CHEMisperceptions. Day 1

Would you rather? … a different way to look at chemical safety

July 18th, 2011

Note: Today is the first day of our (CJ, Leigh, Paul and me) most recent blogging roundtable. We all got started down this road when Paul said (over email), “Hey, I wanna talk about what people are getting wrong in their energy science arguments. I had tons of fun doing our last roundtable. Lets do another one!” We quickly decided that Paul was right (isn’t he always right??), and that we all were excited to do another round table. A common theme of “what people think about chemists/chemicals/chemical industry and why these opinions grate on us as chemists” instantly propped up. But, we couldn’t just call our roundtable “Hey, You’re WRONG.” So, again, Paul saved us by coming up with the very punny CHEMisperceptions. And, with the whole #altchemicalfree kerfuffle amid the always present organic outrage, we thought it might be a good time to do something like this. We hope that you enjoy it. And we REALLY hope that there are countless conversations going on in the comments sections of our posts. That’s where the real fun is anyway!

A new student recently joined my lab. Although she hasn’t had a lot of chemistry experience, her enthusiasm and desire to learn have been stellar! I’ve started her off running a couple of reactions that use methanol as a solvent. In giving her a basic description of methanol, I said:

Methanol is kinda like ethanol, the alcohol that we drink. But, it’s much more flammable. And, it makes you go blind when you drink it. In fact, during prohibition, the bootleggers used to spike their liquor with wood alcohol (methanol). This compromised drink caused blindness and killed off quite a few people.

I proceeded to tell her:

We’re using it because it will dissolve both of the molecules we are reacting and it won’t get in the way of the reaction we’re trying to perform. And, methanol has a low boiling point … so we can remove it fairly easily from our product.

She took all this in stride and then said what any good scientist should say:

So, we’re going to be using this a lot. I should probably find out more about it.

And, this is true. Unfortunately the best way to learn about a chemical and its reactions is through experience. There is a great post over at The Curious Wavefunction on chemical intuition (something that I’m still hoping I’ll get one of these days). But, in lieu of telling her to go work with methanol for a year and get back to me with its properties, I proceded to point her to the MSDS (material safety data sheet) for methanol. The MSDS is the standard piece of information that chemists and medical first responders go to when they want to learn some basic features about a chemical. The MSDS will tell you if the chemical is a solid, liquid or gas at room temperature. It will tell you if it is flammable. And, importantly, the MSDS will tell you how toxic a chemical is. To describe the toxicity, MSDSs and other sources of information use the ubiquitous term “LD50″, which stands for “Lethal Dose 50%”. In english, what this means is that a specific dose will kill 50% of the animals it is fed to. For methanol administered orally to rats, the LD50 is 5600 mg/kg. (5600 mg will kill half of all rats weighing 1 kg. 11200 mg will kill half of all rats weighing 2 kg.)

These numbers are pretty basic. And they give us a vital bit of information. But, they really don’t give us (as chemists, consumers, watchdogs, and concerned citizens) any nuance on when/what levels certain amounts of chemicals start to noticeably affect us. For instance, what amount of methanol will make a person go blind? What amount of methanol will make a person feel woozy? What is the safe amount of methanol that I can be around through contact/inhalation/ingestion? Thankfully, methanol isn’t something that we have to worry about finding in our foodstuffs like we did in the 1920′s and 30′s. (For a great account of wood alcohol and bootlegging, read The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum.)

There are many many other chemicals that we do and should worry about in our consumer products. Chemical Abstract Services, which runs a database of chronicling many of the molecules that chemists have worked with over the years currently contains over 60 million entries. That’s a lot of chemicals. Certainly no appreciable amount of these have had their LD50′s determined. How are we possibly to know which of these chemicals are dangerous?

Unfortunately, the best stance is to assume that all chemicals are dangerous until proven otherwise. That seems to be a recurring theme to many chemicals used by industry. The “chemical-scare-du-jur” comes to us in the form of BPA (Bisphenol-A). BPA is used in making many types of plastics. The products that have BPA in it are very durable and resistant to damage by heat. BPA is also very cheap. Because of these reasons BPA is found in an innumerable amount of consumer plastics. There is so much BPA out there that it can be found in human urine samples at levels where physicians expect it to effect thyroid function.

