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Chemicals

Scott W

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We often have discussion of chemical safety here. Sometimes references to what may or may not be in a products are used for marketing purposes, even "green washing" (Claims of being green that don't really have any significance).

I think this article is good material to use when responding to customer who ask us about the products we clean with and for us to recognize when we are being marketed to based on claims that really don't mean much. I even saw an ad for a "Chemical free" carpet cleaner. Since water and everything else are chemicals, were they selling an empty bottle?

James Lee Senter from Canada sent me this article Friday. Lee is an IICRC instructor who specializes in health and safety issues.

DAN GARDNER

SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL

To the chemophobe, the danger posed by a chemical isn’t conditional on amount. It’s inherent in the substance. Poison is poison. The only safe exposure is zero. But if that were true, we’d all be dead.
THE GLOBE AND MAIL


Dan Gardner is the author of Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, and a principal at Tactix, an Ottawa consultancy.

Chemicals are in the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the earth we stand on. And they are in us – in our urine, blood, bone and tissues. Many of these chemicals are known to be carcinogenic; others are suspected. All are potentially toxic.
Are you alarmed? Naturally. Who wouldn’t be?

Toxicologists, for one. The scientists who understand the harm that chemicals can do would find that opening paragraph to be both accurate and meaningless. “How much?” they would say. There are often gaps between what feels true and what science says is true, but few gaps are as big as the one between intuitions about chemicals and what toxicologists know. And few gaps are as consequential. The irrational fear of chemicals – chemophobia – is rampant. Activists constantly publish scary reports about food and bodies contaminated by pesticides and other chemicals. Talk shows and books tell the fearful how to avoid toxic terrors and purge contaminants from their bodies. “Organic” has become the most desirable label in consumer marketing – one that commands a substantial premium – largely on the strength of vague fears that chemicals are killing us.

The distinguishing feature of this chemophobia is that it underplays, or ignores altogether, what toxicologists say makes all the difference.

To the chemophobe, the danger posed by a chemical isn’t conditional on amount. It’s inherent in the substance. Poison is poison. The only safe exposure is zero. But if that were true, we’d all be dead.Consider that drinking water is routinely contaminated with (I’ll stick to the letter "a" to keep this simple) arsenic, ammonia or asbestos. Sometimes these chemicals come from pollution. Far more often, they occur naturally. And they are utterly trivial. Below levels well known to science, and set out in government regulations, these chemicals have no effect on human health – so drinking a glass of arsenic-laced water is perfectly safe.

“The dose makes the poison” is a very old saying credited to Paracelsus, the 16th-century proto-scientist, that expresses the core insight of toxicology. It cuts both ways. Tiny amounts of arsenic in water may not be dangerous, but even the most benign substances can be toxic in large amounts: Drink 10 to 20 litres of water contaminated with traces of arsenic over a few hours and the arsenic won’t do the slightest harm – but the water will cause the body’s sodium levels to crash, leading to coma and even death.

Potassium is emblematic of the dual-edged nature of all substances. It isn’t merely safe in low doses. It’s essential. We must have it. For patients whose levels run low, doctors prescribe potassium chloride – the same potassium chloride used in lethal-injection executions. The dose truly makes the poison.
It’s a simple idea. So five centuries after Paracelsus, why hasn’t the message sunk in?

Scientific ignorance doesn’t help. Notice that throughout this column I’ve referred to chemicals as if they are a sub-class of substances. Most people do. Or they think chemical means something that is produced in a factory, not nature. But every substance is a chemical, or made of chemicals – from water to peanut butter and diamonds – whatever its origins, and it is what it is, whether it came out of a plant or a beaker. If people don’t know even this, it’s a small wonder they make bigger mistakes.

The news media are also responsible. The New York Times recently informed its readers that “some hair straighteners contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen”– without offering a word about quantity (much less noting that formaldehyde is so common it is found in broccoli, baked bread and every healthy human body). Late last month, USA Today informed readers that tests detected “the controversial weed killer glyphosate” in 19 out of 20 wines and beers sampled, including organic products. To be fair, USA Today went on to report that the activist group responsible for the testing had acknowledged that “the levels of glyphosate we found are not necessarily dangerous but are still concerning given the potential health risks” – a statement seemingly designed to protect against accusations of ignoring the science while also pushing the science aside lest it reduce fear.

Unfortunately, these examples are typical of news reports about chemicals. The underlying assumption is always that the mere presence of a scary-sounding substance is itself significant. If the toxicologists’ concern of “how much?” is even acknowledged, it is buried in the story, and is usually expressed by an industry spokesperson – which makes elementary toxicology sound like corporate spin.
But the root of the problem lies much deeper. Psychologist Paul Slovic and his colleagues call it "intuitive toxicology.”

