Welcome chemistry into your everyday life – University of Copenhagen

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25 June 2015

Welcome chemistry into your everyday life

Open letter

“Hazardous chemistry” writes the Socialist People's Party (SF) in an election advertisement. A Facebook page set up by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration is titled, “Less chemistry in food”. And “farewell to chemistry in your daily life” writes the COOP chairman in Brugsen supermarket's Samvirke magazine. It has become commonplace to equate the word “chemistry” with “unnatural”. This is harmful. It is harmful for Denmark with respect to global competitiveness. And, it is harmful for the ability of Danes to avoid things that actually ARE hazardous.

by Mikael Bols, Professor, DSc., Head of Department at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen

If raspberries, apples or potatoes were produced in a chemical plant, it would be forbidden to sell them. All three of these popular foods contain chemicals that are so poisonous that no government agency would dare approve them. But the quantities of these chemicals are so minute that we quite rightly ignore nature's own hazardous chemistry.

Entirely synthetic chemicals are the foundation for energy sources that can halt climate change, pharmaceutical products that save lives and a long range of materials and products that provide us with a better, safer and healthier day-to-day life.

Sometimes we discover hazardous chemicals in the food that we consume, the children's clothes that we buy and the air that we breathe. And we must do something about them. But finding harmless alternatives to harmful chemical substances is difficult, and made all the tougher when the word chemistry becomes equated with unnatural.

The only ones able to find harmless alternatives to hazardous chemicals are... chemists. Year after year, we educate chemistry students to develop helpful solutions that address societal challenges. But every time the word chemistry is equated with unnatural, we scare away another bright young high school student from the chemistry programme.

Denmark has a shortage of chemists. Successful Danish companies such as NovoNordisk, Novozymes and Lundbeck survive by developing and selling chemicals. They improve the quality of life for millions of people, contribute to the nation's overall wealth and employ a great many talented young chemists. Nevertheless, year after year, it is difficult for the chemistry programme to recruit students.

Chemists do more good than harm. Therefore, I would like to encourage SF, COOP, the Danish Veterinary and Food Association and all others that want to make our world a cleaner and better place, to stop using chemistry as a new word of shame.

Instead, they could talk about the abundance of good chemistry used to ensure our own future, as well as the futures of our children. Doing so would make it easier for me to educate chemists, and for Denmark to recruit the clever people needed to discover new energy sources, pharmaceuticals and other beneficial chemical substances - both natural and unnatural.