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Celebrate Chemistry, Realistically

January 30, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 5

For a chemist, a TV ad can be exciting. For example, the recent ads by BASF say to the effect, “We not only make chemicals, we do chemistry” (may not be an exact quote). This is probably the boldest public assertion for the role of chemistry since DuPont’s “better living through chemistry.”

Unfortunately, the public sentiment regarding chemicals and hence chemistry changed in the late 1970s. Love Canal, the Bhopal tragedy, dioxin, napalm, and a host of other issues brought about suspicion of chemical producers. Chemical companies, fearful of the public’s reaction to the word “chemical,” dropped the word in company nomenclature. So, Dow Chemical became Dow, Union Carbide & Chemicals became UCC, and so on. Products even started carrying labels stating, “Does not contain chemicals.” No one really spoke out about the essential role chemicals and chemistry play in life.

I am glad that that is changing. I’m hopeful the public will gain a true perception of chemistry’s role. Public sentiment will govern the investment in the future of chemistry.

There is another side to the story, however. The issues leading to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency were real. Industry was callous and careless about pollution and safety. Some U.S. politicians are keen on limiting EPA’s authority or outright eliminating the agency. I guess they’ve forgotten the dirty smokestacks, acid rain, and red-brown dust on cars. Add to that accidents, injuries, and deaths caused by harmful substances in soil, air, and water before EPA. The public’s distrust of chemicals was and is understandable. Even recently, C&EN reported on the dim view of chemical industries in Europe (Oct. 10, 2011, page 8). We already know about pollution in China. Do U.S. politicians wish that kind of life for their citizens, themselves, and their children?

Every evolving technology will have consequences beyond the immediate imagination of the scientists involved. However, a lot of study now goes into understanding potential consequences before a technology is brought to the world market. Besides, technologists are capable of solving the problems that technology creates. Politicization to hasten technology and use it prematurely, however, can create problems that are harder to solve and can affect innocent people.

In that light, one can only compliment the wisdom of Niels Bohr during the development of the atom bomb. When J. Robert Oppenheimer told Bohr that his team could create an atomic bomb, Bohr commented: “I have no doubt you can create an atom bomb; how are you going to control it?” He could foresee the dangers of technology long before it materialized. Not all of us are that wise, and hence the caution.

Simultaneously, the public will have to be given a balanced view of advantages and limitations of technology and chemistry. No glorification, please; just give the facts.

By Bhupen Trivedi
UniversityPark, Ill



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