“Toxins in Your Home” will appear in this publication as a three part series. The first and current article is about the history of the chemical industry. The second will look at government regulations and how they affect the chemical industry, and the final article will be about the toxic chemicals that may be found in your home.
The chemical industry has it’s origin with the medieval alchemists who believed they could turn base metal into gold. During their pursuit for such a miracle, many new chemicals were discovered, many of which had benefits for human kind. However, none too often, these alchemists eventually wound up poisoning themselves and/or the clients they served when one of the elixirs they produced turned out to be harmful or fatal.
In the United States, the chemical industry got it’s start in the later part of the 19th century when great discoveries in science were made. These included the verification of the atom, the discovery of the electron, proton and neutron, and the creation of the periodic table of elements. These discoveries gave scientists and engineers the tools necessary to break down chemical elements and reconstruct them into synthetic chemicals. Chemical companies cropped up all across America and Europe creating new solutions to improve the quality of life.
There was a great deal of competition amongst these companies to grab a greater share of the market, make a better chemical and a better profit so they could continue to thrive and create ever better chemicals to make life a little bit easier.
These companies really became tested after WW1 when many companies folded. During the war, there was a great expansion in the industry as supplies from Europe were cut off and chemicals were needed for the war effort. After the war, the demand was greatly reduced. Many companies folded. Only the larger ones were able to survive as they had the resources needed to convert their war time goods into consumer products. For those that survived, this time was very lucrative. During the depression, Midland Michigan, the home of the Dow Chemical Company, was known as “the town that never knew the depression,” as a constant demand for new chemicals kept the towns people almost continuously employed. the chemical companies were creating so many new products, nobody really knew what many of them could be used for. They would create them and ship them out leaving the end product up to the final manufacturer.
This pattern was once again repeated during WW2. There was a great expansion in the industry, followed by a lull in which facilities had to adapt to manufacture consumer products. Once again, after that war, the companies that survived thrived in the chemical industry. Manufacturers raced to create ever new and more effective products to meet the growing consumer demands for better “elixirs” of life.
During this century over 6 million new chemicals have been produced, 55,000 of which have made it to the market place. Many of these chemicals have barely been tested for their effects on human life.
The chemical industry operates within a framework of tremendous competition. It takes about ten years from the time a new chemical is created to the time it is available on the market. During this time, a company can spend hundreds of millions of dollars developing a new product. A U. S. patent will protect a product for 17 years. In that time, the inventing company can enjoy a monopoly on the product in hopes of earning some of its investment back. After the patent wears out (about seven years after the product hits the market), competition arises; (many times a competing company will have a factory built and ready to operate the day a patent runs out). Competition greatly lowers the price of the product to just above the profit point. If the inventing company hasn’t reclaimed its original investment during the monopoly period, it is bound to take a loss. Needless to say, there is a race within our current economic system to get a product developed and out on the market as fast as possible to increase the likelihood of a profit.
During this development period, a lot can go wrong. After millions of dollars, and years of research, a product could be found to be unsafe and the company would suffer a financial loss. Accidents can happen in the manufacturing and shipping process. Chemicals can be dumped into the environment, and workers in the research facilities and/or manufacturing plant can be exposed to life threatening compounds. Because of wind and ocean currents, unnatural compounds have been found as far away as the South Pole and the bottom of the ocean.
Every setback will reduce the company’s chance of reclaiming its investment and turning a profit. All too often, natural human defense mechanisms can set in, such as the rationalization that in order to survive it is acceptable to hurt others, or, the denial that something is actually wrong, causing harmful products to be produced by the hundreds of thousands of tons and shipped to our homes or dumped into the environment.
After understanding the systems in which the chemical industry operates, it is possible to have some compassion. People don’t set out to intentionally harm others; however within a given economic/political system we can become myopic and unaware of the consequences of our actions. In the case of the chemical industry we need to be able to focus on what is wrong and not who is wrong. Pointing fingers will result in the building of barriers and prevent us from taking the necessary steps to change!
- Davis, L. N. (1984). The Corporate Alchemists: Profit Takers and Problem Makers in the Chemical Industry. New York, NY: William Morrow.
- Whitehead, D. (1968). The Dow Story: The History of the Dow Chemical Company. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.