Those Darned Chemicals, Part IV: What, Me, Worry?

I grew up in Chemical Valley.

Well, that isn’t the official name of my hometown, but it might as well be.

Charleston, West Virginia, the medium-sized capitol of the state, is situated along the Kanawha River valley, where it is bracketed on both the east and west sides with chemical plants.

DuPont, Union Carbide and Monsanto all have plants within spitting distance of the Kanawha River, while Union Carbide’s Technical Center–the site where experimental “pilot plants” are tested–is sited just above the city in the hills above South Charleston. Downriver, Dow, FMC, the German company, Bayer, and Fike Chemical all have plants, many of the clustered around the town of Nitro, which was named for the munitions plants situated there during World Wars I and II.

My grandfather and Dad both worked for Union Carbide for their entire adult lives; currently, an uncle and an aunt work in chemical plants, and my ex-father-in-law is a chemist at DuPont.

I grew up with air that smelled of chlorine, a river tainted with carbon tetrachloride, and the knowledge that if we heard something like an air-raid siren in the night, something bad had happened at one of the plants, and it might mean a relative’s death. My grandfather had a cancer on his neck as a result of accidental exposure to something toxic, and nearly everyone I know who lives there is plagued with chronic colds, sinus infections, asthma or other respiratory diseases, all attributed to the low air quality due to the presence of so many chemical plants.

One of the plants was, at the time I was living in Charleston, the only other site in the world where a pesticide containing methyl isocyanate–the gas that killed thousands in Bhopal, India– was made. When my Dad, who worked at Union Carbide, told me that the same process was used in the South Charleston plant, I was confronted with the knowledge that what had happened in India could happen to us.

Even though I was half a world away, I grew up in the shadow of the deaths at Bhopal, and I know what it is like to be afraid of chemicals.

Fear and mistrust of the chemical industry is nothing new in the United States. Bhopal happened twenty years ago, but is still fresh in the minds of many people. Closer to home for many Americans is the memory of the residents of Love Canal in Niagra Falls, New York, who had high rates of cancer and birth defects due to their houses being built over a former toxic waste dump for Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation. Meryl Streep’s powerful performance in the film Silkwood, helps Americans recall the fate of Karen Silkwood, a chemical technition at the Kerr-Mcgee plutonium fuels production plant; she was unknowingly exposed to dangerously high amounts of radiocative plutonium at the plant. She died in a car wreck on the way to blow the whistle on the lax safety of her workplace; some speculate that she was run off the road to shut her up.

Facts aside, popular fiction often uses the chemical industry as bad guys, further bolstering American mistrust of chemicals.

The origin story of the Green Goblin, a perennial foe of comic hero, Spider-Man, is a tale of hubris, chemicals and greed. A corrupt industrialist, Norman Osborn created an intelligence-enhancing serum, which turned green and blew up in his face, making him into a maniacal murderer who took to inventing pumpkin bombs and flying razors which helped him in his quest to kill Spider-Man.

An even older neo-Luddite screed against human meddling with chemicals comes from the H. G. Wells tale, “The Food of the Gods,” a story which became fodder for a string of B-movies about giant rodents and insects wreaking havoc and eating people just because a scientist decided to create the “perfect food” to help mankind. They test it out on various creatures, which then grow into giant monstrousities, and

Even the newly released film, “Serenity,” a continuation of Joss Whedon’s cancelled science-fiction/western television series “Firefly,” carps on the dangers of chemical interference with human life.

So, from all sides, Americans are bombarded with the message that “chemicals are bad, and are not to be trusted.”

The problem with that message is that it is not exactly true.

It’s not true because everything in the world is made up of chemicals.

Our bodies are made up of chemical compounds. Our metabolism works by way of complex chemical reactions in our lungs, guts, bloodstream and brain.

The air we breathe, the water we drink–these are chemicals.

Our food, whether we are talking about an apple straight from the tree, or an apple-flavored candy that never saw a tree in its life–our food is all made up of chemicals.

All of matter is made up of atoms and molecules, elements and compounds, solutions and substrates. The Universe is one big chemistry lab, in a metaphorical sense.

Another point I would like to reiterate is this: there is no structural, elemental or chemical difference between molecules that occur in nature and those created in a lab.

None whatsoever.

H2O is always water. If it comes out of a river it is water, if it comes out of your tap it is water, if it is synthesized in a lab from oxygen and hydrogen–it still is water. And when you drink it, the water from all of these sources will be metabolized in your body in the exact same way.

There is no functional difference between, say, carbon dioxide that is respired from our lungs, and carbon dioxide that is created in the lab. Either one could be used to carbonate a soda made from organic fruit juice, water and expressed cane juice or to replace the oxygen in a bag of organically grown salad greens, and there would be no functional difference between those products.

CO2 is CO2.

End of story.

Now, I am not saying that there are no chemical compounds in the world we should worry about. Agent Orange still sucks, the deaths at Bhopal still happened and I still don’t want artificially hydrogenated vegetable oils in my food. I am just saying that unquestioning and automatic fear of chemicals is unwarranted.

Chemicals are natural–that is just the way it is.

Knee-jerk, emotional fear of chemicals is not rational, and that irrational fear is being manipulated by some folks in the Organic Consumers Association in order to pursue their own agenda.

In reviewing and researching the list of synthetic chemical food additives allowed by the NOSB for USDA Certified Organic foods, I have found only one or two compounds that I think are the least bit questionable. Many of these compounds are naturally occuring molecules, and their non-synthetic counterparts are also on the list of allowable additives for organic processed foods, which I assume would not send the OCA into a tizzy of worry and fear-mongering.