Like us, our ancestors had to decide what was safe to eat and drink, but the only tools available to them were their senses. In that environment, it made sense for quantity to be irrelevant. If our ancestors could see, smell or taste contamination – such as feces in drinking water – it was pointless to ask “how much?” Any detectable amount was too much.

This was the reality for virtually the entire history of our species, along with the history of the species we evolved from. It shaped our brain’s evolution. Intuitive toxicology is hardwired. It shapes how we naturally think about chemicals today.
But we don’t live in the world that our brains evolved in. Today, thanks to science and technology, we can detect inconceivably tiny quantities. A part per million. Or billion. Or even trillion. How little is one part per trillion? The inimitable science communicator and chemist Joe Schwarcz has a vivid illustration: Imagine a football field surrounded by six-metre-high boards and filled to the brim with sand. Buried in there somewhere is one particular grain of sand. That is one part per trillion. To understand information such as that, “intuitive toxicology” is worse than useless.

For toxicologists, “the poison makes the dose” is banal, obvious, almost second nature. But for the rest of us, it is profoundly counterintuitive – even bizarre – to shrug and drink a glass of arsenic-laced water. Poison is poison, we feel. And it’s hard to ignore feelings shaped by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.

And yet, we are not slaves to intuition. Toxicologists are human, too. The fact that they are able to see the world as they do demonstrates that people can rein in “intuitive toxicology” and let the real thing guide our decisions.
It takes education and effort. But most of all, it takes a dogged insistence on asking a simple question: “How much?”
 

sbsscn

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We often have discussion of chemical safety here. Sometimes references to what may or may not be in a products are used for marketing purposes, even "green washing" (Claims of being green that don't really have any significance).

If "green" has no significance then why are you (not directly you) but why are mfgs scamming us?!!?!?!
 

Robert86

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If "green" has no significance then why are you (not directly you) but why are mfgs scamming us?!!?!?!
I feel like at some point to some extent customers started asking for it. Bad information started going around, people got scared and started demanding green products but didn't bother to figure out what any of that meant. So chemical manufacturers started making product lines with "green" certifications which rarely means what the customers think it means but it makes them feel better.


I don't think it's all a scam. It's just misunderstood due to a trend of bad information. We are cleaning professionals should do what we can to get good information to our customers.
 

Robert86

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This topic always makes me think of the facebook meme that comes up from time to time that claims Twinkies are full of antifreeze because propylene glycol is an ingredient in antifreeze. Well, if being an ingredient in something toxic makes something toxic then we better stop drinking water.
 
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sbsscn

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This topic always makes me think of the facebook meme that comes up from time to time that claims Twinkies are full of antifreeze because propylene glycol is an ingredient in antifreeze. Well, if being an ingredient in something toxic makes something toxic then we better stop drinking water.
Ethylene glycol (old version) the raw material in polyester and used in coolant.
propylene glycol (new version) safer? yet they use it in its pure form as a food additive
 
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Scott W

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If "green" has no significance then why are you (not directly you) but why are mfgs scamming us?!!?!?!

Green does have significance. Safety of the people and the environment are very important. However, some claims of being green or of competitive products not being green are really meaningless. They are put out either by folks who don't know better or done strictly for marketing purposes.
 

Tom Forsythe

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I love this common sense article. I wish regulators would read this and understand that it is the dose and not the presence that matters. Lawyers like to sue on the presence and ask you to prove it caused no harm when they can not prove it did any harm.

Prop 65 was a good regulation before recent changes in interpretations. Coffee needs to be listed as a potential carcinogen in all coffee shops in California. Many metal parts in the industry now have a Prop 65 warning because of the presence of carbon black which is essentially inert in the part. Some chemicals list a Prop 65 warning for elements that could be there even though they are an evaporative by product of a chemical reaction. This product is significantly diluted by formulators and diluted again by cleaners (some products up to 1 part in 640 parts of water.)
 

Robert86

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Ethylene glycol (old version) the raw material in polyester and used in coolant.
propylene glycol (new version) safer? yet they use it in its pure form as a food additive

It's all how our body process it. Propylene Glycol is metabolized into lactic acid which is non toxic and in fact many things we eat become lactic acid. Most of it though is processed though our bodies and exits as urine.
 

Robert86

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I love this common sense article. I wish regulators would read this and understand that it is the dose and not the presence that matters. Lawyers like to sue on the presence and ask you to prove it caused no harm when they can not prove it did any harm.

