The Chemicals of Concern

It seems the world is inundated with human-made chemicals. They are in the food, the air, and the water. Are all synthetic chemicals bad? Many manufactured chemicals, such as pesticides and food preservatives, were developed solely to protect people and were lauded for their success.

Although pesticides have been invaluable in eradicating diseases like malaria, they've become burdensome as a group. Many don't easily break down in the environment and have been linked to cancer and birth defects in humans.

Preservatives were used initially to make sure food would remain safe and could be stored over longer periods. They now include colorants and flavorings that go beyond maintaining safety, allowing the foods to keep their looks and taste. Levels of preservatives, with chemical names such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are permitted to be used at concentrations generally recognized as safe (GRAS).

Recently, the public has been clamoring for fresher and less chemically preserved food, not just to avoid preservatives but also to gain health benefits such as nutrients and fiber from whole food. Another motivation for the organic food movement is to protect the environment. People concerned with the production and application of pesticides on crops and antibiotics in animals are looking to organic foods to encourage a more earth friendly way to raise food.

Statistics kept on file by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service show that the amount of land used for organic farming or grazing has increased considerably over the years. In 1992, there were about 532,050 acres of organic pasture. That area increased to 2.2 million by 2005. In the same time span, organic cropland increased from 403,400 acres to 1.7 million acres.

Diseases caused by mosquitoes, including West Nile virus and encephalitis, continue to be a health problem in the United States. Because of these diseases, local governments see the controlled use of pesticides as an important part of managing the mosquito population and resultant diseases.

Some chemicals are introduced not for their potential health benefits but for product improvement and better performance. Phthalates such as dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and dihexyl phthalate (DEHP) are added to plastics to make them flexible and to extend the life of the material.

Now these chemicals have been identified as suspected endocrine disruptors that mimic hormones in the bodies of animals. There has been some evidence that young male animals exposed to high phthalate concentrations have reduced sperm counts. Serious situations like these rally scientists and the general public alike to evaluate the best way to simultaneously meet the goals of convenience and health.

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