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Vol. 26 No. 5
September-October 2004

Up for Discussion | A forum for members and member organizations to share ideas and concerns.
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Chemical Safety in a Vulnerable World—A Manifesto*

by Carl Djerassi

Chemophobia is alive and flourishing in this world.

Chemophobia is alive and flourishing in this world. Much of it is related to the fear of chemicals—some justified, some not—regarding exposure, contamination, storage, and disposal. Compounding the problem is the general public’s rampant chemical illiteracy and tendency to view “safety” and “toxicity” solely in black-and-white terms: Something is either safe or dangerous, toxic or harmless. For knowledgeable scientists and sophisticated regulatory agencies, however, these are gray terms. Behind any definition lurk the words “depending on . . .”

Striking . . . were the virtual absence of academic chemists and the total absence of national chemical societies . . .

Against this background, one should consider the recent Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS) that focused on “Chemical Safety in a Vulnerable World” held under the auspices of the United Nations from 1 to 6 November 2003 in Bangkok, Thailand. This IFCS meeting—facilitated by simultaneous translation into six languages—was attended by over 700 representatives of governments, regulatory agencies, industry, and many nongovernment organizations from over 150 countries. Striking, however, were the virtual absence of academic chemists and the total absence of national chemical societies, as if the principal theme of this IFCS forum was not their concern.

“Vulnerability,” of course, referred to the situation among the least empowered: the population in the less-developed countries as was well documented in the World Bank report Toxics and Poverty.1 So what is being done about these circumstances? An exhaustive review by Schlottmann and co-workers2 succinctly summarizes the current governmental and international efforts in that field.

The absence of adequate knowledge in many less-developed countries of the extent and nature of their exposure to dangerous chemicals is their greatest vulnerability. Even if the ultimate solution must involve financial and technical assistance from the wealthy countries, morality and political realism require that at least the selection of priorities and of a locally appropriate risk/benefit analysis must be the responsibility of the specific country. If that ability does not exist, then we are dealing with a vulnerability at the decision-making level that is even more pernicious than the actual exposure to a toxic substance.

With that vulnerability in mind, let me present some modest proposals focusing on proper partnering between the haves and the have-nots so as to facilitate participation by the latter as equals in the decision-making process. The partnering I am proposing is a very limited one and is focused solely on scientists, especially chemists. After all, if chemistry is the root of most environmental problems, clearly much of their resolution should also be chemical in nature. And it is in this respect that the two nongovernmental (and hence much less politicized) chemical constituencies from the affluent countries—academia and professional societies—that were so conspicuously absent from the Bangkok conference could play a significant role.

I propose that the major professional chemical societies of the highly developed countries form a steering committee to encourage North/South interaction on new approaches to chemical safety. Typical societies might be the American Chemical Society, the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (German Chemical Society), the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK, as well as the Japanese, French, Dutch, Australian, Belgian, Italian, Spanish, Swiss, and several Scandinavian chemical societies. (This proposal is based on my experience3 as cofounder of the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in the late 1960s in Nairobi which is still flourishing and for years was sponsored and governed by an assembly of over a dozen international academies of sciences). Such a convocation of chemical societies might initially concentrate on the following two topics:

First, to raise interest in the chemistry and related science departments of the universities of these major countries in projects that deal with fundamentally new approaches to chemical decontamination and, perhaps even more importantly, to the development of novel and simple monitoring devices. At present, this type of research carries no prestige whatsoever in the elite universities of the advanced industrialized countries. As an example, in my own institution—Stanford University—virtually nothing along these lines is part of the chemistry curriculum, especially at the graduate level. Why? Because it is looked down on as a form of primitive applied research that will hardly foster the professional development of basic research chemists from top institutions. Yet, there are clearly instances in which both—fancy research and simple application—can be combined with enormous synergism.

A striking example is provided by an interesting Swiss institution with a deplorably complicated name, Eidgenössische Anstalt für Wasserversorgung, Abwasserreinigung und Gewässerschutz (Swiss Federal Institute for Water Supply, Purification, and Pollution Control), and an equally clumsy acronym, EAWAG—a dependency of the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). Along with other projects (, the EAWAG investigated the horrific problems associated with arsenic in ground water—a problem particularly serious in Bangladesh, but also encountered in certain localities in the USA and elsewhere in the world. One aspect of the solution is to enable consumers to check their drinking water for potential pollution. The Swiss investigators combined cutting-edge science with potentially simple applicability—precisely the type of project that would attract many young scientists. Through genetic-engineering approaches, the researchers introduced color-producing proteins into arsenic-resistant strains of E. coli and then applied them to paper strips. These particular glowing bacteria 4 respond to both arsenate and arsenite and thus might offer cheap and yet sufficiently sensitive dipsticks that consumers could easily be taught to use. In the case of positive tests, the consumer would then turn to another approach pioneered by the Swiss: The AsIII-contaminated, iron containing water is treated with citrate or lemon juice, and subsequently exposed to the sun in plastic bottles to promote the photochemical conversion of AsIII into AsV, which precipitates with iron(iii) (hydr)oxides, producing acceptable drinking water. Incidentally, not only is microbiology useful for the detection of contamination, it is becoming increasingly important for chemical decontamination. Bioremediation through bacteria is a flourishing field of research: For instance, a strain of Dehalococcoides converts vinyl chloride into ethane and inorganic chloride.5