Unfortunately, these reports do nothing to dispel the notion that all industrial chemicals = bad and all natural chemicals = good. This notion is laughable. I’d certainly take a little BPA in my system over an equal amount of rattlesnake venom. That gets us to a larger point here: The dose makes the poison. All chemicals ARE dangerous at certain concentrations. Even water has a measured LD50. (The “toxicity” or ability of water to kill humans is best exemplified in the dihydrogen monoxide hoaxes that have run their way through the internet.)

Fortunately for people in the US, we have the FDA watching out for us, making regulations for what can and cannot be placed in the foods that we eat. Unfortunately, the safety of our food doesn’t seem to be garnering a very high priority right now.

It would certainly help if we all could have consequence-free experience telling us which chemicals are more dangerous than others. The LD50s are OK in that they are descriptive. I just don’t think that they are useful to very many people. I think that we need to come up with a new metric that everyone can relate to, something that most people will understand.

I propose that we communicate chemical safety as a game of sorts. We could use the template of “Would you rather” (for instance: Would you rather kiss a pig or walk through thistles in bare feet?) to describe the harmful effects of chemicals. Communicating risk in this manner would require that 1) the comparisons are standardized so that everyone can understand the effects of a chemical 2) the comparisons include both severity and long term exposure where needed and 3) everyone understands the comparison. (Oops. Did I already say that? Well, it’s important and deserves saying again).

For our description of the risks of chemicals, I propose that we compare all types of chemical exposure to taking a shot of whiskey. Comparing chemical exposure to whiskey has a couple of advantages. 1) Most of us understand the immediate effects of liquor on our systems. 2) We also understand what increased dosages of alcohol will do to us. And 3) The long term chronic effects of steady alcohol consumption have been pretty well studied. Some examples of the “would you rather” platform being used with chemical exposure are as follows, “I would rather take 15 shots of whiskey than 1 shot of methanol.” Or, “I would rather take a half-shot of whiskey every day for the rest of my life than be exposed to BPA at 1 ppm (part per million) in the foods that I eat for the rest of my life.” (Editor’s note: I’m not entirely sure if this statement is factual.) You can easily see how this would lead to some very interesting conversations about chemicals and chemical exposure.

Unfortunately this approach is not perfect. Different chemicals and different kinds of exposure lead to different physiological effects. And, ethanol use has varying effects in different users. But, I think that alcohol is the perfect chemical to base our tolerance to other chemicals off of. So perfect, indeed, that I believe if our public health officials start using these ideas instead of LD50s or other exposure data, we would see an immediate increase in how the public understood the risks of various chemicals.

So, my question to you, dear reader, is, “Would this work?” “Do you have any better ideas?” “What do you think would be the most EFFECTIVE way of discussing the relative risk between one chemical and another?” “How do we discuss threshold limits for chemical exposure?”

There are lots of issues to worry about here. I think that the “would you rather” approach would work quite nicely. In fact I’ve devised a little quiz that was at the start of this post (using cherry-picked information) to see how people respond to different chemical exposures. (For example: Would you rather drink 100mL of bleach or 100 molecules of palytoxin in 100mL of water?) Please try your hand at it if you haven’t done so already! There are no wrong answers. I’ll report back here on Friday with the results!

And, don’t forget to check out CJ’s post on what “chemists do at work” tomorrow.

[wpsqt_quiz name="CHEMisperceptions"]


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29 Responses to CHEMisperceptions. Day 1

  1. RB Woodweird says:

    I never point anyone who wants useful information about a compound to its MSDS. The MSDS is written by lawyers and environmental safety people. Wikipedia is a much better source of data and background on chemicals and often has links to other sites with even more information.

  2. See Arr Oh says:

    Great first bid here, Leigh! I concur completely that industrial chemicals get a bad rap; tell people next time they want to make a cake that nearly every ingredient (white flour, baking soda, artificial vanilla, salt, frosting) has been processed by the MTon in huge steel vessels. :)

    Also, your link to DL the quiz results? Totally busted. It broke my internet. :(

    Can’t wait for Day 2!

