- November 30, 2004, David J. Bentley, Jr., Contributing Editor
Earlier columns in this space discussed how poorly the average person understands the chemical industry. Recently a correspondent wrote in response to those columns, "I think most people are exposed to chemistry and the nature of matter during their high school and college years. Despite that, they somehow become indoctrinated by those with the view that all chemicals are dangerous. Our laws and policies are now jaded by attitudes and ignorance."
The writer notes he was a nuclear radiation protection officer at one point in his career before coming to the packaging and converting industry. Having this background, he decided to ask nurses and technicians administering X-rays how much radiation he was receiving during such a procedure. He already knew the approximate answer and simply was attempting to learn if they actually practiced patient responsibility. Nobody associated with such testing could give him a correct answer. After repeated attempts, he finally made his dentist and the staff of that office understand it was not equivalent to 15 minutes in the sun as they had first informed him.
This is simply one example of a complete lack of responsibility by a professional who, in this case, was a dentist.
Obviously, this column does not include many dentists among its readers. Nevertheless, everyone has an obligation to know exactly what he is doing in his work and to be able to communicate to those with an interest and a technical question. That is the connection of this column with readers that work in the converting and packaging industries.
Chemistry sets once were a very popular birthday or holiday gift for children as young as those in middle school. The sets were very entertaining and often instilled in the children playing with them an interest in chemistry that sometimes led to a career in the field. Many people currently in their fifties and sixties can relate interesting anecdotes about the obnoxious-smelling, interestingly colored, or explosive substances they created with their chemistry sets when they were children.
The advent of the atomic bomb during World War II exposed many average citizens to their first contact with chemistry. Even those who never had a chemistry set now knew the power of chemistry. The subsequent advances in chemistry such as the birth of the plastics industry enthralled people as they enjoyed all the advantages that developed from the fruits of this science. They also were happy to see their standard of living improve due to the results of advances in the various fields of chemistry.
Today, however, chemistry and chemicals frequently denote something bad in the minds of many people. Chemistry has a certain mystique that makes it foreign to many. Some people also find it difficult to understand this science, as they learned rapidly when they took a chemistry course during their academic career. Compounding the problem even further is the irresponsibility of some individuals and companies that pollute the air, ground, and water with hazardous materials. Many years ago I witnessed a company in the converting and packaging industry disposing of inks, adhesives, and solvents by dumping them into a local stream.
I also saw an individual in a research and development laboratory that was making products for the converting industry dump the remaining contents of a bottle of an extremely toxic chemical on the ground in the corner of the property where his building was situated.
As legislatures and groups concerned with environmental issues learned about these and other instances of chemical pollution, they enacted laws to prevent such happenings in the future. In addition, they mandated cleaning of previously contaminated areas. All this occurred with extensive coverage in the popular press. What was the result? Simply stated, chemicals are bad. The pendulum swung from very little environmental regulation to extremely strict environmental legislation.
Besides the regulation of chemical products, education is an important consideration. Everyone who works in the many areas using chemicals, including the converting and packaging industries, has the responsibility to acquire as much information as possible about the materials being used. This will allow open communication with those who ask questions. Informed answers very often can allay their fears.
David J. Bentley Jr. is a recognized industry expert in polymers, laminations, and coatings with more than 30 years of experience in R&D and technical service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.