Chemicals – The Danger of A Single Story
What comes into your mind when I say the word ‘chemical’?
The chances are that if you are a cosmetic enthusiast you might have thought of:
I studied chemistry at university for 3 years and then as a post grad for another year during which time I grew to see the world in a haze of chemical love (I never did and never have done drugs, I am just a nerd).
I remember pouring over the labels of food, cosmetics and medicines ingesting the information in the hope of gaining insight into their secret formulations.
What makes that work?
How does that stay together?
Why does that product last so long?
How many other products use that ingredient?
The list was as long as my untiring enthusiasm.
My focus grew when I got my first job as a telephone sales girl in a chemical distribution company. It was my job to call the cosmetics companies and see if I could sell them some more chemicals. I sold glycerine, ethanol, sorbitol, benzyl alcohol and vegetable oils. After a little while I got to learn about more interesting ingredients – emulsifiers, surfactants, thickeners, solubilisers. I was in heaven.
It wasn’t that I didn’t think about the environment, natural ingredient, toxic chemicals or death in those young and carefree days. Of course I did.
Death and toxic chemicals:
My cushy desk job was in an office located on a tank farm – that’s what we called the area that stored your bulk hydrochloric acid, sodium metasilicate, caustic soda solution and more. We knew that the chemicals could be dangerous because we saw with our own eyes what they could do. How things could explode when put next to the wrong chemical, how toxic gasses could overcome you, how a little spill could melt your boots. I learned not to fear chemicals but to respect them. All of them.
Just before my first job I’d travelled through Indonesia working with Orang Utans. I had witnessed the deforestation and change of land use. I had also recently returned from a 9 week stay in India where I’d witnessed pollution and heard about chemical spills, cancer, sickness. I wasn’t stupid but I had a passion.
My passion is and always has been driven by one thing, a desire to understand so that I might be able to offer creative solutions that make things better.
Many things have changed since those early days and my passion has been tested by people who seem struck on painting only one story of chemicals – a bad one.
That isn’t to say that these stories are wrong but I am living a different and equally valid story. One where we can chemistry can offer us solutions, help us live greener, cleaner and safer lives. One that can save the forests. It can happen but not unless people want it to.
So with my story and countless other undeniably positive stories in mind I bring you this, a TED talk from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi called: The danger of a single story.
I think we are all guilty of viewing the world through our own selective looking-glass at times I know this because even I find it hard not to talk about cosmetic chemicals without mentioning the phrases ‘google friendly’ or ‘not on the nasties list’.
So I ask you to watch this and think. Not about how silly I am for not wanting all chemicals banned – I feel that we can and should do more, be better – but to think about how many stories about chemicals you know.
It is time for change. Our future depends on it.