Tag Archives: clean chemistry

bad news on pollution

The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health has released a “landmark study” on health and economic effects of pollution worldwide. You can read it after going through a free but somewhat annoying registration process. There is also a pretty good summary in this Guardian article.

I find the results disturbing. Among them are that pollution causes an estimated 9 million premature deaths worldwide each year, with over 90% in low-income and middle-income countries. The Guardian article has a good Infographic showing that this is significantly more than deaths caused by other major causes like smoking, AIDS, and road deaths. (Although, you could think of smoking as a form of intentional pollution, and I believe tobacco countries are still up to their old immoral marketing tricks in developing countries. I also see a link between pollution and road deaths, with land use patterns and lifestyles centered around motor vehicles being the root cause of both, again with immoral practices by the auto, fossil fuel, and construction industries playing a role.) Other statistics are that pollution reduces GDP in low- and middle-income countries by 2% per year and global economic output by around 6% per year. (I don’t quite get how those last two statistics go together – even though the health impacts are primarily in lower-income countries, that somehow affects the economies of higher-income countries disproportionately? I guess maybe because people in higher-income countries spend money on medical care to partially offset the effects of pollution, while people in the poorer countries just die? But don’t we add medical spending to GDP, even though we should consider some of it a cost to society rather than a benefit?) One implication here is that the idea of accepting pollution for a period of time while your country develops may not be a very good strategy, even thinking in hard-nosed economic terms and neglecting the moral dimensions of allowing your people to suffer in exchange for the supposed longer-term gain.

They make a few more links I find interesting (not in a fun way). One is that we don’t really know how much of health care spending is offsetting the effects of pollution, because there is a lot we don’t know about links between pollution and health. And this is not just heart attacks, cancer, and asthma we are talking about, there are disturbing concerns about impacts on the fertility and intelligence of our species from both the small number of everyday chemicals we have good information on and the enormous and growing number we don’t. Finally, there are the somewhat obvious links between fossil fuel pollution and climate change.

Here is where I should probably draw some link to the Trump administration’s immoral policies to actually increase pollution. But it’s so obvious I’m not sure it even needs to be said. He is clearly one of the evil lizard people who eats babies and puppies and is trying to kill us all off as quickly as possible.

alternatives to systemic herbicides

If you really need to kill a tree, you can do it with a systemic herbicide like butoxyethyl ester. This is scary stuff because it gets taken up into the entire root, stem, and leaf system of a plant, and lingers for at least six months. It can cause colateral damage, contaminate soil and groundwater, and you can’t eat, compost, or burn anything that contains it. An alternative, for trees with a single trunk at least, is to cut the tree down to a stump and inject it with epsom salts.

Epsom salts is nothing more than magnesium sulphate, people use it in their baths to relax, and gardeners use it as a supplementary nutrient to rectify magnesium deficiencies in plants and trees. It’s also readily available, cheap and completely safe for people and the environment.

Large amounts of Epsom salts will draw moisture out of a stump much like an over-application of fertilizer does to roots, eventually drying it out, after which it will just naturally rot away. Any magnesium released into the soil will just be taken up by plants – magnesium is the key element in chlorophyll which allows plants to photosynthesize and makes leaves green.


It’s not as safe as advertised, according to Conservation Biology.

Glyphosate has become the most commonly used herbicide worldwide, with a reputation of being environmentally benign, non-toxic and safe to wildlife and humans. However, studies have indicated its toxicity has been underestimated, and that its persistence in the environment is greater than once thought. Its actions as a neurotoxin and endocrine disruptor indicate its potential to act in similar ways to persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as the organochlorine (OC) chemicals dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and dioxin. Exposure to glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides for both wildlife and people is likely to be chronic and at sub-lethal levels, with multiple and ongoing exposure events in both urban and agricultural landscapes. Despite this, little research attention has been given to the impact of glyphosate on wildlife populations, and existing studies appear in the agricultural, toxicology and water chemistry literature that may have limited visibility among wildlife biologists. There is a strong case for the recognition of glyphosate as an ‘emerging organic contaminant’ and significant potential exists for collaborative research between ecologists, toxicologists and chemists to quantify the impact of glyphosate on wildlife and to evaluate the role of biosentinel species in a preemptive move to mitigate downstream impacts on people.


fluoride and neurotoxicity

A coalition of groups including the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology is petitioning the EPA to ban the practice of water fluoridation.

