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It's all chemicals!

By Al Cooke, Extension Agent
Posted Thursday, June 8, 2006

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Pittsboro, NC - Everything is chemicals!

I’m responding to two notices in Chatlist #2502, dated 5/25/06 and at least one more since then. One writer wanted to “stay away from chemical methods” while another has a pesticide, “no chemicals used.”

Chemicals! It’s a way of understanding our world, not a criterion for character judgment.

I don’t mean to call anybody out but to address the issue because it’s common lingo to avoid “chemicals.” It can also be misleading. A few years ago I dealt with a woman who for reasons related to both health and economics needed to be harvesting produce from her garden. But someone had her so scared of “chemicals” that she had used no fertility. Her plants were spindly, yellow, and not producing. Someone’s advice to avoid chemicals was creating problems for a woman who didn’t need any more problems.

I use this anecdote because I’ve been accused of being pedantic when I say that everything in our world is made of chemicals. “Do I have to spell it out?” Yes, I think we need to be specific. What chemicals are we not using?

Chemistry is a way of describing our world. Plants have been absorbing chemicals from the soil and performing biochemical operations internally since before humans have existed. People didn’t create chemicals. The water we depend on is simply a combination of two common chemicals, and it facilitates a lot of chemical reactions within the organs of plants and animals including humans.

Even organic farmers and gardeners must use chemicals. The proteins in organic fertilizers are not readily available to plants. They must be broken down to provide nitrates, phosphates, and other chemicals essential to plant life. The chemical breakdown is performed by microbial life forms.

There are organic pesticides. Organic farmers use pesticides? Well, some do. One of the best known is Bacillus thuringiensis, (B.t.). One of the more hazardous is rotenone that most avoid because it’s – well, hazardous even though it’s plant derived.

The kaolin referred to in Chatlist #2502 is a complex chemical including tetrahedral sheets of oxygen, aluminum, silicon, and hydrogen. The product mentioned is a registered pesticide, Surround – EPA Reg. No. 70060-08 and other registrations. A “pesticide” is actually more a legal term than a moral or philosophical concept.

But we’re all chemicals. Your doctor can discuss with you the chemicals that your body uses and processes. She or he takes a blood sample to look at your blood chemistry – hemoglobin, cholesterol, and stuff like that. Chemicals! It’s a way of understanding our world, not a criterion for character judgment. People are occasionally surprised that their government lets merchants sell such hazardous chemicals. I’m not surprised; it’s normal. If you want to find some hazardous chemicals, a lot of them are under the sink. Consider drain cleaners or even bleaches. Some really nasty stuff there, much more hazardous than most garden variety insecticides and herbicides.

So what chemicals are we trying to avoid. I challenge you to be specific. Are you more concerned about toxicity or hazard? Not the same. A very toxic product becomes more hazardous if its container leaks. With no change in toxicity, we now have the increased hazard of inhaling fumes or the potential for a spilled product to contaminate soil or water.

OK, I accept that I’m being pedantic. But I challenge people to think about and be specific about what it is that we are avoiding. I think we have an obligation to think about the words we use and to try to be accurate. A lot of our world’s problems would be a lot smaller if we communicated well. One lady may have been better served and better fed if someone had not instilled in her a fear of chemicals.

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It's all chemicals!

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