Saturday, 31 December 2011

When "organic" is not "good"

The word "organic" is nowadays associated mainly with "environmentally friendly", as in "organic food", "organic agriculture".

Back when I was a student, Chemistry was taught in three main parts: organic chemistry (essentially the chemistry of carbon, and hence the chemistry of molecules in living stuff); inorganic chemistry (essentially the chemistry of everything else); and physical chemistry (focussing on the processes and laws rather than the constituent elements).

And I learned that many organic compounds are toxic and/or carcinogenic. When I was at school, benzene was the organic solvent of choice in practicals. By the time I was at university, benzene was no longer used, because it was realised to be a carcinogen, and toluene was the organic solvent of choice. Thanks, school.

Also, we were gleefully informed (by the physical chemists) that the lifespan of a bench organic chemist was reduced by 10 years on average. I have no idea if this is true (or if it was true then), but it certainly stuck in my mind.

So my strongest association with the word "organic" is "probably a nasty poison!", followed by  "molecules found in living stuff". This makes my reaction to the term "organic food" go something like:
  1. Potentially poisonous?  Surely not...
  2. Made from living stuff? Isn't all food made from (once) living stuff? If it's not "organic", it's not food. (Well, okay, except for salt.)
  3. Oh... food produced without the use of inorganic chemistry
I often have this problem of trying to figure out what people mean when using a technical term I know, but in a non-technical context. My favoutite example is when I first saw a sticker saying "Nuclear power? -- No thanks" with a picture of a smiling sun.  "They want to turn off the sun?  What?  Oh..."

Anyway, if "organic" is the adjective of choice to mean "envinronmentally friendly", what should we call envinronmentally friendly chemistry, given that we can't call it "organic chemistry", because that almost means the opposite?  Well, it uses that other environmentally friendly adjective; it's green chemistry.

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