To download a PDF of this picture, click this link: PeriodicTable-green-final. [This document, by the way, is an 8 1/2 x 11 glossy card that we printed up and took to a couple of recent engineering meetings. Every one of them disappeared in no time. If you want a few copies just mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want a customized version with your own company information on the front and back, let us know and we can give you a price.]
We are all familiar with the table above. Some people vaguely remember it from long-ago high school chemistry lessons, and some, like me, refer to it every day. But all of us depend on it every moment of our lives, since the Periodic Table is the list of all the elements that comprise our world. Everything in our bodies and everything we manufacture, from airplanes to cell phones to frying pans, must be made from this small collection of atoms, fewer than the colors of lipstick in the drug store.
All the elements in red are on somebody’s “toxic substances” hit list somewhere in the world:
- In some cases it is the element itself (mercury (Hg), lead (Pb), cadmium (Cd), even zinc (Zn) and silver (Ag))
- In other cases, a few specific compounds (boric acid, silicon oxide (crystalline silica))
- And in other cases, almost every compound that can be used for manufacturing (nickel (Ni), chromium (Cr), cobalt (Co) compounds).
Starting with Europe and its REACH regulations, governments are increasingly basing environmental and health regulations on hazard, not on risk. In some cases they explicitly adopt the Precautionary Principle (as in Europe), while in others they bring it in the back door (as in California). The purpose of calling materials hazardous substances is to restrict their use or ban them, rather than to take the more rational approach of ensuring that they are used with proper regard for the workers or members of the public who come in contact with them.
What’s the difference between hazard and risk? A hazard is something that can be harmful – the electrical wires running throughout your home, the gas in your cooktop, the bus barreling down the road. These are all hazards we live with every day. But they only become risks when we work on the electrical wiring without turning off the power, or turn on the gas without lighting it, or walk out in front of the bus. In the same way “hazardous chemicals” do us no harm unless we eat them or breathe them. Their mere existence or proximity to us (your cell phone is full of them) is of no more consequence than electricity or gas or moving vehicles, or any of the other hazards that make modern life so much better than living in the Middle Ages.
Once you ban or unnecessarily restrict chemicals you end up, not with a safer, cleaner world, but with a world in which modern industrial societies can no longer exist:
- Without Ni you would have no stainless steel – no stainless knives or cookware, no stainless medical or dental implements
- Without Zn our cars, chain link fences, metal buildings, metal lampposts and highway barriers would rapidly turn to rust.
You even end up with total absurdities such as treating boric acid as a deadly toxin (look on the contents of your bottle of eye-wash some time), or of regulators trembling in fear over carcinogenic crystalline silica and then taking their kids to the beach for vacation (what do you think sand is made of?).
Banning a chemical means that you have for ever foregone every technology that could have existed because of it. Suppose we had decided in 1950 that silicon was hazardous and banned it, or done the same with phosphorus, boron and arsenic as people are trying to do now. No more I-Phones, laptops, garage door openers, digital watches, grocery scanners. But we could still have big, heavy, black and white electron tube TVs, and computers half as big as a house with less computing power than today’s pocket calculators.
REACH claims its purpose is to drive innovation. But in the real world, there is no better way to destroy innovation than to ban the materials it depends on.