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Some thoughts on chemicals

I don’t know about you, but I’m in a more reflective mood as we prepare for the Christmas holidays in the UK.

First of all, I want to say thank you for your interest in CLP, REACH and assorted chemical regulations, and thank you for continuing to read our articles.

Most of our readers work in the chemical industry or help the chemical industry, so I also want to thank you for the work you do with chemicals. It is very important, because when you work with chemicals, you underpin our modern way of life.

The laptop I’m typing this on, the electricity used to power it, the fibre and copper cables used in the internet, the device you’re reading this on, the fact that I’m alive to write this, and you’re alive to read this, (because of modern medicine, agriculture, water treatment chemicals etc), every part of modern society depends on the chemical industry, whether people realise it or not.

Thank you.

What has been worrying me recently is that there is a growing set of people who are “chemical-phobic”. Note that I’m using the term “chemical-phobia” to stimulate debate, not to close it down, as some -phobia terms seem to be used for.

A recent study indicates that nearly 40% of Europeans questioned want a “chemical free world”, see .

Your first reaction may be to laugh at the ignorance of people who don’t understand that every substance in the physical world is made of chemicals, including people. In fact you could think of human beings as individual chemical (or bio-chemical) factories!

However, this attitude, and lack of knowledge, is very worrying for a number of reasons:

  • If people don’t understand what chemicals are, they are more inclined to avoid using chemical products which might help them, or even save their lives
  • It provides fodder for the green NGOs, who seem to be trying to ban every single useful chemical they can, rather than working with industry to reduce the risks as much as possible while allowing people to benefit from chemicals
  • And what do people think if they don’t know about chemicals? that everything is witchcraft? that a lemon drink can deal effectively with full-blown influenza? that garlic can treat sepsis?

The answer to such lack of knowledge, is, of course, education, so we should do our best to inform people (as kindly as we can) where their paradigm, their view of the world is incomplete.

This is easier said than done when you are confronted by a highly excited protester (i had a run-in with animal rights protesters back in 2005, so I speak from experience), and much easier in the calm of a meeting or private conversation.

We have to be careful, even (or perhaps especially) online, to stay calm and provide evidence. I have also found that asking the “anti-chemicals” squad to provide evidence for their assertions to be a very good way to calm things down. It’s a win-win, because either they don’t respond, or it gives you a chance to go through their arguments line by line and explain why they are incorrect (giving credit for the bits they get right, of course).

But there is also a different problem, which is bad science being passed off as good science. This is more worrying, in a way, because if science itself is in disrepute, why should anyone listen to us, as scientists?

This degradation of science takes many forms.

You are probably already aware of the Titanium Dioxide scandal, where the European Commission is trying to force through a carcinogenic classification which is not backed up by the evidence, partly through deliberately excluding evidence from industry, which contradicts what a literature review should be about.

There is also the term “climate change deniers”, which is used in the climate debate to try to silence people who hold a different view on man-made global warming than the current so-called consensus. And don’t get me started on the claim that “the science is settled” on climate change/ global warming/ whatever it’s called this week.

Science is never settled. Just when we think we understand something, we realise that there is more to it than we first thought, and we have to dig deeper to find out more. This has been shown time and again, an obvious example is Newtonian physics being superseded by relativistic physics and quantum physics (although Newtonian Physics still works at a certain scale, e.g. to get men to the moon).

Anyone claiming “the science is settled” is trying to close down the scientific debate, that is trying to close down the scientific process itself.

It is depressing that ECHA appear to have taken the European Commission’s side in the Titanium Dioxide disagreement, as they, of all people, should be sticking up for science. Perhaps they are playing politics because of their funding. It would be even more depressing to think that they really believe that Titanium Dioxide is carcinogenic to anything other than a rat, and worrying for the long term future of industrial science within the EU.

On the positive side, people are starting to see that science itself needs to be defended from people who abuse it from the inside or outside.

There is a very interesting article on why people may be losing faith in science here, called “Not Even Trying: the Corruption of Real Science” (it’s also been published in book form); and an article on why the peer review process may not be as good as people think it is here: .

What you may notice is that neither article acknowledges the vast amount of science conducted by us, in industry, or appears to appreciate that publication of results is not what we do routinely in industry these days, (why should we hand our knowledge to our competitors to copy our products?), but don’t let that distract you from the very serious concerns of both authors.

Personally, I am also very concerned by the idea of “machine literature review”, where people use algorithms to find relevant papers on a topic. Just because, for example, a paper only covers a single instance of a disease is no reason to discount it. It may be full of insights into how the disease was acquired, and how it may operate. Similarly, a paper which is well-cited and covers a lot of patients may offer no insights into how the disease works, and how it can be healed.

Using algorithms instead of thinking may bring up some insights, but it seems to me that, the most useful new insights come from hard slog, thinking about things deeply over a period of time.

These things do matter to us, as people working in the chemical industry, because our labels are the key way to transmit information to the consumer. What happens if people decide that they know better than us? Do they think that they can ignore the information we are providing? “Well, it said corrosive on the label, but I thought it was just irritant until it ate a hole in my finger”.

Anyway, I hope these musings have been interesting (and not too depressing!).

Thank you again for the vitally important work you are doing.

Wishing you a very happy and healthy Christmas with your family and friends,

GHS Classification Courses from TT Environmental Ltd

23rd December 2019

Like this article? You’ll love our free guide to CLP  (and you’ll also get our articles delivered direct to your inbox every week!)

P.S. Another very interesting read is Matt Ridley’s “The Evolution of Everything”, which helps to explain why evolved networks, such as the chemical industry supply chain are much better than “top down” designed systems. We’ve all seen how regulatory interference via REACH is reducing the number of chemicals available on the EU market, and I believe that regulators’ failure to respect the complexity and delicacy of our supply chains is dangerous for the chemical industry’s future. You can get the book on Amazon at (this isn’t an affiliate link).

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