knowledge devouring itself
October 10, 2017 1:24 PM   Subscribe

How the Benzene Tree Polluted the World - "“We have been so clever at learning to play with atoms and molecules without ever thinking about what they do once they are out,” she told me. “Put a complex molecule into the environment,” said Costner, “and it is going to undergo any number of transitions in hard-to-predict ways.”"

Snakes, sausages and structural formulae - "Mike Sutton tells the story of how August Kekulé dreamt up the structure of benzene"
The Benzene Ring: Dream Analysis - "Of all the cases cited by psychiatrists, psychologists and historians of science to illuminate the role of symbolism in creative thought, none is more famous than August Kekule's somnolent vision of a snake biting its tail, a dream that supposedly revealed the true structure of the benzene ring to the German chemist.

But at least one historian now believes that Kekule never dreamed the snake dream, and that, in any case, the benzene ring had already been described by other chemists at the time Kekule claimed to have discovered it."

Poisoned By PCBs: Thirty Years Later, Court Documents Reveal Monsanto's Toll on an Alabama Town

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
- PCBs are now banned in the U.S. but can be found in old electrical equipment.
posted by the man of twists and turns (14 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

I wonder when was the earliest "serious person", like a scientist or academic, to start wondering, is this really a good idea, dumping random synthesized chemicals everywhere and assuming it's all good?
posted by thelonius at 6:56 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]

Reminds me of plastic micro-beads. It seems we're doomed to repeat this cycle of creation of new solutions without considering potential problems down the line. It's rare for the full "life-cycle" of new things/approaches to be fully considered or understood. Even if bigger problems are suspected, the truth can be obscured or actively fought by your typical profit-hungry corporation.

One of the few times that public sentiment has slowed the release of new things into the environment (for right or wrong) is genetically modified crops.

And if you consider that these new things are created to solve problems, then you need to decide whether these new issues outweigh the benefits. Synthetic clothing lasts much longer than clothing made from natural fibres. It's also much cheaper and less labour intensive to produce. But of course there is now masses of micro-plastic pollution.
posted by Start with Dessert at 8:13 PM on October 10 [6 favorites]

Remember when all the magazine covers in the 50s depicted the future with belching smokestacks? Yeah, not so good eh.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:31 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]

I regret nothing
posted by benzenedream at 10:39 PM on October 10 [27 favorites]

Funny how many people I knew who owned or worked at gas stations got cancer. Funny.
posted by tommasz at 6:52 AM on October 11

My middle school was right next to a transformer plant that got cited at least twice for leaking PCBs into the surrounding groundwater. I have to wonder how much of the current state of me that explains.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 7:05 AM on October 11

Once, as a youngster, I smoked weed in a shipping container full of barrels of PCBs. pretty sure we opened one and looked inside - not that interesting so we closed it up.

If exposure to those PCBs did anything to my liver function, they made it super-human.

Still, looking back on it, it was a pretty stupid thing to do, and it could have caused lasting harm that I have yet to fully realize.

On the other hand, it was probably less harmful long term than spending so many years living with my [now]ex.

weird to have the thought "I would have been better off marrying those PCBs".

I guess they could have damaged my brain too.

The PCBs could have as well I guess.
posted by some loser at 7:07 AM on October 11 [4 favorites]

But regulating organic chemicals for their biological activity has been political and controversial because carbon is not just the basis of our biology, but also deeply embedded in our economy.

We've also relied on a great big controversial blunder to regulate synthetic chemistries in that we've used--still use--animals whose metabolic processes are distinct from humans as putative models of how human biology will react to those chemistries. The good news is that this is an established problem now, at least in toxicology and its related fields, and has been codified as the Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century paradigm. That paradigm shift led to the Tox21 initiative within the U.S. regulatory system, which itself has worked its way into last year's TSCA revision.

This is all good news, albeit news that's coming late to the game and with questionable longevity in the face of anti-science administrations. In graduate school I looked at decades of tissue samples from people who'd developed a particularly aggressive form of inflammatory carcinoma. I was looking for substances in those tissue samples that correlated with the development of this type of carcinoma and, jeez, it's hard to do that because we're all unavoidably tainted with low concentrations of so, so many synthetic organic substances. It's going to take us a long time to untangle how all these low-dose chemistries interact in biological systems like our bodies, but we don't need to know the specifics with any degree of confidence to know the generalization is true: this stuff is messing us up and we can't avoid it. Our lifetimes are and will remain characterized by a complicated soup of new-to-earth molecules that can't be contained. It's one of the things I think our species will look back on with disdain should we make it a couple hundred years into the future.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:02 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]

Judy Hoy in western Montana has been doing years of research on the effect of these chemicals on local ungulates and birds. She is also gathering data on how they affect fetus development in humans. It's looking like the coming of the androgynous trans tribe people is a result of those chemicals (in everything now) impacting the hormonal womb soup when the new person is growing into their sexuality.

Love it - livin' in a sci movie!
posted by Mesaverdian at 5:11 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]

Start with Dessert - the plastic microbead paper has lots of serious problems and should be retracted.

Answers provided by the accused “have been in all essentials deficient, at times contradictory and have not infrequently given rise to further questions,” the statement says. It declares the duo “guilty of scientific dishonesty” for not having posted the data, and also for making false statements about obtaining ethical approval for the study, both in the Science paper and in their contacts with the committee.
posted by porpoise at 4:31 PM on October 12

... and it has been retracted.
posted by porpoise at 4:36 PM on October 12

Huh? I didn't reference that paper - just the wiki article. It even says "A team of researchers from Uppsala University published a fraudulent and since retracted study." I guess it's kind of moot since the global phase-out of microbead use is well underway.
posted by Start with Dessert at 10:50 PM on October 12

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