Chemicals: Why must we defend our chosen profession? 11

Have you ever been in a social setting and someone asks what you do for a living? You pop up your chest, stand a little straighter and reply ‘I’m in the Chemical Business’. Or, do you actually stand up straighter?  Rather you might temper your answer depending on the audience.

I imagine the chemical industry is celebrated in places like Houston, Delhi, Antwerp, Singapore, and Shanghai – but in Seattle, there is an audience always ready to malign our chosen profession at any opportunity. Sometimes I am in position at the family dinner table to have to argue (i.e. defend) my positions on things like why the XL Pipeline should cut across Nebraska, and have documented my thoughts on fracking as a necessary technology risk while alternate energies become more viable.

At a convention of the National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD) a few years ago, I got into a choice discussion with a female guest who spent much of the day roller blading while our group was in sessions.  When she took the time to ask about our business, she came over the top with the usual ‘chemicals are bad’ generalizations and I proceeded to explain to her how chemicals were rooted into her life (products in her hair, makeup, pigments in clothes, textile chemistry, etc..).  The best moment for me was when I focused on the wheels of her roller blades and was able to talk about the reaction of such substances as Isocyanate and Polymer being reacted to create PolyUrethane Resin, basically the entire wheel.  And every time she slid on those wheels, a little slice of this nastiness is released to the environment.  So much for her ‘green’ workout.

A label from a "Bio Organic Detox" Foundation Cosmetic.  Chemicals are everywhere.  It's reality.

A label from a “Bio Organic Detox” Foundation Cosmetic. Chemicals are everywhere. It’s reality.

I have found that the ‘counter-chemical’ discussions are often rooted in lack of knowledge (bordering on ignorance), and while those arguments rooted in multi-syllabic words sound good and often hopeful, they often lack any realistic or viable suggestions/alternatives.  I won’t choose to get stuck into the BPA argument for bottles and containers (and as long as there are also proven safe alternatives am fine with buying those), and there are many special interests regarding individual chemistries.  The BPA matter is one where through experience and development; better, and safer products were developed for similar applications.  I call this progress!, not an indictment on the chemical industry.

The vast majority of people have no idea how diverse certain chemical products are. Propylene Glycol is  used as an additive in food, toothpastes, and pharmaceuticals (i.e. entering the human body) while the same product is used as an anti-freeze, a precursor to Polyurethanes (see Roller Blade Wheels above!) and oil dispersant in industrial applications.

I am proud to be in the chemical industry.  Was it my lifetime passion as a young man (Answer = no), but as many of us do – we find our way into the industry by some strange turn of events.  As I advise our young employees, every day we spend in the industry is another that makes it tougher to leave.  The more we learn and know, the more we contribute to our company’s bottom line (and our own).  I’ve enjoyed these 25 years, and hope to enjoy many more.

Our company is a member of numerous associations (such as NACD) which promote the education of safety around chemicals and regulatory compliance.  No one can prevent the ‘bad actors’ from their activities, but we do whatever we can to promote safety and well-being, and I know many of my colleagues, competitors, and readers do the same.

Do you find yourself defending your position in the industry?  Why you are in it?  The things you do on a daily basis to encourage harming the environment? I would would like to hear anyone’s personal experience, and welcome any/all comments.

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11 comments

  1. Dear Tony,

    You have expressed you thoughts very well. I appreciate your time in addressing this very critical issue. I’m in Houston, believe me, these kinds of discussions happen a lot more. This is due to the fact that, folks in ‘petro-metro’ hear more on chemicals and mostly think in wrong way about chemicals.

    I was confronted with situation where in I was to defend chemicals as very useful substance to a group of school kids (5th graders). They were taught that chemicals are very harmful, they create bad impact on our environment. They were told that industry has very little contribution in reducing these effects. They were not taught the applications and use of chemicals in our daily life as very clearly demonstrated by you in your article.

    I told the kids, sitting on chair, leaning on desk, writing with pencils on paper to prove that they can live without chemicals. Then, explained them how chemicals are all around and over us. They sit on plastics chair with soft foam ( polymers and polyurethane), their pencils are carbon. Paper has 50% chemicals and hence we save the trees as we have replaced natural pulp with chemicals. This has helped environment to large extent.

    I gave them a simple exercise to count the number of chemicals they use from morning to till they leave for school. This was to be done in a very simple manner. They will list the activity for example : Brush Teeth and write all possible chemicals they use for this activity by listing the chemicals on the tooth paste, take shower ( all chemicals in shampoo/soap/shower gel) etc. I went back to check this after two weeks and most of the 5th grade kids listed about 125 to 160 chemicals!

    They all agreed that chemical are very useful in daily life. We have to look at positive side of the chemicals industry.

    I felt very strongly about it because we spoil the minds of our children by giving them half and wrong picture. We need to give them applications, advantageous and of course, the adverse effects if these substances used in wrong way and if proper care is not taken.

