The Chemist's Dilemma

Back in January, @realscientists (I believe it was @upulie at the time) was talking about nanotechnology and mentioned the growing knowledge about hazards:

For example, it was only some time after we started working with carbon nanotubes that it became apparent that we should introduce protocols for working with them. This is something we should think about for a lot of our research

To which I replied:

It was only some time after we started working with _ that it became apparent that we should introduce safety protocols.

In that blank, insert whatever amazing new thing (not just chemicals) that is being hailed as a breakthrough. For starters, consider cyanide, arsenic, lead, and radium, materials that were in common use for their wonderful properties, but that turned out to have toxic consequences, as showcased in the recent American Experience episode based on Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook.1

As I said on Twitter, scientists ought to be students of history: "X is amazing and safe" becomes "X is hazardous in Y amount." It's a well-worn path. Marvelous new compounds (e.g. plastics) turn out to harm our health or our environment, wonder drugs (e.g. heroine) turn out to be addictive, amazing technologies (e.g. X-rays) turn out to be damaging. Really, it's even broader than this, but I hope you get the idea. New things have hazards and side effects we don't yet know about. I think it behooves us to learn from history and exercise caution.

Let's not take that caution too far, though. That way lies the madness of chemophobia: "chemical-free" this-and-that, fear of the "artificial," and distrust of those mad scientists who must be in cahoots with The Government/Big Industry-of-Suspicion.

Chemicals are everywhere. You are made of them. You excrete them. You inhale them. You produce them. You must consume them to survive. There is no need for a broad-sweeping fear of chemicals. Chemicals can be safe just as much as they can be dangerous. Generally, it's the dose that matters; drinking some water is good for you; drinking too much water is not. For that matter, new technologies can be beneficial in small amounts (e.g. X-rays help diagnose health problems) but dangerous in larger amounts (e.g. prolonged exposure to X-rays can cause health problems).

So this is the chemist's dilemma: we make exciting new discoveries, but we can create huge problems. We lament chemophobia, but we have a past littered with corpses. We have cured diseases, but also caused cancers. We have fed the world, but killed its denizens.2 Why should we expect the public to trust us?

When we talk about scientific ethics, I think some time ought to be devoted to these unknown outcomes and unintended side effects. Research ethics are so much more complex than "don't steal data," "don't plaigarize" and guidelines for assigning authorship – the three topics that dominated the ethics courses I have taken and talks I have heard.3

In sum, let's be forward-thinking and safety-conscious. I'm not about to start buying chemical-free non-GMO salt, but I wouldn't recommend brushing your teeth with the contaminated water in West Virginia, either.

Further reading

This post by Chad Jones deals with many of these same ideas.

1: I watched the episode a few nights after it aired, and it was excellent. I'd been meaning to read the book for a while, and now I've pushed it up even higher on my To-Read list. If you haven't seen the show, do it. I saw it via the PBS channel on our Apple TV, and I believe you can watch it on the PBS website. I've heard on Twitter that it might not be available outside the U.S., though.

2: Fritz Haber did both: his work on nitrogen fixation led to improved fertilizers, but he's also the guy behind modern chemical warfare.

3: The runner-up topic would probably be "who is to blame when a researcher dies?" It's an important question, but not the only sort of safety we should consider.