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Inherent toxicity

June 26, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 26

M . Neal Golovin, as well as several others, writes about his concern for the future of chemistry (C&EN, April 24, page 6). I, too, have this concern, but on a more local level: the science fair.

I judge high school science fair exhibitors. Our local section provides cash awards to winners in the chemistry exhibits. However, in recent years, we've had a dearth of chemistry exhibitors. We're finding chemistry exhibitors prefer environmental science, health-related exhibitions, or computer science and other related fields. This tells me something about the perception of chemistry and about the political and social status of chemistry among students and teachers.

Encouraging green chemistry, emphasizing the zero-waste concept, and following the thought of John C. Warner's editorial "Unintended Consequences" in the same issue should give all chemists food for thought. Is toxicity driving young people away from chemistry and into environmental, engineering, medical, or other areas of study? Surely teachers understand that someone doesn't become an environmental or medicinal chemist or chemical engineer without extensive chemistry study.

Perhaps it's time to look at the perception others have of our discipline.

Martha GK Dibblee
Portland, Ore.

Warner's editorial asks, "why do we have toxic materials in our society?" suggesting that it is because chemists do not know how to make nontoxic materials. I have to ask what Warner would accept as nontoxic. Oxygen is known to be toxic at about 10 times its atmospheric concentration, and we really do not know that it is not toxic normally, given the difficulty of a controlled experiment. Nitrogen narcosis is well-known to divers. There have been reports of deaths from drinking too much water. If we get rid of toxic substances, the unintended consequences may be severe.

Denzel L. Dyer
Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.

I could not help reading Warner's editorial without feeling the passion and dedication of the author for his subject. But with all due respect, there seemed to be a feeling of naivet?? in the article although the author is not naive. He confronts the presence of toxicity without the slightest mention of dosage or concentration, and by doing so he produces an article which, at its core, is meaningless.

I am a chemist who has had no courses, basic or advanced, in toxicology but has been educated in that subject by immersion in chemistry. Warner decries the lack of formal study of toxicology as if such a lack condemns one to total ignorance of the subject.

This brings us to Warner's burning question: Why do we have toxic materials in our society? The simple answer is that every element, every molecule, every compound, and even energy is toxic at some level. When this level is known, material usage at this level is regulated. Warner may not agree with degree of regulation or the fact that the regulated level may apply only to humans, but much time and talent has been expended in this effort. Although far from perfect, regulation has worked well, but the danger of overregulation is always present and can also create catastrophes. Note the wide spread of malaria with the banning of DDT and the danger of cholera when the use of "toxic" water treatment is interdicted.

Things may not be perfect, but we are doing things mostly right. Life expectancies are increasing and the quality of life is improving. You couldn't have a better measuring stick for this toxic Earth. Other species may be suffering because the number of humans has reached a level toxic to them and we should do something for them, but overregulation of chemicals and energy is not the answer. Because everything is toxic, we will continue to need regulation, even with 100% green chemistry.

Anthony J. Di Milo
San Diego, Calif.

Dues Increase

ACS membership dues are slated to increase from $127 to $132 in 2007 consistent with council action this spring in Atlanta (C&EN, April 17, page 43). In addition, as authorized by the ACS Board of Directors, a $4.00 fee will be added to support increased funding for divisions and local sections. Reduced from $5.00 in 2006 and 50% of the $8.00 fee originally planned for 2007, this temporary special assessment started in 2004 following ACS Constitution and Bylaws amendments that increased division and local section allotments from member dues. The special assessment is slated to end with the 2007 dues cycle. The fee is prorated for membership categories paying less than full dues.

It is an opportunity for ACS members to use the transforming power of chemists to leave a national meeting city better than we found it!

Annual Report

The 2005 American Chemical Society Annual Report is now available online. To access it, visit the ACS home page at and click on the link to the Annual Report. For print copies, please send an e-mail including your name and mailing address to Doug Dollemore at


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