Chemists 5/29/19

By Richard Bleil

When there are problems, people love to find one person or entity to blame. Currently, a massive bee crisis literally threatens all life that lives on dry land because of the loss of pollination. The crisis has been linked to glyphosate herbicides, produced by a major chemical manufacturer, so, of course, people want to blame this company. But, somehow, we forget the consumers who purchase these herbicides.

Blame-game aside, it’s difficult for chemists like myself to hear criticisms against this chemical company without taking it a little bit personally. I’ve never worked for this company, but I can’t help but feel like part of this anger is directed towards me because of my profession.

I wonder how she would feel about it.

“She” called the company for whom I worked. With my bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and before I went to graduate school, I worked in an analytical laboratory that did environmental testing. We tested soil, water, and oils for pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals and others. One day, the manager was on the phone when a woman called with a real problem.

She owned a house on the edge of a development community. Behind her house was a farm to one side, and a municipal airport to the other. When the winds came from that direction, the paint on her house would develop spots on the side facing the field. The spots eventually moved from that side, and creep around, eventually reaching the front of the house. If she opened the windows, the spots began on the inner walls in the corresponding side.

She told me she wasn’t worried about the paint, but she had deduced that there was something in the air, which means her children were breathing it. She had called the EPA, who informed her that they don’t do that kind of work.

I could not see giving this information to my manager. Her story broke my heart, and I didn’t want my manager to take her money for a problem for which we were not properly equipped to help.

And, yes, this attitude is part of why I’m unemployed today.

I spoke with her for at least an hour. We came up with potential sources of the problem. I came up with key points for her, and asked her to call the EPA back, and ask specifically to speak with an analytical chemist because if you are talking to the wrong person, they are more likely to write you off than to try to get you to the correct one. And I told her that if she couldn’t get help, to call me back and I would come out and see what I can do.

I never heard from her again. To this day I think about her and hope she found the help she needed.

There are five principle sub-divisions of chemistry. Organic chemistry is the one that deals primarily with synthesis of organic compounds. Organic compounds are compounds of carbon and hydrogen. Foods, medicine, fibers are all organic in nature. Biochemistry is a natural off-shoot of organic chemistry, as it deals with organic compounds that are of specific significance to biological organisms. DNA, proteins, cell membranes, metabolism are examples. Inorganic chemistry deals with the “rest” of the periodic chart, that is, compounds that are not carbon and hydrogen based. Ceramics, salts, metals and the like are inorganic in nature. Analytical chemistry asks two questions; what is it and how much? For example, drug analysis is qualitative analytical chemistry in that it tries to identify what the suspected drug is, and blood alcohol is quantitative analytical chemistry in that it asks how much alcohol is in the blood. Physical chemistry is the interface between chemistry and physics, and studies the energy of chemical processes and reactions. The laws of thermodynamics, studied by physical chemists, are the laws that drive everything that happens.

Currently, I am in the process of beginning a new company that will be largely based on chemical consulting. People need help with chemistry, and it is my desire to provide that help. For example, I am working with a company that makes a nutritional supplement, and we (my partner and I) will be helping them to build a quality control lab in their processing plant. Another company I am hoping to help with has been working to develop community gardens, and as they expand, there will be a good chance that they will run into contaminated soil or containers of unknown chemicals. My desire is to help who I can, and those who have needs beyond our ability, to help them find what they need. Nobody can be an expert at everything, but I hope that when people speak of my business, they will say that we treated them honestly, fairly, and helped.

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