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Environment

Law of Unintended Consequences

April 28, 2008 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 86, ISSUE 17

I have appreciated reading C&EN since 1949 and have appreciated it even more in recent years. I enjoyed reading Ivan Amato’s Newscripts, “The Solution Becomes the Problem” (C&EN, March 24, page 80), which has also been referred to as “The Law of Unintended Consequences.” Either way, how true it is. And you can take it a step further.

Thomas Midgely Jr.’s Freon was removed from automotive and other refrigerant use, and you would think that by now we would have an environmentally friendly refrigerant replacement that is vastly superior to Freon. Not so. However, the newest refrigerants, with refrigeration design changes, come close.

In about the 1960s, after decades of widespread use, we realized the unintended consequence that PCBs are harmful to humans and animal life. We used PCBs because of their superior stability and nonflammability. I even saw a worker submerge his hand and arm up to the armpit in PCB oil with apparently no ill effects. Trains with transformers not using PCB insulating oils were prohibited from using tunnels to New York City because of the distinct possibility of a disastrous tunnel fire. We have developed not-quite-as-good replacements for PCBs.

To me, the most interesting example of unintended consequences or solutions becoming the problem is the example of DDT. I remember when it was discovered. In college, we started making it in organic lab. It was wiping out insect pests everywhere. Then, decades later, came “Silent Spring” and the decision that the unintended consequence was that DDT is harmful to humans and a wide range of animal life. The call was to abolish DDT usage. A couple of decades later it was proven that the malaria epidemics that DDT had eliminated could not be stopped by any of the DDT substitutes that had been tried. Currently, DDT is back. It is now being much more carefully used to fight and successfully control malaria.

Thanks, Ivan Amato and Newscripts, for great reading.

E. Ellsworth Hackman
Hockessin, Del.

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