Is chemistry a friend or an adversary? Possibly both, or neither.
Chemistry is the science of designing, making, and testing chemicals. It provids things that benefit our lives, such as fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, sophisticated blood tests, materials for consumer products, lubrication oils, and gasoline additives. It can produce things that can harm our lives, such as war gases and biological weapons, and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs). The products of chemical technology can be beneficial or hazardous – it depends upon how they are used. In this sense, chemistry in neither good nor bad; it is neutral. It is our servant, to use as we see fit, and to control as necessary.
DDT is an prominent example of a chemical that is both good and bad. By killing mosquitoes in tropical areas of the world after WWII, it greatly reduced the number of cases of malaria and enabled people to have healthier lives. Unfortunately, it was a superb insecticide and was used indiscriminately around the world. Coupled with its long lifetime in the soil, this kind of usage lead to widespread contamination of the environment, and thereby, contamination of people. DDT is a suspected human carcinogen.
The safety of new chemicals is evaluated and controlled by the manufacturer and by U.S. regulatory agencies, such as EPA, FDA, and USDA. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 authorized EPA to approve and regulate new chemicals. Unfortunately is makes reporting of new chemical voluntary. There is growing agreement across the political spectrum that TSCA does not adequately protect Americans from toxic chemicals. In the 34 years since TSCA was enacted, the EPA has been able to require testing on just 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals produced and used in the U.S., and just five chemicals have been regulated under this law. Updating of TSCA is now before Congress; you can urge your representative to get behind updating.
How are the majority of people who have no chemical education to know which things in their lives contain potentially hazardous chemicals, and therefore are to be avoided? All that I can suggest is to read this and similar blogs (see the sidebar) and check the websites of nonprofit organizations such as Beyond Pesticides, Environmental Health News, Silent Spring Institute, and What’s On My Food?