Prop 65 was a good regulation before recent changes in interpretations. Coffee needs to be listed as a potential carcinogen in all coffee shops in California. Many metal parts in the industry now have a Prop 65 warning because of the presence of carbon black which is essentially inert in the part. Some chemicals list a Prop 65 warning for elements that could be there even though they are an evaporative by product of a chemical reaction. This product is significantly diluted by formulators and diluted again by cleaners (some products up to 1 part in 640 parts of water.)
The prop 65 warnings are kind of a joke now. I bought a screw driver the other day with a prop 65 warning on it. I get that the handle has chemicals in it that are known to cause cancer but who's melting down screw driver handles and sniffing the fumes. I'm not going to get cancer in my hands from holding the screw driver. Might get carpel tunnel from using it but not cancer.
 

wandwizard

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That's a great common sense article as you said. I found the part about arsenic in drinking water particularly interesting. Recently I found a website that supposedly had the water reports for virtually any area in the U. S. According to the report for my water district, we have exactly double the national average of arsenic in our local drinking water. I can't say that didn't worry me a bit.

Anyway, I feel a little better about our drinking water now!!! :)
 
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sbsscn

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The prop 65 warnings are kind of a joke now. I bought a screw driver the other day with a prop 65 warning on it. I get that the handle has chemicals in it that are known to cause cancer but who's melting down screw driver handles and sniffing the fumes. I'm not going to get cancer in my hands from holding the screw driver. Might get carpel tunnel from using it but not cancer.

I bought some work gloves and the inside had a sticker with that warning.

I ended up returning the gloves and buying thick Nitrile gloves.
 

sbsscn

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It's all how our body process it. Propylene Glycol is metabolized into lactic acid which is non toxic and in fact many things we eat become lactic acid. Most of it though is processed though our bodies and exits as urine.

Too much lactic acid can still be harmful, Not poisonous but harmful
 

Robert86

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Too much lactic acid can still be harmful, Not poisonous but harmful
Yep. But anything in the wrong amount can be harmful. And that's really where the debate of PG begins. It's safe for consumption, but how much is safe.
That's a different subject though. My big gripe is when people relate that if it's in something toxic, then it too must be toxic. Antifreeze is still mostly water, but water isn't toxic, unless you drink that 20 liters (over 5 gallons) in a short time, which personally, I could never do. I drink 1/2 gallon over an hour and feel sick.
 

jtsunbrite

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If "green" has no significance then why are you (not directly you) but why are mfgs scamming us?!!?!?!
when I have a customer that wants green cleaning, I charge a lot then I double the charge , because I know they are libs... But most green chems are not green chems..
green chems do not work good.
 

Tom Forsythe

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Green products work very well for some applications. Most encapsulates are green or could easily be made green.. Our Avenge Pro is our best water based spotter and it is green. Our Bio Modifier Xtreme is green and works very well. But you need acetone (approved for California) for a good ink remover to meet Low VOC laws but it is not green. About 25% of the formulas we make are green in the bottle (Green Balance). Flex Powder is 99.4% green once it is diluted 1 to 32. All rinses diluted 1 to 640 are at least 99.7% green in the usage. I have spent over a decade making formulas greener without sacrificing performance. This gets back to the dose level when calculating green.
 

Robert86

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when I have a customer that wants green cleaning, I charge a lot then I double the charge , because I know they are libs... But most green chems are not green chems..
green chems do not work good.
My inlaws are hardened conservatives but wouldn't let you on the property unless your cleaner is "green" enough to drink! Lol!
 

Mama Fen

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The concept of "green" is a topic of discussion here at work almost daily. It is a word that is misunderstood and misused more than almost any other in our industry.

I had about a billion things I wanted to say after reading this article, but they all come down to one simple concept...

SO MUCH YES.

SO MUCH THANK YOU.
 

jtsunbrite

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My inlaws are hardened conservatives but wouldn't let you on the property unless your cleaner is "green" enough to drink! Lol!
Robert tell your inlaws if I come to green clean,, They gonna be poor ! when I leave.
 

3bstartup

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Everything is relative. If green cleaning products are so much safer, why are urged to not touch the stuff with bare hands? Speaking of evolution, it takes at the very least, several centuries for our bodies to evolve the capability to digest new and unnatural chemicals. Yet they keep cooking up new ones. No wonder we've fat and sickly. Lastly, one designer chemical is tested and declared safe for human consumption. But, who tests for compatibility between the thousands of new chemicals we come in contact with every day? Remember the first Batman movie? The concept introduced by Joker is a reality no one talks about.