EPA should exercise its authority under TSCA to prohibit fluoridation additives because application of the Agency’s own Guidelines for Neurotoxicity Risk Assessment to the existing database on fluoride shows that (1) neurotoxicity is a hazard of fluoride exposure, and (2) the reference dose that would reasonably protect against this hazard is incompatible with the doses now ingested by millions of Americans in fluoridated areas. In fact, the amount of fluoride now regularly consumed by many people in fluoridated areas exceeds the doses repeatedly linked to IQ loss and other neurotoxic effects; with certain subpopulations standing at elevated risk of harm, including infants, young children, elderly populations, and those with dietary deficiencies, renal impairment, and/or genetic predispositions.

The risk to the brain posed by fluoridation additives is an unreasonable risk because, inter alia, it is now understood that fluoride’s predominant effect on tooth decay comes from topical contact with teeth, not ingestion. Since there is little benefit in swallowing fluoride, there is little justification in exposing the public to any risk of fluoride neurotoxicity, particularly via a source as essential to human sustenance as the public drinking water and the many processed foods and beverages made therefrom. The addition of fluoridation chemicals to water thus represents the very type of unreasonable risk that EPA is duly authorized to prohibit pursuant to its powers and responsibilities under Section 6 of TSCA, and Petitioners urge the Agency to exercise its authority to do so.

I admit I hadn’t heard of these particular groups, but at first glance they appear to be reputable. I might have previously lumped the anti-fluoride movement in with the anti-vaccine movement or the anti-global warming movement, as pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo at best and a serious danger to the public at worse. But unlike vaccines, the health benefits of fluoridation might not be all that great. If something is not useful and we are not sure if it is toxic or not, there is a strong argument for erring on the side of caution. Maybe one day we’ll look back at water fluoridation similarly to how we look at leaded gasoline or mercury thermometers today – “what were we thinking?”

lead, crime and teen pregnancy

Leaded gasoline peaked around the year I was born, and both crime and teen pregnancy peaked while I was a teenager. I managed to steer clear of these two things (or maybe I left no evidence in either case…), but maybe I would have been the next Einstein if it weren’t for lead, we’ll never know.

Lead Exposure and Behavior: Effects on Antisocial and Risky Behavior among Children and Adolescents Jessica Wolpaw Reyes NBER Working Paper No. 20366 August 2014

It is well known that exposure to lead has numerous adverse effects on behavior and development. Using data on two cohorts of children from the NLSY, this paper investigates the effect of early childhood lead exposure on behavior problems from childhood through early adulthood. I find large negative consequences of early childhood lead exposure, in the form of an unfolding series of adverse behavioral outcomes: behavior problems as a child, pregnancy and aggression as a teen, and criminal behavior as a young adult. At the levels of lead that were the norm in United States until the late 1980s, estimated elasticities of these behaviors with respect to lead range between 0.1 and 1.0.

Maybe we learned our lesson with lead and mercury and have moved on. Or maybe something as bad or worse is hiding in plain site in our consumer products and we just haven’t figured it out yet.

Just for the archives, here is a key 2000 study by Rick Nevin on the subject: How Lead Exposure Relates to Temporal Changes in IQ, Violent Crime, and Unwed Pregnancy.

This study compares changes in children’s blood lead levels in the United States with subsequent changes in IQ, based on norm comparisons for the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT) given to representative national samples of children in 1984 and 1992. The CogAT norm comparisons indicate shifts in IQ levels consistent with the blood lead to IQ relationship reported by an earlier study and population shifts in average blood lead for children under age 6 between 1976 and 1991. The CogAT norm comparisons also support studies indicating that the IQ to blood lead slope may increase at lower blood lead levels. Furthermore, long-term trends in population exposure to gasoline lead were found to be remarkably consistent with subsequent changes in violent crime and unwed pregnancy. Long-term trends in paint and gasoline lead exposure are also strongly associated with subsequent trends in murder rates going back to 1900. The Andings on violent crime and unwed pregnancy are consistent with published data describing the relationship between IQ and social behavior. The Andings with respect to violent crime are also consistent with studies indicating that children with higher bone lead tend to display more aggressive and delinquent behavior. This analysis demonstrates that widespread exposure to lead is likely to have profound implications for a wide array of socially undesirable outcomes.

no more antibacterial soap

The FDA is finally banning antibacterial soap. Companies have about a year to phase out triclosan and triclocarban, the two toxic chemicals people have been putting on their bodies and in their mouths all these years.

