On April 11, the 101st day of the International Year of Chemistry, a guest blogger for Scientific American published what many people think when they hear about IYC 2011.
David Ropeik's post began: "Happy International Year of Chemistry. We hope things go well with your effort to increase public appreciation of chemistry and increase the interest of young people in chemistry and generate enthusiasm for the creative future of chemistry... But let’s face it. Maybe when you hear 'chemicals,' you think of the Periodic Table or how hydrogen bonds work. When we hear 'chemicals' we think death, harm, cancer, birth defects, danger, pain, poison, pollution, hazardous waste, Love Canal, Bhopal. Oh, joy!"
For those of us who preserve the history of chemistry and for over-the-top geeks like me who love science, Ropiek's editorial is the general reaction I expected to hear when the United Nations declared 2011 the International Year of Chemistry.
And he's right. I love chemistry and have no wish to live in a world without the benefits of chemistry, like clean water, abundant food, and effective medicines. But Ropiek speaks for millions when he says:
"... chemicals, and the chemical industry, which have produced wondrous benefits to be sure, but have also given us so many things to worry about that they have engendered their own place in the lexicon of fear: chemophobia. And their own body of law: toxic torts. And their own form of agriculture: organic (which initially simply meant chemical—as in pesticide—free). In fact the whole modern environmental movement was initially, and largely remains, a response to fear of chemicals."
Chemistry has done much good, so we are right to take this year to celebrate its successes. But we also need the reality check Ropiek provided: the most powerful tools do the most damage when misused.