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Chemical Safety in a Vulnerable WorldЧA Manifesto.

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Environmental Protection
Chemical Safety in a Vulnerable World—A Manifesto**
Carl Djerassi*
development aid · environmental protection ·
international cooperation
Chemophobia is alive and flourishing
“Vulnerability”, of course, referred also be chemical in nature. And it is in
in this world. Much of it is related to the to the situation among the least empow- this respect that the two nongovernfear of chemicals—some justified, some ered: the population in the less-devel- mental (and hence much less politioped countries as was cized) chemical constituencies from the
not—regarding expowell documented in the affluent countries—academia and prosure,
World Bank report fessional societies—that were so constorage, and disposal.
“Toxics and Poverty”.[1] spicuously absent from the Bangkok
Compounding the prob- Chemophobia is alive
lem is the general pub- and flourishing
So what is being done conference could play a significant
lic's rampant chemical
about these circumstan- role.
I propose that the major professioilliteracy and tendency
ces? An exhaustive reto view “safety” and
view by Schlottmann nal chemical societies of the highly
“toxicity” solely in black-and-white and co-workers[2] succinctly summarizes developed countries form a steering
terms: Something is either safe or dan- the current governmental and interna- committee to encourage North/South
interaction on new approaches to chemgerous, toxic or harmless. For knowl- tional efforts in that field.
edgeable scientists and sophisticated
The absence of adequate knowledge ical safety. Typical societies might be the
regulatory agencies, however, these are in many less-developed countries of the American Chemical Society, the Gesellgray terms. Behind any definition lurk extent and nature of their exposure to schaft Deutscher Chemiker (German
the words “depending on…”
dangerous chemicals is their greatest Chemical Society), the Royal Society
Against this background, one should vulnerability. Even if the ultimate sol- of Chemistry in the UK, as well as the
consider the recent Intergovernmental ution must involve financial and techni- Japanese, French, Dutch, Australian,
Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS) that cal assistance from the wealthy coun- Belgian, Italian, Spanish, Swiss, and
focused on “Chemical Safety in a Vul- tries, morality and political realism re- several Scandinavian chemical societies.
nerable World” held under the auspices quire that at least the selection of prior- (This proposal is based on my experiof the United Nations from November 1 ities and of a locally appropriate risk/ ence[3] as cofounder of the International
to 6 in Bangkok, Thailand. This IFCS benefit analysis must be the responsi- Center for Insect Physiology and Ecolmeeting—facilitated by simultaneous bility of the specific country. If that ogy (ICIPE) in the late 1960s in Nairobi
translation into six languages—was at- ability does not exist,
which is still flourishing
tended by over 700 representatives of then we are dealing
and for years was spongovernments, regulatory agencies, in- with a vulnerability at Highly detrimental:
sored and governed by
dustry, and many nongovernment or- the
an assembly of over a
vulnerability at the
ganizations from over 150 countries. level that is even more
dozen international acaStriking, however, were the virtual ab- pernicious than the ac- decision-making level
demies of sciences).
sence of academic chemists and the total tual exposure to a toxic
Such a convocation of
absence of national chemical societies, substance.
chemical societies might
as if the principal theme of this IFCS
With that vulnerainitially concentrate on
forum was not their concern.
bility in mind, let me present some the following two topics:
modest proposals focusing on proper
First, to raise interest in the chemispartnering between the haves and the try and related science departments of
[*] Prof. Dr. C. Djerassi
have-nots so as to facilitate participation the universities of these major countries
Department of Chemistry
by the latter as equals in the decision- in projects that deal with fundamentally
Stanford University
making process. The partnering I am new approaches to chemical decontamiStanford, CA 94305-5080 (USA)
proposing is a very limited one and is nation and, perhaps even more imporFax: (+ 1) 650-725-0259
focused solely on scientists, especially tantly, to the development of novel and
[**] Based on the opening address by C.D. on chemists. After all, if chemistry is the simple monitoring devices. At present,
root of most environmental problems, this type of research carries no prestige
November 1, 2003 to the International
clearly much of their resolution should whatsoever in the elite universities of
Forum on Chemical Safety, Bangkok.