Evidence suggests that the chemicals used in antibacterial soaps can alter hormone cycles and cause muscle weakness, NPR reports. Triclosan also kills good bacteria and could help create germs that are resistant to antibiotics; the chemical has been known to contaminate streams and has been found in human milk and dolphin’s blood, according to Vitals.

While antibacterial soap is often marketed as being more effective than soap and water, experts say that it actually isn’t. Washing your hands with regular soap (if you do it the right way) is just fine.

Hospitals and the food industry can still use antibacterial soap, but otherwise, companies have until September 2017 to rid their products of the banned chemicals or remove those products from the market altogether.

Here’s how to wash your hands like a surgeon:


everyday chemicals and the developing brain

This is a disturbing article about the effects of common chemicals on childrens’ developing brains. I don’t get too alarmed when I hear this stuff from hte anti-vaccine and anti-GMO crowd, but this article is signed by dozens of scientists who study the brain.

Children in America today are at an unacceptably high risk of developing neurodevelopmental disorders that affect the brain and nervous system including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, intellectual disabilities, and other learning and behavioral disabilities. These are complex disorders with multiple causes—genetic, social, and environmental. The contribution of toxic chemicals to these disorders can be prevented…These include chemicals that are used extensively in consumer products and that have become widespread in the environment. Some are chemicals to which children and pregnant women are regularly exposed, and they are detected in the bodies of virtually all Americans in national surveys conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The vast majority of chemicals in industrial and consumer products undergo almost no testing for developmental neurotoxicity or other health effects.

To me, there is a difference between chemicals used in industry and agriculture, and chemicals found in everyday household products. We should be looking for truly safe and nontoxic substitutes for all of them, but the latter are particularly important both because the public is exposed to them directly, and because in some cases they are just not necessary. When I read the label on a bottle of shampoo I can’t help wondering if the chemical soup that is in there is really necessary to cleanse my hair, and even if were, cleansing my hair is not a matter of life and death.

antibacterial soap

The tide may be finally turning against anti-bacterial soap. Not only does it not improve health, it becomes lodged in your nose and allows antibiotic-resistant germs to breed there.

In the meantime, however, researchers seem to be digging up more and more dirt on the chemicals, particularly triclosan. This antimicrobial is widely used in not just hand soaps, but body washes, shampoos, toothpastes, cosmetics, household cleaners, medical equipment, and more. And it’s just as pervasive in people as it is in homes and clinics. Triclosan easily enters bodies by ingestion (think toothpaste) or skin absorption. It’s commonly found in people’s urine, blood, breast milk, and even their snot.

A 2014 study led by microbiologist Blaise Boles of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor tested 90 adults and found that 41 percent (37 people) had triclosan-laced boogers. Antimicrobial-snot paradoxically doubles your odds of having the potentially-infectious Staphylococcus aureus bacteria up your nose.

In rats exposed to triclosan, Dr. Boles and his colleagues found that triclosan exposure made it more difficult, not less, for the rodents to fend off Staph invasions. Triclosan seems to make the bacteria “stickier”—better able to adhere to proteins and surfaces. That stickiness could be why Staph is so good at hunkering down in the schnoz, setting the stage for future infections.

The article goes on to say they are having an adverse effect on wastewater treatment processes, and possibly on aquatic ecosystems downstream although that doesn’t seem conclusive.