Most of these chemicals are not that bad.

And in fact, some of them, particularly the vitamins and minerals, are actually benefical, and no rational individual could possibly object to them.

That is, if they knew what they were objecting to.

Annotated List of Allowable Food Additives:

Ozone consists of three oxygen bound loosely together; it is an unstable molecular formation. A colorless gas at standard room temperature and pressure, is both a powerful oxidant and a corrosive, poisonous pollutant. It can be found in low concentrations naturally in the atmosphere, and it can also be formed from the more prevalant (and breathable) O2 by electrical discharges. (Ozone is that funny smell that is in the air during a big thunderstorm with lots of lightning.) It is also what forms the ozone layer in our upper atmosphere, which shields the earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

In industrial application, ozone is used to sterilize water, food production surfaces, to wash fruits and vegetables and to remove yeast and mold particles from the air. Ozonated water (water into which O3 gas has been dissolved) is used to wash fresh produce. This treatment reduces the bacterial and fungal population on the fruits and vegetables by 90% without leaving behind a residue as chlorine treated water does.

Pectin (low-methoxy) is a naturally occuring heterogenous polysaccharide found in the cell walls of plants. Pectin, both low-methoxy (synthetic) and high-methoxy (non-synthetic) , is used to cause liquids to gel; low methoxy pectin is to make low-acid, low-sugar jellies and preserves, while the non-synthetic high-methoxy pectin is used to make the usual high-sugar fruit preserves, jams and jellies.

Pectin, which naturally occurs in high concentrations in apples and citrus fruits, is nutritionally classified as a water-soluble fiber and considered by health professionals as a necessary part of a healthy diet.

Despite being used for various purposes in conventional food processing, phosphoric acid is allowed by the NOSB to be used only in cleaning food contact surfaces and equipment in the production of USDA Certified Organic Foods. In non-organic food processing, it is used to acidify various products, including popular cola sodas. It is an agricultural chemical, so it is cheap and plentiful, but there is evidence to suggest that drinking large amounts of such beverages may disturb the normal balance of calcium-phosphorus ionic ratio in the bloodstream. When this happens, in order to compensate, the body may metabolize calcium from the bones, resulting in a loss of bone density. The popularity of cola drinks may be a factor in the appearance of increasing numbers of young women and older men with low bone density or osteoporosis.

Potassium acid tartrate, also known as cream of tartar when sold for household use, is generally derived from the acidic tartarate crystals that are a byproduct of wine fermentation. It is used, along with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) as a leavener in many old recipes; it is also often used to stabilize egg whites when they are beaten into foam. In food processing it is used as the acidic portion of a chemical leavener, and is used as an acidic ingredient and a buffer.

Potassium carbonate is notated by the NOSB to only be used for FDA-approved applications where natural sodium carbonate is not an acceptable substitute. That said, sodium carbonate, or soda ash, is used in the manufacure of monsodium glutamate and soy sauce. (One suspects it is used in the soy sauces that are not naturally fermented.) It is also used as a neutralizing agent.

Potassium citrate is used as a buffer to lower the acidity of foods. It is also used medically to lower the acidity of the urine to prevent the formation of kidney stones, or to treat a potassium deficiency.

Also known as lye, potassium hydroxide is used in the process of saponification, or turning fats into soap. Lye is also used in conventional food production to chemically peel fruits and vegetables, however, this usage is prohibited by the NOSB. However, it is traditionally used in the production of Dutch cocoa, and has been used for centuries in the production of hominy and masa. In this preparation, he outer seed coat of corn is stripped away by soaking the grain in a solution of potassium hydroxide (often in the form of wood ash) or calcium hydroxide and water. After rinsing the corn, the lye is washed away with the seed coat, and the corn is made more digestible and nutritious as more of the protein is available to be metabolized.

Silicon dioxide is a naturally occurring mineral that has seventeen distinct crystalline forms. Examples include quartz and opal, glass or sand. Silicon dioxide is most often used as a water-absorbtive agent and an anti-caking agent in powdered food products so that they will continue to flow freely.

And with that, I will end for today and pick up tomorrow with sodium citrate.

I know that the suspense is killing you, and you are probably on the edge of your seats, wanting to know how the drama known as “Those Darned Chemicals” will end.

You just have to be patient and tune in tomorrow when you will hear Morganna say, “Oh my god! I don’t want sand in my food!”

And Zak will pipe in with, “Why, back in the day, when we were poor, we ate crawdads, and when there were no crawdads, we ate sand!”

Barbara will say, “No crawdads were hurt in the writing of this post.”

Until tomorrow, folks.


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  1. Wow Barbara, I’d prefer you as my chemistry teacher.

    Comment by allen — October 13, 2005 #

  2. Thank you, Allen–that is a great compliment!

    You know, I always thought it would be easier to teach subjects like chemistry, physics and math, if the examples used were real-world, -practical- things that people would be interested in.

    Chemistry is much more fun to learn if it is about food (and baking is as much about chemistry and physics as it is about art and taste), and math makes more sense if you put a practical spin on it–like balancing out chemical equations. I always understood math better in the context of chemistry and physics than I ever did in a vacuum, and chemistry and physics have every day, real-world application in the kitchen.

    I guess I would be a radical chemistry teacher, eh?

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — October 13, 2005 #

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