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Something Stinks

March 8, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 10

Something stinks

I found the article "Petrochemical Ban?" thought provoking (C&EN, Feb. 2, page 19). I am both a chemist and a marketing person. I also have nutty friends and relatives who believe any natural substance is good and anything made by any a chemical process is bad. We have an uphill but winnable battle to educate my relatives and the population in general. We must have a way to educate with integrity and with a message that is believable.

Pointing out the good that materials derived from chemical processes do for us is not enough. The counterargument is, "Yes, but what about DDT? Or how about Bhopal?" We can't win with the "We are good" argument. We aren't always good.

We need to point out that exposure to airborne organic material is never good. Ingesting most materials is not good, and any material ingested in large enough quantities is harmful. Even drinking too much water can be harmful. The most harmful materials come from natural sources. The need is to reduce the toxicity and the level of organic material we breathe and reduce the net toxicity of the material we ingest. The choice is sometimes between breathing mold spores from roach and rat excrement or breathing a pesticide residue. With the latter, we can control the chemistry and choose application techniques to minimize exposure of personnel.

There is no chemical weapons treaty in the natural world. Most plants and animals use chemical weapons to prevent themselves from being eaten. We exude a nutrient that feeds skin bacteria so that our skin maintains a pH of about 5. This low pH, in conjunction with skin shedding, keeps us from being food for mold and bacteria. Slow, nutritious, and tasty--or worse yet, stationary, nutritious, and tasty--are tickets for extinction.

We can also choose low-volatility materials or cleaning compositions with extremely low levels of active ingredients.

In the case of schools, office buildings, and homes, the most likely source of asthma problems is mold spores coming from leaking plumbing, leaking roofs, leaking walls, and cooling coils in air-conditioning systems. I would guess the Great Neck school system mentioned in the C&EN article has all four of these problems. The coils in the air-conditioning systems are most likely black with mold spores and, when switched from cooling to heating in the winter, send out large quantities of toxins. Jens Ponikau and his associates at Mayo Clinic have investigated this in detail [Mayo Clin. Proc., 74, 877 (1999),, and].

Honest presentation of the alternatives is the best path.

Robert H. Black
Jacksonville, Fla.


A Global Problem

Director-at-large Dennis Chamot expresses rightful concern about the wholesale loss of American manufacturing jobs in "Global Issues in Employment" (C&EN, Jan. 26, page 51). There are only three ways to create wealth: mine it, grow it, or make it. There is no way that our country will be able to maintain its standard of living, let alone pay for Social Security, Medicare, and all the other social programs we want, if we ship our manufacturing capability offshore.

The chemical process industry (CPI) is less vulnerable than other manufacturing sectors because it is not labor-intensive. Bean counters in CPI have little to gain by going offshore for cheap labor. CPI is, however, very energy-intensive. Despite the environmental left's ongoing call for "more efficient" energy use, chemists and engineers know that it takes a certain amount of energy to separate chlorine from sodium or aluminum from oxygen. Chemical engineers already design processes to minimize all forms of waste. Engineers would love to have renewable and possibly free energy from the sun, wind, and tides. Everyone will use these methods when their discounted annual cost per kilowatt-hour falls below that of power from fossil fuels.

The Kyoto global warming treaty and other greenhouse gas reduction mandates would serve only to raise U.S. energy prices while shipping the smokestacks, all their greenhouse gases, and the jobs that go with the smokestacks to places like China that have no obligations under Kyoto. It is our duty to the U.S., the chemical workers who rely on our judgment and leadership, and our profession to teach the public why Kyoto is a clear and present danger to our nation's very existence.

William A. Levinson
Wilkes Barre, Pa.


Ozone questions

The account of ozone (03) formation in human arterial plaque by Wentworth and colleagues [Science, 302, 1053 (2003)] leaves the impression that the matter is settled (C&EN, Nov. 10, 2003, page 12). Your reporter Louisa Wray Dalton had tried to contact me about this item in late November of 2003, but I was unable to provide her with material before your publication date.

The account depends entirely on the identification of 3-hydroxy-5-oxo-5,6-secocholestan-6-al and 3,5-dihydroxy-5-B-norcholestane-6-carboxaldhyde as products of O3 oxidation of cholesterol and on the presumption that these oxysterols uniquely identify O3 as oxidant.

The oxidation products were detected as dinitrophenylhydrazones, but the usual precautions necessary for reliable identification of tissue oxysterols were not observed. Moreover, the presumption that oxysterols are formed uniquely by O3 action on cholesterol is unproven.

Ozone oxidizes cholesterol in aqueous and nonaqueous systems to fully characterized ozonides, not sought, whose reduction or decomposition yields the secosterol aldehyde detected. We don't know whether other processes also might yield the secosterol aldehyde. Many unidentified oxysterols result from cholesterol autoxidation, and a search for the secosterol among the very complex unidentified materials has not been conducted. There is also the uninvestigated possibility that tissue dioxygenases acting on cholesterol produce the secosterol.

Before banner headlines proclaim O3 as a physiological certainty, more serious work is needed. Caution is warranted.