The way I think of clean chemistry, we can break substances into three categories: (1) those we know are useful, non-toxic and safe (basic soap, for example), (2) those that are useful but we know or suspect they may not be safe (laundry and dishwasher detergents for example), and (3) those that are useless and we do not know if they are safe (antibacterial soap is a perfect example!). Saying no to category 3 should be the easy part! They should be banned, and leaders of companies that push these products should be held accountable. The hard part is finding substitutes from category 1 that are just as effective and cost-effective as the ones in category 2. We put up with category 2 because the functions are important enough to us that we are willing to put up with the risks. But consumers are not good judges of that risk, and companies not only are willing to sell them dangerous products, they are willing to use cynical marketing campaigns to boost demand for them.

green household cleaning recipes

Here are some recipes for non-toxic household cleaners. Toxic household cleaners are one of those things I put in the “toxic, and not necessary” category which there is just no reason to tolerate. Not all members of my household are sold on this idea though, and if I am being completely honest I probably do less than my fair share of the household cleaning so it is not that easy to take the moral high ground. Also some think I’m just cheap. Which I can’t really deny.

what’s whiter than white?

Here’s an article that is interesting for at least a couple reasons. First, the efforts of the Chinese (government? companies?) to steal the “trade secrets” of U.S. companies. For some types of knowledge, like how to program computers, a lot of the potential economic value to be captured exists inside the minds of people who have gained skills only through years of painful education and experience. Stealing a computer program written by one of these people doesn’t really steal that much of the value, because in order to reverse-engineer and use it you basically need someone just as knowledgeable and skilled as the person who created it in the first place. On the other hand, with a substance or material that has a “recipe”, like a chemical or drug, stealing the recipe does mean you have stolen most of the value. So you can understand why companies that develop substances and chemicals go to great lengths to protect their “intellectual property”. I still think there is a legitimate question though whether it is morally wrong to steal something like this. Developing countries can improve the lives of their people by quickly “catching up” to countries with more advanced technology. Is this wrong? Should they have to buy the knowledge? You can argue that if there are no protections for knowledge, there is less incentive for firms to take the risk of looking for new knowledge, and therefore progress will be held back. But I would ask whether if a country like China did not “steal” the knowledge, would it otherwise buy it or would it just go without. If it is the latter nobody benefits – neither the companies with the knowledge or the people that could benefit from it.

The second reason I find this interesting is that it is an example of an incredibly advanced industrial technology that really has no practical purpose, and yet seems to have immense economic value anyway. The value we place on useless and even harmful things could be a practical measure of our flaws as a species. I was shocked to hear that the filling of Oreos contains titanium dioxide just to make it appear more brilliant white. And whether the product is safe or not, the process involves toxic chemicals that have to be manufactured and trucked or trained around at some risk to the public. I really don’t think I want to be eating that. When a product is useful and there is no readily available substitute, you can justify taking some risk to bring it to market. When it is not useful, there is no risk justified in my opinion. Long-term we should be looking for 100% safe alternatives to toxic chemicals.

There’s white, and then there’s the immaculate ultrawhite behind the French doors of a new GE Café Series refrigerator. There’s white, and then there’s the luminous-from-every-angle white hood of a 50th anniversary Ford Mustang GT. There’s white, and then there’s the how-white-my-shirts-can-be white that’s used to brighten myriad products, from the pages of new Bibles to the hulls of superyachts to the snowy filling inside Oreo cookies…

The basics are public knowledge. First, the ore is fed into a large ceramic-lined vessel—the chlorinator. There it’s mixed with coke (pure carbon) and chlorine and heated to at least 1,800F. “The material inside here resembles lava. This is like running a big volcano,” Daniel Dayton, a former top executive at DuPont, told jurors about the chlorinator in 2014. (Chemours and DuPont declined to comment for this story.)

Hot gas in the chlorinator gets piped out and condensed into a new compound called titanium tetrachloride, or “tickle,” as engineers call it. The tickle is heated again, subjected to various purifying chemical reactions, and cooled. Now a yellowish liquid, the tickle is inserted into a second vessel, called the oxidizer. It’s again heated to very high temperatures and mixed with oxygen; the reaction knocks the chlorine molecule off the titanium, and two oxygen molecules attach to the titanium in its place. The resulting particles are so fine that the white stuff has the consistency of talcum powder.