2004 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
DOI: 10.1002/anie.200330079
Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2004, 43, 2330 –2332
the advanced industrialized countries. iron(iii) (hydr)oxides, producing accept- MBA (Master of Business AdministraAs an example, in my own institution— able drinking water. Incidentally, not tion) graduates that may wish to hone
Stanford Universionly is microbiology useful their skills on economic risk/benefit
ty—virtually nothing
for the detection of con- evaluations of chemical contamination
along these lines is Research without
tamination, it is becoming in collaboration with their chemistry
part of the chemistry prestige
increasingly important for colleagues. Such a Social Service Corps
curriculum, especialchemical decontamination. should also include some mature (most
ly at the graduate
through likely retired) chemists with substantial
level. Why? Because
bacteria is a flourishing industrial experience. The great merit of
it is looked down on as a form of field of research: For instance, a strain the “peace corps” approach[6] is that one
primitive applied research that will of Dehalococcoides converts vinyl chlo- focuses on socially conscientious perhardly foster the professional develop- ride into ethane and inorganic chlo- sons and creates a built-in turn over, so
ment of basic research chemists from ride.[5]
that within a few years a significant
top institutions. Yet, there are clearly
The second aspect of interest to such number of young, technically sophistiinstances in which both—fancy research a consortium of chemical societies could cated persons from highly developed
and simple application—can be com- be to stimulate the creation of a “Chem- countries become familiar with and
bined with enormous synergism.
ical Social Service Corps”—initially interested in the problems of their lessA striking example is provided by an quite small and to be
counterinteresting Swiss institution with a de- tested in a few African,
plorably complicated name, EidgenEssi- Asian, or Latin Ameri- A possible solution:
A chemical Social
sche Anstalt fFr Wasserversorgung, Ab- can countries to test the
Service Corps operating
a Chemical Social
wasserreinigung und GewGsserschutz applicability of this
under the umbrella of a
(Swiss Federal Institute for Water Sup- concept. I envisage Services Corps
consortium of chemical
ply, Purification, and Pollution Control), young PhD students or
societies is nongovernand an equally clumsy acronym, EA- postdoctoral researchmental in nature and
WAG—a dependency of the ETH ers (or even advanced
thus removes much of
(Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). graduate students) from the “industrial the political stigma of bilateral aid by
Along with other projects (www. superpowers” working in collaboration converting it into multilateral,
with their younger local counterparts in tion. But to determine whether such a
the EAWAG investigated the horrific the host country on chemical projects proposal has merit, it would be best to
problems associated with arsenic in that are specifically
organize first one or two
ground water—a problem particularly connected with the
small planning conferserious in Bangladesh, but also encoun- problems of chemical
ences in a couple of
From bilateral aid
tered in certain localities in the USA remediation and deteccountries that would be
and elsewhere in the world. One aspect tion in that locality. The to multilateral
interested in hosting the
of the solution is to enable consumers to USA–Brazil chemistry cooperation
type of the project mencheck their drinking water for potential program of the late
tioned. (Incidentally, it
pollution. The Swiss investigators com- 1960s and early 1970s
was precisely this type
bined cutting-edge science with poten- which I chaired and
of preliminary planning
tially simple applicability—precisely the which was run by the US National conference—organized by about half a
type of project that would attract many Academy of Sciences and the Brazilian dozen academies led by the National
young scientists. Through genetic-engi- Research Council is a small but strik- Academy of Sciences, the American
neering approaches, the researchers in- ingly relevant example. Over 20 post- Academy of Arts and Sciences, the
troduced color-producing proteins into doctoral researchers from some of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Max
arsenic-resistant strains of E. coli and leading American universities went to Planck Society, and the Royal Society—
then applied them to paper strips. These Brazil to work with Brazilian students that eventually led to the creation of the
particular glowing bacteria[4] respond to on projects that the Brazilians had ICIPE in Nairobi. Attendees at such a
both arsenate and arsenite and thus selected as high priority items. It is planning conference would consist of a
might offer cheap and yet sufficiently interesting that some of these foreigners small team of specialists from relevant
sensitive dipsticks that consumers could never left Brazil and settled there. The universities and professional societies
easily be taught to use. In the case of success of that program depended on from advanced “rich” countries and
positive tests, the consumer would then three factors that also apply here: care- possibly observers from some major
turn to another approach pioneered by ful selection of the volunteers, some foundations and the World Bank. Tothe Swiss: The AsIII-contaminated, iron- prior language training, and strong co- gether with their regional counterparts in
containing water is treated with citrate operation and participation by senior two or three countries, they would
determine whether any of these proposor lemon juice, and subsequently ex- officials of the host country.
It might even be interesting to have als could be implemented and financed.
posed to the sun in plastic bottles to
In summary: nothing ventured,
promote the photochemical conversion this technical Social Service Corps cadre
of AsIII into AsV, which precipitates with expand beyond chemists to some recent nothing gained.
Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2004, 43, 2330 –2332
2004 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
[1] L. Goldman, N. Tran, Toxics and Poverty,
The World Bank, Washington, DC, 2002.
[2] S. GGrtner, J. KFllmer, 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.
2004 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
[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.”
Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2004, 43, 2330 –2332
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