Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Convenience of Chemistry

In a salon a few days ago, I watched the stylist at the next station giving a young woman a prom-like hairdo for a graduation party. The two women laughed and chatted while the cosmetologist sprayed strand after strand of the customer's long hair with sticky spray. The cloud that surrounded them made it appear that one or both of them were smoking. I found myself imagining those molecules of hair spray being sucked into both sets of lungs with every breath.

On the way across town afterward, I passed several people spraying for weeds. A pair of young men were working on the parking strip in front of an apartment house, shouldering large tanks of herbicide while aiming the business end of the hoses at the ground around them. Each was working in a cloud of vapor, and neither was wearing gloves or a mask. Further on, a man with bare feet was spraying weeds in the cracks of a driveway, undoubtedly dousing his skin with poison.

At this time and place, in America, there's a product to solve pretty much every little problem. Through the convenience of chemistry, we keep the little things in our lives tidy and neat. For a few pennies per application, we keep chemicals on hand to kill bugs, freshen upholstery, and banish headaches. Many of us scoff at precautions like washing fruits and vegetables, and those who pay extra for "organic" products are sometimes regarded as fanatics.

When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, the public was stunned to learn of the horrific environmental effects of DDT and other common chemicals, as well as their risks to human health. Thus began a decade of awareness that, unfortunately, has now faded into cultural history. People are nothing if not adaptable. We get used to things. We become complacent. We get lazy. We convince ourselves that a little exposure here or a little risk there won't hurt anything.

We forget about the effects of accumulation over time. The weight of a penny is trivial; however, if you put a penny a day in a jar, by the end of a year the accumulated weight of the pennies will be over two pounds! Things add up. How much hair spray, I wonder, would accumulate in a woman's lungs after a year inhaling it on a regular basis?

Incidents of many types of disorders, from Multiple Sclerosis to autism to certain kinds of cancers, are inexplicably on the rise. Could there be a connection?

As a culture, too, we get used to things. After the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, the cultural and political will of the country (and, indeed, of the industrial world) was such that reparations and changes were demanded. Standards were improved for the structure and integrity of tankers. Meanwhile, however, offshore drilling became a new national pastime. As for reparations, Exxon played the waiting game well, using its boundless wealth to delay just payment for damages until conservative courts would take pity and limit their liabilities.

Now, twenty years later, we find that the oil industry has invested little-to-nothing in improving technology for stopping leaks and cleaning up spills. From booms to toxic chemical dispersants, we're pretty much stuck with the same alternatives that existed in 1989.

In our individual lives, sometimes chemical accidents occur that cause immediate and permanent damage. Far more often, though, we just live life complacently, not thinking about the cumulative effects of habitual carelessness. The thing we can't know is just how many assaults the body can take before its defenses are overwhelmed—before permanent and irreparable damage has been done.

The same can be said for the planet.

The area around Valdez, Alaska, and its people have not recovered from the damage they suffered in the disaster of 1989. With every passing day of the current oil-spill debacle, it seems more likely that large areas of the American South will never be restored to what they were a few short weeks ago. Lifestyles, livelihoods, the wetlands that protect great cities like New Orleans, and whole species of animals may disappear forever.

Complacency—simply not thinking about the things we don't want to think about—is convenient and comfortable. In an increasingly complex world, though, it's a luxury we really can't afford.

1 comment: said...

Great post, Jane! How many people still remember Love Canal? How about Bhopal? The Indians in that area are still paying a heavy price for that "accident". Just recently, a trial found 7 (!!) guilty of lying to authorities and conspiracy. According to some, the abandoned plant is still very contaminated.

Autoimmune disorders are on the rise. Lupus, colitis, fibromyalgia, etc. Is it because we eat too many processed foods? Is it because of the chemicals in our environment? Who can tell?

Complacency is always dangerous. Whether it is occupational safety or foreign affairs, complacency can kill.