    I am a proud chemical industry person like you and I endeavor to make this industry proud for what it has given to mankind

    • Hey, TR – great perspective!
      As a Third – Generation “industry brat” I can’t let this one go by. All your comments are right on, so I’m only going to add a couple of points. Our civilization, despite all of its collective intellectual advances, would be no where near as prosperous as it is without the sciences: mathematics, engineering and, yes, chemistry! In my opinion the sciences form the basis of our quality of life, which is far advanced from our predecessors of even two generations ago. Our Customers, and our Customers’ Customers, truly invent, formulate, produce, blend, synthesize, react, fabricate and sell great things, and we are collectively the better for these great things. Do not be apolgetic for what we and they do. Without our industry making robust and widespread advances in medical sciences possible, a long lifespan would be measures in decades, not nearly a century as it is today. Our industry does great things, and we are a part of the process that makes it happen.

  2. I too have experienced times when I feel the need to defend my position on the industry. However, if you’re not in it, you would have no idea to what extent chemicals are a necessity in your everyday life.

    Chemicals aren’t a passion of mine, but what I do enjoy is the forever evolving landscape of the industry, the endless amount of opportunities that exist, and the positive impact we can make across multiple industries. I find pride in knowing that our goal is to create solutions for other companies that will help them either increase profit and/or improve their products and operations.

    Interesting topic, I will be curious to hear other’s point of view.

    Brian

  3. When ever we inform others that we are in chemical business, the first question often asked is “What Chemicals”. and every time, I have to give example from surroundings. More often than not, its all about ignorance and knowledge than good or bad…

  4. It’s not only US where people have to defend their position in the chemical industry. It also happens in Europe and I guess world wide. I get sick and tired of those pictures showing “toxic clouds” coming out of cooling towers. I have always found the following a nice reply.
    You are a small chemical factory yourself. You put food in and you get work, artistry, love etc. out and yes sometimes smelly things, but even those are not necessarily bad when taken care of in a responsible manner.
    Nice topic!

  5. The best response is to systematically address the materials the other is wearing or holding. Suggest they would otherwise be wearing skins, which for them is probably anathema. Emphasize that is all “chemistry m’lad or milady” Then ask them why do they persist in driving while 30,000 people are slaughtered annually on US highways. With a smile then conclude – ‘now that is really dangerous” Or add the number of those killed from falls in their own home. Over 18,000. Then ask “Is that important for you?” Then ask them if they know how many people were killed in the US by toxic clouds. Low single digits? Bhopal, an act of industrial sabotage, in India, does not really count.

  6. I have been in the chemical industry since 1975 starting with BAYER NIGERIA LTD and had confronted this challenge severally. My opening sentence is always “Nothing happens without chemistry” and I will then explain why they themselves are made of chemicals from their toe-nails to the hairs on their heads. I do accept responsibility for some of the environmental pollution we have caused and assured them we are working day and night to find solutions by Reduce, Re-Use and Recycle. Lastly, Because of the stringent safety procedures in place, I let them know that working in a chemical plant is safer then driving in some cities and that without chemicals, we would all go hungry and become an extinct species.

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  8. @ Levin, love your comments – really refreshing not to see it come through my fax machine…
    as to TR and all above, yes be proud, I love arguing with the soccer mums that their Arbonne is not “all natural ingredients” as the rep tells them and E numbers on certain foods doesn’t mean that it is all bad. However I am fortunate to be working in an industry where we saved a customer 10 Giga Litres of fresh water p.a. with “chemicals” – I tell them “what did you do for the environment?, remember to separate your Coke cans and plastic milk bottles into the recycle bin?”

  9. Tell it like it is Tony, when I think of Seattle I think of Jimi Hendrix, Bruce lee (Jimi and Bruce are born the same day by the way!) Paul Bunyan sized talents in music, martial arts and then there’s always Ted Bundy for mayhem. I understand that liberal lightweights see it their way and they always will but if we give in to their way of thinking we will be stuck with something worse than Obama care in the long run. You have to align you verbal information stream with what your eyes are actually
    perceiving to come full circle. There’s only one aspect of nature more
    vital and basic than chemistry (chemicals and elements) and that’s the “electric” charge that that each atom is comprised of. The body contains approx. 100 trillion cells each a miniature mfg plant with
    a programed instruction set. Its chemical based so respect it.

  10. Rarely are these points of view backed up by any real knowledge.

    Unfortunately Captain Planet shaped the views of most in my generation. Subsequently they have the idea that anything that comes in a 55 gallon drum is bad for the environment.

    I have heard people lament that city children these days have no idea where their milk and eggs come from – they think it just comes from the shop. My response is often that most people have little idea of what goes into all their ‘stuff’.

    As per the other points above, often citing a few chemicals you know go into common household goods is a good start. Additionally I deal with the mining industry – so I have to justify this also. It usually means explaining to them where all the different metals end up.

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