Leland L. Smith
Austin, Texas


Support For Free Speech

We belong to the centre for Scientific Information & Documentation, part of the Spanish Council for Scientific Research, and we are editors of the Revista Española de Documentación Científica (Spanish Journal for Scientific Documentation).

We were astonished to read your Editor's Page about the restriction on publishing in any U.S. scientific journal for all countries under U.S. embargo, through a recent U.S. government regulation (C&EN, Jan. 26, page 5).

That information was also scattered in a massive e-mail sent to many Spanish researchers from a Cuban scientist. A U.S. journal recently held back his paper due to these regulations and not to any other consideration of scientific merit, quality, or related matter.

We believe that through these rules the U.S. government is breaking universal principles of freedom of science and information exchange among scientists that are accepted worldwide. Some significant nongovernmental organizations, such as the International Council of Scientific Unions, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and so on, explicitly recognize such rights.

Consequently, we strongly support your point of view, in agreement with other ACS editors, about active opposition to such a discriminatory law, which restrains free international collaboration among scientists only for political reasons.

Isabel Gómez and Rosa Sancho


Solving The Job Problem

With regard to "The Changing Face of Chemistry," I have to ask how anyone can be surprised by the data you present (C&EN, Feb. 16, page 68). Coming from the life sciences, I don't have the most accurate perspective on the chemical industry, but as a member of ACS, I do read a lot about the chemical industry--and the lack of jobs there.

In the life sciences, there are at least two trained postdocs for every academic job. Industry isn't absorbing the extra life sciences Ph.D.s, and when they do hire them, they choose Ph.D.s with very specific technical skills. If someone asked my advice about graduate degrees in chemistry or biochemistry, I would have to discourage them. And let's not even get started on non-U.S. citizens who compete for both academic and industry positions.

Nancy Price

As the research enterprise in the U.S. continues its downward spiral and many high-tech jobs are outsourced offshore, in all fairness ACS should examine its own role in setting the stage for this national catastrophe, not in a spirit of blame but with the intent of learning from past mistakes.

With hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals allowed into the U.S. on H1B tourist visas to take high-tech jobs, is it any surprise that the skills they learned are now being taken back to their native lands? As a member of ACS for almost three decades, I believe that the shortsightedness of ACS leaders and unresponsiveness to the majority of their membership outside the ranks of tenured university professors and corporate executives--that is, working chemists--should be reviewed and evaluated to better understand how ACS may serve its members in years to come. Only with a vibrant research culture can we hope to attract intelligent young Americans to science as a career. And only with a responsive ACS that uses its congressionally mandated special position to safeguard the interests of American chemists can the society hope to attract new members.

Geoffrey K. Cooper
Scappoose, Ore.

The rush to move manufacturing and research operations to other nations in the name of the "global economy" has reached staggering proportions. The immediate cost advantages are obvious; what is not so obvious, aside from the frequently voiced concern about the loss of jobs and buying power, are the strategic consequences for our nation.

In 1941, when the U.S. was attacked, we had all the infrastructure needed to respond rapidly: We had a thriving manufacturing sector and railroads and a skilled labor force. We had a textile industry that could be converted to manufacture uniforms, a car industry that could make tanks and trucks, and so on.

What do we have today? There isn't a car assembled (not manufactured) that doesn't contain parts from abroad that no one makes in the U.S. We don't have an adequate clothing industry, we don't have a steel industry, we have one company making airplanes, and so on down the line.

We don't even have the capacity to produce the personal protection products that we need for the relatively small armed forces we currently have. Nor do we have the skilled labor force. If we were to be attacked, we would have to go, hat-in-hand, to many different foreign nations to help us arm. We would become their pawns. Strategically, this would be a disaster.

Of course, we are the only superpower today, but in a few years the economy of China and others will surpass us, and so will their interest in becoming superpowers. Rome, in its day, also thought it was the only superpower.

Werner Zimmt
Tucson, Ariz.


Misleading numbers

Hydrogen from ethanol may be fast, but it won't be cheap (C&EN, Feb. 16, page 55). Most of that so-called high-cost hydrogen is made currently by steam reforming natural gas, a rapid process with nearly quantitative yield. So process costs will be comparable at best.

However, raw material costs will be much higher for an ethanol-based process. Simple stoichiometry shows that the weight of hydrogen produced per unit weight of methane is more than 1.9 times that per unit weight of ethanol. And ethanol costs more per pound than natural gas. Certainly, ethanol can be made from biomass, but most ethanol is made from grain or corn because that's the most economical route.

The future is hard to predict, but I wouldn't bet on "cheap" hydrogen from ethanol.

Elliott P. Doane
Oklahoma City


Feb. 9, page 22: Stephen I. Katz, director of the National Institute of Arthritis & Musculoskeletal & Skin Diseases, had properly recused himself from actions relating to Schering AG, a company for which he consulted. His activities related to the lupus study sponsored by Berlex, a U.S. subsidiary of Schering AG, had nothing to do with the actual drug studies.


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