Chemicals in our Lives

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Chemicals have played a major role in building the modern world. They have also played a major role in trashing the Earth and humans, especially the youngest and the poorest. So this quarter, Eternal  Bhoomi focuses on a complex issue: balancing the use of chemicals with personal and planetary well-being.

It doesn’t help to be merely alarmist or anti-industry: there are man-made chemicals that can be harmless in limited doses, and natural chemicals that are highly toxic. However, consider some facts. In addition to industrial chemicals used in manufacturing, over 70,000 chemicals are used to enhance colour, fragrance, cleaning properties, preservation, softening, hardening or taste in industrial and consumer products. And we get accustomed, even addicted, to those products.

Do we need such ‘enhancement’, or is it a manufactured need of today? Because this enhancement introduces an important and complex strand of issues. We use the products – and the chemicals in them – unthinkingly, from morning till night: fluorides in toothpaste, parabens in deodorants and anti-perspirants, phthalates in soft plastics used in hundreds of households, including in children’s bottles and toys.

We have begun discovering some of the effects of these chemicals. But scientific understanding of the consequences of using such products is insufficient. How many of us know that fluorides, which science claims strengthen teeth, are now proven endocrine disrupters, causing brain damage and a host of other disorders?

How many of us know that 99 percent women with breast cancer have parabens in their blood? And that phthalates, which soften the plastics, are thought to be responsible for a range of health issues – obesity, stimulation of prostate cancer cells, ovarian dysfunction, hyperactivity, increased aggressiveness, for instance. And research by the US’ Centers for Disease Control has found phthalates in the urine of 95 percent of people tested.

A third set of issues is that people have become dependent on many synthetic chemicals that pharmaceutical drugs are made of. We don’t quite understand the side-effects of these medicines. Besides, because, in the first place, we don’t think of ways of prevention, rather than cure, the reliance on modern medical systems continues. It is said that wrong medication itself has now become a leading cause of secondary illnesses and death.

As Julian Cribb writes (in “Cleansing a Polluted Planet” in this issue) about chemicals that pollute the earth, “something more sinister than climate change stalks the human future – and it is high time we gave it the same attention.” Many writers, including the Bhoomi team have, in this issue, written about the chemicals found in baby diapers, cosmetics, processed foods, medicines and more. We can mop up the floor and spread awareness about avoiding many of these household products, but what we need much more is to turn off the tap of the constant stream of chemicals used by industries through stronger regulation at Governmental and international levels.

Satish Kumar’s short piece, “I am an Optimist,” however, provides welcome relief and reminds us that there have indeed been many successful movements that ended slavery, colonialism, racism, apartheid and so on. So too, hope springs eternal that there are many joining movements to go organic, promote simple living, build immunity through natural foods and be more connected with our planet Earth.