describe how it causes cancer than how it saves lives, even though the WHO guideline chlorine dosage in drinking water is more than 100 times less than the level at which research showed no health effect. We must work harder to disseminate these good news stories so that ordinary people can take a more balanced view of our industry.
Of course, it is still incumbent on the chemical industry to take the utmost care not to expose people or the rest of the environment to dangerous chemicals. At Warwick we take this very seriously, and are proud that our main product TAED is on the path to being listed by Cleangredients™ and is already approved by the US EPA Design for the Environment program, which recognises chemicals that are best in class for their environmental impact.
The overwhelming majority of the chemical industry is responsible and improves the lives of billions of people every day – we just need to shout about it more!