Friday, November 21, 2008

New Kinds of Chemical Threats

There are four kinds of chemical materials, new to nature--that is to say, new to our bodies and new to the broader environment--that are being produced in increasing volume and complexity in our modern world.

(1) radioactive materials
(2) complex bio-active chemicals
(3) neogenetic effectors
(4) nanoparticulates

The benefits of these new kinds of chemicals are sought aggressively by scientific experiment and economic development. But their dangers, perhaps short-term but especially long-term, are rarely studied or even considered seriously.

(1) Radioactive materials: These emerged on the scene about a hundred years ago. Wilhelm Roentgen and Marie Curie, towering pioneers in the early study of radioactivity, were ultimately victims of its long-term effects: Roentgen, the discoverer of X-rays, died of intestinal cancer; Marie Curie, winner of two Nobel Prizes for pioneering work on radioactive chemicals, died of aplastic anemia caused by her exposure to radioactivity. And there have been many others. Atomic bombs were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki for their destructive explosive effects, but much of the terrible pain and tragedy they caused were due to their radioactivity. Nuclear power plants provide inexpensive, non-carbon-polluting electricity for millions, but not without three severe problems: the threat of melt-down disasters (like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island), the danger of catastrophically explosive materials falling into enemy or terrorist hands, and the mountains of extremely toxic radioactive wastes that accumulate year after year.

(2) Complex bio-active chemicals: Over the past few decades pesticides, insecticides, and exfoliants, medicines and industrial (and household) chemicals have had beneficial effects on modern life too numerous and varied to list. But in 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book that poignantly reported the dying off of songbirds due to the widespread use of the pesticide DDT. This launched the environmental movement and ongoing struggles to reclaim myriad wonders of nature from the careless and thoughtless enthusiasm of the scientific, agricultural, and business communities. The side effects of the complex bio-active chemicals that have been poured into the environment--the cancers caused, the ecosystems destroyed, the patterns of life inadvertently but devastatingly altered--have been legion.

(3) Neogenetic effectors: Although Gregor Mendel discovered the recombinant power of genetics some 150 years ago, the significance of his work was not realized until the early 20th century. As the 20th century progressed, increasing knowledge and technological developments brought the power of genetic manipulation into widespread use. Manipulating the genes of wheat and corn has saved a billion people from starvation and has turned on their heads the economies of Mexico, India, and Pakistan. Farm animals and field crops are regularly made astonishingly more productive by adjusting their genes. Genetic manipulations of disease organisms and their vectors have revolutionized medicine. Many fields of business and industry have been similarly affected. But stung by the realization of damages that resulted from bio-active chemicals, the environmental movement has raised precautionary alarms, which may already be too late for the tide of neogenetic effectors is already upon us.

(4) Nanoparticulates: The most recent and least publicized of these four mighty new breeds of chemicals, nanoparticles have emerged from scientific laboratories to spread across the cultural landscape only in the past couple of decades. The fundamental discoveries of the physical properties of these tiny particles--much smaller than the thickness of a human hair but larger than an atom or molecule--have been mind-boggling. Opaque copper becomes transparent; inert platinum becomes a potent chemical catalyst; aluminum, the symbol of chemical resistance and stability, becomes combustible, even explosive; gold becomes a liquid at room temperature; and silicon, one of industry's stalwart insulators, becomes electrically conductive. But some nanoparticulates are already known to have a dark side. Carbon nanotubes seem to do asbestos-like damage to the lungs. Nanoparticulate silver is a potent antibacterial, potentially devastating when it leaks out into the broader environment. In fact, all of these novel and potent nanomaterials bear wary watching.

Some alarms have been raised but more--much more--active vigilance needs to be mounted as these new kinds of chemical threats invade our world.