Sunday, August 2, 2009

Au Naturelle Part II

I used to be a member of the American Chemical Society. Sometime in the mid-90s, it became apparent that "chemicals" had become a dirty word. This may be attributed to major awards from lawsuits, the advent of environmentalism, or even pop culture (movies such as Erin Brokovich or A Civil Action). The American Chemical Society helped devise ad campaigns to try to address the fact that chemicals are necessary to modern life. You've probably seen the Essential To... ads or the ads where all the plastics that are used in modern life melt away.

I realize that "chemicals" is just an easy way to refer to substances which may be harmful. I know it's just semantics, but I really object to this overgeneralization. Merriam Webster defines a chemical as "a substance obtained by a chemical process or producing a chemical effect." By that definition, almost anything you use is a chemical - from your food (chemical reactions produced by heat when you cook change the flavor) to your clothing to your carpet to your car. With chemicals so prevalent in everything that we do, connotatively equating "chemical" with "toxic" is quite a dramatic overstatement.

Much of the negative focus on chemicals relates to contaminants and pollutants from industry. Some of that negativity is even justified. The thing to remember about chemicals is that they have provided many improvements to life. From vaccines to make-up, where would we be without them? Without chemicals, I wouldn't have my daughter - drugs to suppress my immune response to pregnancy were the only thing that allowed her to survive the toxic environment that is my body.

The pharmaceutical industry is definitely chemically driven. While there are natural remedies to ailments, the refinements that science has given those remedies have enhanced the benefits. Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical industry is also profit driven, meaning that the more people there are who will benefit from a treatment the more likely research in that area will be pursued. The fact that drugs are subjected to major regulation here in the US and must undergo clinical trials is a benefit to consumers. However, covering all the possibilities in terms of side effects and negative interactions with people's systems is virtually impossible.

I've read blogs of many people who have mental health disorders who must undergo years of experimentation in order to find the proper combination of medications in order to make their lives more peaceful. I'm not sure what the solution to this is, since brain chemistry is so personal. I guess all that can be asked is for doctors to work as hard as they can to help their patients, and that pharmaceutical companies continue to conduct research in this area.

I also recently read a post about someone's bad experiences with birth control pills. Apparently, one of the side effects for this person was depression. She was suggesting, based on that experience, that no one should use birth control pills. I think it's a mistake to extrapolate personal experiences to the general public. Let me give an example. Splenda is a "natural" sugar substitute - calorie free, similar in sweetness to regular sugar. It is the ultimate replacement for aspartame or saccharine, because it is an actual sugar, rather than an artificial sweetener. However, for me, Splenda gives me headaches. Whatever particular combination of methyl groups and the hydroxyl group that makes up the sugar that is sucralose does not mesh well with my system. However, I do not go around telling people that it is poisonous because it gives me headaches. It is not a poison - it just disagrees with my system. Word of mouth is important to relay information about dangerous side effects, but it can easily slide into fear-mongering if you don't carefully consider your words.

As with everything, be your own advocate when it comes to pharmaceuticals. Read the package inserts, or ask your doctor or pharmacist about side effects. Pay attention to your system when you take a new drug. As another example, I once took a common antibiotic to treat a potential eye infection. Within a few days, I had developed a small, bumpy rash on my wrist. I showed it to my doctor, who told me it looked like poison ivy. I told him it wasn't poison ivy. He assured me that I must have come into contact with it, but didn't realize. I assured him that it wasn't poison ivy because I DIDN'T GO OUTSIDE (due to whatever eye problem I had, I could barely open my eyes in any kind of light, and sunlight was extremely painful). He finally just told me to see a dermatologist. By this time, it had been determined that the eye problem was actually an allergy, so the doctor prescribed steroid eye drops. When I went to see the dermatologist, he also prescribed steroids, even though I noted that I was already taking some. (I opted not to add an additional steroid to my system.)

I also find it amusing that after 9-11, biological agents became the newest form of attack, however, biological did not assume the same negative connotation that chemical has. Anthrax, sarin - both are derived from natural sources, with little processing. Other plant materials, such as tobacco or marijuana, are not exactly healthy. (Aside: Are any of the people who vilify tobacco smoking the same ones campaigning for legalized marijuana? Because, somehow, I doubt marijuana makes you immune to lung cancer.) Psilocybin and mescaline are both naturally occuring hallucinogens - are they really any better for you than PCP or LSD? I don't know much about Eastern medicine. Much of the philosophy behind it seems simplistic to me, and I hesitate to ingest anything when I don't know what's in it. Since I haven't tried it, I won't knock it; but, I'll probably take ibuprofen over herbal supplements any day.

I would like to see chemical become connotatively neutral, instead of negative. There are dangerous chemicals, to be sure, but even those sometimes play a part in forming compounds that are ultimately beneficial.

Part III: The controversial world of child bearing


  1. I really appreciate this post! It's interesting to get this perspective. It's always hard for me, as a layperson, to determine which "chemicals" are really harmful, and what it just the latest "fad" to avoid.

  2. You are right. Chemicals are just that.

    My personal guffaw is always the 'organic' fruits (like there are INorganic) and 'chemical free'. Impossible, and stupid.


  3. Great post and the German Equivalent of our FDA also has complete listings of many herbs used medicinally with adverse reactions and contraindications.
    I've used herbal supplements to complement Western medicine for years. It comes to down to doing your homework. Thanks, look forward to your next post.

  4. great post. One of my pet peeves is people who overgeneralize, especially from personal experience. Hey I am allergic to pennicillin, it will kill me, but does that mean that no one should use it? That kind of logic is, well just silly. Can't wait to read the next post.

  5. I love it when people write what they know!