  3. azmanam says:

    Thanks for pointing to the Chemical Intuition post. Very well said.

    Also well said on relative safety of chemicals. Phrasing in ‘would you rather’ terms makes the relative nature of chemical safety more conversational rather than legal.

    I thought xkcd’s radiation chart was a good way of discussion threshold limits and what ‘toxic exposure’ means.

  4. See Arr Oh says:

    So….it turns out that Matt wrote this first column (Thanks, ChemBark!) My apologies

  5. sciencegeist says:

    Sorry about the busted link at the end for “Download Certificate” I’ve put a warning up for people not to click it … Ah well.

    @azmanam, that radiation chart was great. There is an easy reference point for everything. People can compare one type of radiation exposure to another. I wish we could do something like that for chemicals. The problem with my analysis is that ethanol will act much differently in my body than mercury. But, I still think that the relative risks can be compared …

  6. Lila says:

    Great post. Interesting ideas about making chemical risk more understandable. I think communicating about risk of any type is difficult, and the knee-jerk reactions many people have against “chemicals” make it even harder.

  7. Chemjobber says:

    Now, of course, we need to come up with a unit to describe this comparison. A millishot? A megashot?

  8. Hap says:

    I think it also matters what the benefits are and to whom they accrue. For whiskey versus anything, for example, one figures that drinking whiskey will produce some good feelings if not in excess – it has a positive effect. It has a certain number of calories, and can do bad things to me if I use it too much or drive too soon after drinking it. Methanol, on the other hand, probably won’t give me any benefits and might make me blind (in sufficient doses).

    It isn’t just the risks associated with chemicals – as in chemical and nuclear siting, people really aren’t willing to accept any risk if it doesn’t give them a benefit (or if they feel that they are bearing a disproportionate amount of the societal costs for creating general goods). On the other hand, I (and many people) drive every day, an activity with substantial risks and substantial costs (both to me and to others) – I do it because my perceived risk is less than its benefit. I can live further from work, in a place with cheaper housing and better schools. I can also go shopping and to eat with much more convenience than if I didn’t drive and lived where I could afford not to.

    Like the BPA example, I think approaching chemicals from the benefits they provide relative to other alternatives in addition to their risks is helpful.

  9. sciencegeist says:

    I worry about the benefits side a bit, though. The whole “Better Living Through Chemistry” line has certainly been tainted. People (I believe) want and demand chemists to be more honest and open with them about challenges. 10 years ago, do you think anyone was worried about BPA. It was a solid product that saved/made lots of money. But the companies using didn’t (still don’t) have to tell us if it is being used in packaging. You know if they are if their packages don’t say BPA free. The biggest issue with BPA is that it’s too “good”. It’s everywhere. No one ever expected this chemical to be so ubiquitous. But it is now, and people are starting to come to terms with that.
    And you’re right, whiskey is tough because there is a benefit involved. Not quite sure how to get around that or figure out what point of comparison is better.

  10. sciencegeist says:

    By the way, everybody, @See Arr Oh has anew blog! Go and check it out … and read it regularly!

  11. Chemjobber says:

    In a perfect world, chemists of the future would be asked to be more forthright about the potential tradeoffs of new materials.

    In that perfect world, the public would be expected to be able to weigh those tradeoffs objectively.

    I don’t see us getting there anytime soon, so we’re stuck where we are right now.

    C: This stuff is pretty safe.
    P: What do you mean by ‘pretty’? I want absolutely safe.

  12. sciencegeist says:

    … at which point we’re left with more dihydrogen monoxide scams (hilarious but are they ultimately useful). Need to try *something.

  13. Hap says:

    Maybe drugs are a good analogy – you can make good drugs that do useful things, but if you promise too much and disclose too little, the world comes crashing down on you. Most chemicals are like that – they do useful things, but they have costs to everyone.

    Maybe risk relative to daily commute? My probability of being killed in my daily commute should be about 1 in 3.5 million, and of being injured about 7 in a million. (Risks from environmental effects or of car use relative to other uses of your money I don’t know how to account for compactly.) Driving is something many people do willingly and are aware has some level of risk. It gives them benefits that differ between people, but does give the germ of the idea that we make risk-benefit analyses, whether we admit to doing so or do them explicitly or not.

