Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Bad chemicals... naughty chemicals...

Supper in front of the TV. Beef casserole (long, slow cooking in stock with red wine, mushrooms, herbs), creamed potatoes with olive oil, cabbage blanched in boiling water then tossed with crisp-fried bacon, and steamed carrots. A glass of red wine.

Not that interesting for you, granted. So anyway, on TV there's a well-meaning if hyperactive young man showing us how to make 'natural' massage oil using 'natural' products like oranges, cloves, beeswax and so on. Unlike, he said, those shop-bought ones 'full of chemicals'. I bridled, to use a fine old word, and muttered. And muttered again, until Mrs QO told me rather sharply to leave off.

This is one of my many soapboxes. Over the last three to four decades, the word 'chemical' has acquired an aura of bad. 'Chemicals' are bad, 'natural' is good. 'Chemicals', wrapped in this aura, are man-made, carcinogenic, toxic, ozone-destroying little buggers that are only produced by huge multinationals who prefer profit to the survival of the species. 'Chemicals' lurk everywhere, ready to pounce on us, stunt our children, destroy our environment, vote Conservative and in all sorts of other ways fail to be socially acceptable. Meanwhile, 'natural' is fine, wonderful, makes our hair and eyes shine, our children happy, and doesn't leave any polar bears wondering where the bloody icecap went to.

This is woolly thinking. Water is a chemical, FFS, and one that will kill you within hours if you drink too much. Oxygen is an insanely reactive chemical that would probably be banned if we didn't happen to need it to breathe. (I await with keen eagerness your suggestions for a 'natural alternative'.) Cooking that tasty beef casserole was a tour de force of chemistry. Meanwhile, one of the most toxic substances known to man is entirely natural - a protein called botulinum toxin. You may know it under its trade name of Botox (and that gives us a whole world of irony to explore at some later stage).

I pause at this point to calm down, aided by a draught of a liquid produced by the chemical action of yeasts upon fruit juice producing various compounds including ethyl alcohol (C2H5OH) and carbon dioxide (CO2) as waste products. I'm helping to recycle one of those waste products. Well done me.

Joking apart, woolly thinking is one of the biggest obstacles to our dealing with the very real problems the world faces. More on this later, but now I'm going to do some more recycling.

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