Wednesday, January 3, 2018

"Forever Chemicals"

Via random clickings on Twitter, a really depressing op-ed in the Washington Post from an assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health:
...They are now in nearly all of our bodies, are found in the air and water around the globe, and they never go away. They are "Forever Chemicals." 
These are stain-repellent chemicals that we use in products throughout our homes, offices, schools, hospitals, cars and airplanes. They are characterized by a fluorine-carbon backbone. And the F-C bond, the Forever-Chemical bond, is quite amazing, representing one of the strongest bonds in all of organic chemistry. 
When several F-C bonds are strung together, some really useful industry properties appear, including allowing air to pass through while blocking things such as grease, oil and dirt.  
...But this property comes with a pernicious dark side. The F-C bond is so strong that these chemicals never fully degrade. Ever. Like, for millennia ever. 
And it may get worse. In every chemical with a carbon-hydrogen bond (the fundamental unit of organic chemistry), you can theoretically replace the "H" with an "F," creating a Forever Chemical. Thus, the number of Forever Chemicals that can be made is close to infinite. Scientists could study these indefinitely and not make any progress. It's job security that I don't want....
A more irritating mauling of chemistry and chemicals you will not read today. (The fundamental unit of organic chemistry is the C-H bond? whiskey tango over?)*

*I think the thing that gets me about articles like this is how much chemophobic articles like this belittle the good that chemistry and chemicals do and how much they use uncertainty and doubt to get people to fear the chemical-to-be-feared of the moment. 

(Should we as an industry be more careful with the compounds that we manufacture and sell as articles of commerce? Absolutely. Is the PFOA/PFOS story one that we as an industry need to come to terms with? Undoubtedly. Does this article help with that? No.) 


  1. The problem is that people want things to last as long as they want and no longer, and no one knows how to do that. People can make things that last a long time (but not as long as they intended sometimes -, but then they don't go away when we want. Lots of times (clothes, cars, etc.) we want things that will last a long time and still work, and since their makers don't know which long time their customers want, they have to plan on the worst case. We can make things that go away quickly but since we don't know when they'll go away exactly, people are loath to use them (they don't want their bottle breaking when their grocery bag says "It's time to go."). We stopped using natural materials (or semi-natural materials) for lots of things because they break or are heavy or expensive, and people don't generally want to carry around the containers for things like food that they only want for a short time. (Some things, like medical equipment, are made to go away because reusable things can get people sick or killed, and they have the same lifetime issues as consumer products).

    So, what do you want to give up? People try to make better things, but ultimately, we're not gods. If you want things that last and work and can actually be purchased by your target audience, then you're going to have stuff that stays around a long time (and the people that make it should be aware and plan for it as much as they can). If you don't, or decide the costs aren't worth the benefits, then you need to live with the limitations that imposes on you. For the most part, though, we don't want to either live with the limitations or deal with the consequences of what we make (and companies that are around long and so don't have to worry about consequences are even better at not dealing with stuff), and get this.

  2. My inner cynic would like to point out that public panic over ubiquitous "forever chemicals" of unknown-but-probable toxicological significance has got to be helpful for the funding prospects of a professor of exposure science.

    1. heh, that's a very good point.

    2. " confuse things as only scientists can..."

      Awwwww, poor triggered, butthurt chemwhore. Blank you and the toxic chemosled you rode in on.

  3. For every scary scenario you can come up with about Teflon, I could probably come up with 10 things Teflon brings to you that you would absolutely not want to live without.

    1. unfortunately perfluorooctanesulfonic acid seems to have a creepy long-term toxicity, and DuPont was been sending lots of it downriver, (and recently got sued for it). Americans were more friendly to "better living through chemistry", but the corporate conduct ruined it. You cannot blame chemophobia only on poor education - there is a reason to worry, especially when they tell you something is perfectly safe and good for you. (But I am still unimpressed by op-ed from TH Chan)

    2. Because they said that lots of times and were lying through their teeth.

      When companies monetize their reputations, they're actually running up a debt (which someone else gets to pay off - the best kind for them), because they generally make theirs bad, and the people running the company later find out the difficulties of running a company when no one believes you anymore.

      The other problem with lots of chemistry is that the people getting the benefits of the products (and the money from selling them) and the people paying the costs of their use and manufacture are generally different. Even if people were honest about those costs, the accounting is unfun.

  4. Articles like this remind me that scientists have it pretty rough. When we try to communicate with non-scientists about issues related to public policy we have two options. (1) We talk like scientists, but then non-scientists latch on to our hedges, excessive qualification of statements, and reasonable uncertainties to lambaste our positions to prove we're wrong. (2) We talk like non-scientists (think politicians or corporate executives), but the scientists latch on to our fear-mongering, unqualified statements, and oversimplification of the issues to lambaste our position to prove we're wrong, and then non-scientists use disagreement among scientists to dismiss the position.

    I am not voicing support for the op-ed because, as a scientist, I have a lot of the same issues as CJ. But I think it's always important to consider the intended audience. I think the author could have kept essentially the same information and removed some of the annoying and misleading branding like "Forever Chemicals," and this would be a fine way to bring the general public's attention to a pernicious and unaddressed problem.

    Anyone ever see the Parks and Recreation episode about fluoride in drinking water? One side branded the scary chemistry thing as a scary chemical additive and the other side branded the scary chemistry thing as something much more positive like modern technology saving lives. Unfortunately, it's not easy to talk straight with policymakers, executives, voters, and other non-scientists in power, so we have to hide facts behind branding. We could counter "Forever Chemicals" with something like "Miracle Chemicals," but it would still obscure how complicated the issue is. I don't know what the answer is.

  5. "In the end, your word is all there is, really." (Blake's 5, via Slashdot)

    In political arguments, the biggest point of concern is whether the arguer is honest. You can disagree on ideas, and you may have things wrong, but if you are willing to be dishonest, then it is not likely that you want to achieve what you say (because logic and nature can't be fooled by anything people say) and it may be that you don't mean what you say (or mean to achieve what you say, if advocating for a specific action or set of actions). It also generally implies that you have little concern for the people you argue with, for you want what you want at their expense.

    Some of the things here (the representation of C-F and C-H bonds, for example) seem like an attempt to explain specific chemistry to nonchemists. The "Forever Chemicals" line, though, and the avoidance of exactitude (claiming that exactitude is essentially is opposite) makes me think that the writer isn't arguing in good will. There are points to be made about what we want in products, what the things we use to make them do and why they might be problematic, and how cavalierly chemical companies have treated their employees and neighbors in making them, but there are more honest ways to argue those things. If you aren't arguing honestly, then your argument is not entirely relevant - where your argument goes and where you intend to take it are two separate and not necessarily consistent places - and the other person is getting taken for a ride.

  6. Forever Chemicals with F-C bonds.