A Chemical Services Corp to help disadvantaged countries with problems of chemical remediation and detection.

The second aspect of interest to such a consortium of chemical societies could be to stimulate the creation of a “Chemical Social Service Corps”—initially quite small and to be tested in a few African, Asian, or Latin American countries to test the applicability of this concept. I envisage young PhD students or postdoctoral researchers (or even advanced graduate students) from the “industrial superpowers” working in collaboration with their younger local counterparts in the host country on chemical projects that are specifically connected with the problems of chemical remediation and detection in that locality. The USA-Brazil chemistry program of the late 1960s and early 1970s which I chaired and which was run by the US National Academy of Sciences and the Brazilian Research Council is a small but strikingly relevant example. Over 20 postdoctoral researchers from some of the leading American universities went to Brazil to work with Brazilian students on projects that the Brazilians had selected as high priority items. It is interesting that some of these foreigners never left Brazil and settled there. The success of that program depended on three factors that also apply here: careful selection of the volunteers, some prior language training, and strong cooperation and participation by senior officials of the host country.

It might even be interesting to have this technical Social Service Corps cadre expand beyond chemists to some recent MBA (Master of Business Administration) graduates that may wish to hone their skills on economic risk/benefit evaluations of chemical contamination in collaboration with their chemistry colleagues. Such a Social Service Corps should also include some mature (most likely retired) chemists with substantial industrial experience. The great merit of the “peace corps” approach6 is that one focuses on socially conscientious persons and creates a built-in turn over, so that within a few years a significant number of young, technically sophisticated persons from highly developed countries become familiar with and interested in the problems of their less advantaged counterparts.

A chemical Social Service Corps operating under the umbrella of a consortium of chemical societies is nongovernmental in nature and thus removes much of the political stigma of bilateral aid by converting it into multilateral cooperation. But to determine whether such a proposal has merit, it would be best to organize first one or two small planning conferences in a couple of countries that would be interested in hosting the type of project mentioned. (Incidentally, it was precisely this type of preliminary planning conference—organized by about half a dozen academies led by the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Max Planck Society, and the Royal Society—that eventually led to the creation of the ICIPE in Nairobi. Attendees at such a planning conference would consist of a small team of specialists from relevant universities and professional societies from advanced “rich” countries and possibly observers from some major foundations and the World Bank. Together with their regional counterparts in two or three countries, they would determine whether any of these proposals could be implemented and financed. In summary: nothing ventured, nothing gained.

1. L. Goldman, N. Tran, Toxics and Poverty, The World Bank, Washington, DC, 2002.
2. S. Gärtner, J. Küllmer, U. Schlottmann, Angew. Chem. 2003, 115, 4594-4607; Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2003, 42, 4456-4469; see also B.-U. Hildebrandt, U. Schlottmann, Angew. Chem. 1998, 110, 1382-1393; Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 1998, 37, 1316-1326.
3. “A High Priority? Research Centers in Developing Nations”: C. Djerassi, Bull. At. Sci., 1968, 24 (January), 22 - 27. This proposal eventually led to the creation of the ICIPE in Nairobi.
4. J. Stocker, D. Balluch, M. Gsell, H. Harms, J. Feliciano, S. Daunert, K.A. Malik, J.R. van der Meer, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2003, 37, 4743 - 4750.
5. E.K. Nyer, F. Payne, S. Sutherson, Ground Water Monit. Rem. 2003, 23, 36-45.
6. The article cited in reference [3], which led to the creation of ICIPE, ended with the following sentence: “This may be the prototype of an international scientific peace corps of small numbers and very high educational caliber which may prove viable and useful in other areas as well.”

Prof. C. Djerassi <[email protected]> is professor at Department of Chemistry, Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA.

*This article first appeared in Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2004, 43, 2330-2332. It is based on the opening address by C.D. on 1 November 2003 to the International Forum on Chemical Safety, Bangkok. Reprinted with permission from Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim.

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