  14. sciencegeist says:

    That’s a good thought. Everyone understands that there is a risk in driving (and I think that driving may be much better to use for long-term exposure comparisons). Like all chemicals there is a benefit that you have to compare to the risk. The problem I see is that with driving the immediate risks are not as readily apparent. Unless, your driving in the snow. Or driving with your eyes closed. Or driving while using your knees to steer.

  15. azmanam says:

    …or driving while texting…

  16. sciencegeist says:

    @azmanam …. zing! good one. shoulda thought of that

  17. Paul says:

    In terms of lab safety, I think photos and videos can be very effective at communicating risk. Everyone has seen the picture of the gas cylinider sticking out through the roof of a lab, and that photo is great at getting people to respect the energy pent up in those things. The greusome pic of HF burns in NEJM has been similarly effective in terms of communicating the hazards of that substance.

    I know that all of these LD50 values are determined from a variety of animals. I would like to see videos or photos of populations of animals exposed to various levels of the compounds. I assume that rats who live in an atmosphere of 1% benzene will get messed up pretty quickly, but how does that compare to 0.001%…0.0000001%…etc.? I’d also like a brief pathology/autopsy report to accompany the visuals.

  18. sciencegeist says:

    Videos seem to be a big boon for chemistry … as the periodic table of videos folks have shown. That probably is an answer. Though, I don’t know if everyone would enjoy watching a rat get gassed … Although watching an fmri of a rat getting gassed would be another thing. (distance ones self thru science)

  19. Hap says:

    Considering people’s interest in the results of car accidents, though, they have to have some ideas of the risks of driving. They just say, “Well, they were idiots” or “I couldn’t possibly be that distracted” or “Lots of other people are bad drivers, but not me”.

    With driving, our perceived control is also a factor – other forms of transit are safer but our perception of their safety is lower because we are not in control of the vehicle. We have some control over what we buy and use, but we may not have control over many of the chemicals we’re exposed to.

    Raw chicken and nitrile gloves getting burned with ClF3 was a fan favorite as well.

  20. sciencegeist says:

    Very true. Did you know there was an increase in the number of automobile deaths immediately after 9/11 because people were afraid to fly. A lot of this fear has to do with what we perceive we are in control of.

  21. @sciencegeist @Hap I agree. People perceive they are in control of their own drinking and their own driving. (And even their own drink-driving, I suppose!) But chemicals in products – that’s something that’s being ‘done to you’ – not something you’re in control of. Even though the risks of drinking alcohol, or of everyday driving may be greater than any particular chemical … the fear is very different because of this control aspect.

  22. Hap says:

    …though I didn’t remember that raw chicken and nitrile gloves burned by ClF3 were only pictures and not videos, and apparently Air Products got rid of the PDF anyway. Sorry.

  23. sciencegeist says:

    @Hap … you had gotten my hopes up :)

  24. Ash says:

    Great post Matt! One point you alluded to which is really important is driving home the distinction between short-term and chronic effects. When the public thinks about “dangerous” chemicals they often think about immediate consequences. I would rather have a spike of BPA in my blood than consume a lifetime’s worth of saturated fats. Yet, even though high cholesterol is well-recognized by the public as a health concern, very few people think of saturated fats as “dangerous chemicals” (I am not saying they necessarily should, but I am pondering over the absence of such distinctions).

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  27. Garrett says:

    This gets to be tricky because some of the responses are dependent upon personal experience (some drugs work differently on different people). In another case, I was able to figure out what one of the compounds was, but not the other. Given a choice, I’d go with the compound that I know (assuming that the risks were reasonable) over that which I had little-to-no knowledge of.

  28. sciencegeist says:

    @Garrett, I couldn’t agree with you more on both points: different experiences for different people AND go with what you know. The problem is that 1) ALL chemical exposure works this way. How can you possibly make it easy for someone (chemists and non-chemists alike) to understand and 2) You could figure my little wordplay out. I would wager that most people you know wouldn’t be able to. Information is too easy to cherry-pick. What source can you send your grandmother to to figure things out for herself? How can you help her? What can you do to “properly” describe chemical exposure risk?

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