Tech Tips and News
Let’s Talk Chemicals
Manufacturers of cleaning equipment and chemicals work hard to help the public understand the safety of their products. Some perceptions are accurate. Some are not.

The term “chemical” is especially challenging because technical specialists use the word differently than consumers. For the technician, everything is made out of chemicals. “Chemical” means any substance. The popular understanding of the word, however, tends to be more narrow. Typically, a chemical is understood to be a “synthetic” material. Moreover, chemicals are seen as inherently more toxic, less environmentally sustainable and more polluting than naturally derived substances.

The widespread consumer interest in botanical products appears to be driven by the belief that chemicals derived from plant sources are inherently “safer” than synthetically produced chemicals. It is also assumed that, because plants can be grown year after year, the supply of these plants is assured and sustainable. Similarly, plant byproducts are felt to be better for the environment. For example, once the oil is drawn from the soybean, the leftover plant material can be used for fodder or compost.

Many synthetic materials are indeed very toxic, but so are many natural materials. Rhubarb leaves are considered poisonous because they contain high levels of oxalic acid. Ingesting these leaves (as opposed to the stalks, which have very low levels of the acid) can cause abdominal pain, convulsions and kidney problems. Deadly poisons like strychnine and nicotine are produced by plants.

Sustainability is another complexity. The sustainability of a particular chemical depends on where it originates, how (and how far) it is transported, how it is manufactured or extracted, and what byproducts are produced. The environmental impact of harvesting, shipping and processing of thyme leaves to produce thymol – a disinfecting agent used in many popular products – should be compared to the environmental costs associated with collecting raw materials and synthesizing the thymol molecule in a laboratory. Each approach – extracting or synthesizing –  has its own set of impacts on the environment. 

Bottom line? Issues related to product safety, effectiveness and the impact on the environment are complex and are not readily reduced to a few simple terms.