Public enemy number one?

This article was printed in April 1986 in Canadian Chemical News. So how is chemistry doing with its reputation after 27 years?   

Reprinted with permission.

At a party recently, a friend of mine (or should I say ex-friend), notorious for his outspoken personality, ran towards me as I entered the room. Realizing that I was about to be accosted, I pretended that I had forgotten to plug in my car’s block heater, and tried to leave the room. “Mark….Mark….”, I was trapped!

“You still into that chemistry stuff? Boy, you guys sure know how to cause havoc on this planet…Bhopal and all that stuff. I have just the limerick for you…Listen to this…”. (Did I have any choice?)

By now, thanks to his fortissimo voice, all ears were tuned to him, and all eyes directed at me.

      “Diddle diddle dumpling my chemistry friend Mark,

      With the process on full, he went to the park.

      The safety valve got stuck,

      The townspeople were out of luck,

      Diddle diddle dumpling my chemistry friend Mark.”

GROAN! I thought that the force of his paroxysmal laughter would, at the least, burst a cerebral aneurysm. One consolation, he was the only one in the room laughing. To this day, I still believe he is suffering from witzelsucht.1 Looking around the room, I suddenly had the strangest hallucination…written on everyone’s forehead were the “chemistry things” we would all like to forget about: Bhopal, Love Canal, Three-Mile Island, PCBs, acid rain, dioxin…  .

Yes, at this gathering of accountants, literature professors, plumbers, firefighters, taxi drivers, and other non-chemistry people, I had suddenly become Public Enemy Number One.

I thought of saying something clever to my friend the poet, about his polyester leisure suit, his epoxy-filled teeth, his “natural look” toupee, or his crepe-soled yachting shoes, but I was reminded of a Proverb… “The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright, but the mouth of a fool poureth out foolishness”.2 I decided, rather, that I would crawl over to the food table, grab a handful of cashews and get myself into the kitchen, where I could be consoled by my wife. We left the party 10 minutes later, explaining to the other guests that our babysitter had just called to tell us our dog had a bad case of acute esophagitis, also known as indigestion — very dangerous syndrome in dachshunds, as you may know.

On the way home I thought about how chemical technology, and chemistry in general, has suddenly become, in the public’s eye, a modern Atilla the Hun. Randomly, yet somehow purposefully, travelling around the globe maiming and killing innocent people, endangering future generations and destroying nature’s delicate ecological balance.

Why don’t other professions seem to suffer from this same public image? Are all engineers burned at the stake by the media when a plane crashes after losing an engine, or after a support railing collapses and 100 people fall to their death? Are geophysicists or meteorologists tarred and feathered when a volcano suddenly erupts or a hurricane devastates an entire Caribbean island? Are carpenters and newspaper publishers treated like lepers because the deforestation of our continent is causing major environmental problems? Let’s not forget the physicians when an outbreak of cholera kills a few thousand unsuspecting people. Are they subjected to a cat-o-nine-tails, or worse yet, have their Mercedes convertible compressed into breadbox-size cube? Are all computer analysts banished to the wilderness when a glitch in a hydro computer shuts power off in a major city for hours? No, no, no, no, no.

There is something about the four letters C H E M that causes hearts to stop, stomachs to churn and ulcerate, and a mother’s love to wax cold. Yet they quickly forget about headaches they complained about, then popped an ASA. The family pictures and home movies that bring tears to their eyes: what do you mean developed by the chemical industry? Their fibreglass sailboats and sports car bodies. Videotapes and floppy diskettes. Rayon, nylon, polyester, acetate, Teflon, ceramics, silicon, germanium… .

Perhaps we, as a responsible group of professionals, could start a chemical police force. We could go out and remove all those chemicals from people’s homes. Sure…

“Hello, Mrs. Jennifer Jones. Yes, this is the Canadian Chemical Police calling. You called our office last week for removal of home chemicals. We will be by this afternoon to pick everything up.”

“Oh wonderful. My husband has this jar of smelly paint thinner and there’s some 25-year old insecticide out in the garage.”

“Let’s just go through our standard list to make sure you haven’t forgotten any chemicals. Food wrap, laundry and dish detergent, fabric softener, bath soap, nylon tents, Teflon-treated wall-to-wall carpeting, latex or alkyd paint, vinyl wallpaper, plastic kids’ toys, graphite tennis/squash racquets, perfume, pantyhose…”

“Wait, wait. I thought you said you were coming for the chemicals we have in the house.” “Yes ma’am. Lawn furniture, disposable diapers, toilet bowl cleaner, microcomputer, television, ghetto-blasters, we can’t have all that silicon stuff hanging around.*”

“Cancel my appointment. I will have to reconsider this.”

What a ridiculous scenario. I think few of us involved in the chemical industry would disagree with the fact that our industry has had its fair share of disasters and chemical products and by-products that we would like to wipe off the slate anytime. Yes, there have been and continue to be environmental problems that we would rather not talk about. We are part of the “offended” society. We have children whose futures we want to keep bright and safe.

Our responsibility as chemical technologists is to admit our professional and technological shortcomings up front. We must always realize that the lay pubic is apprehensive at the best of times over what most of us consider everyday routines and perfectly “safe” substances. We must, with every new process and synthesis, put into practice every new safety control and procedure, for we might, one day, be one of the fatalities. We must work together with the media to ensure that reports dealing with our industry are published and broadcast with accuracy and without sensationalism. Both the good and the bad.

We must now regain the trust of the public through trustworthy methods and put our industry and profession back in the good books of our society. Perhaps, instead of being Public Enemy Number One, we will present an image of a group of professionals willing and able to provide new technology to improve lifestyle and provide optimum protection from potential hazards which we have generated concurrently.

The Canadian Society for Chemical Technology (CSCT) is working towards this.



  1. Witzelsucht — A condition marked by the making of poor jokes and puns and the telling of pointless stories, at which the patient is himself intensely amused.
  2. Bible, King James Version, Proverbs 15, verse 2.

[*Now we would also need to pry away all mobile devices.]