June 22, 2004

Natural is not Innocuous 

How many times did you read or hear statements such "Natural ingredients", "Natural product(s)", "Natural additives" and so on? Many times, I'm sure.
And the underlying assumption of these statements is that natural products are almost surely innocuous (while artificial ones are almost surely dangerous).

Well, that assumption is wrong.

First, let's clarify that anything is harmful if consumed in excessive doses.
Even clear spring water can cause serious harm, if you drink 10 liters of it in a couple of hours.

There is a serious methodological fallacy in the above statements: substances are classified "innocuous" or "dangerous" only on the basis of their origin, while chemistry, biochemistry and biology tell us clearly that the toxicity of a substance depends from it chemical nature, and its interaction with the bio-chemical processes in our organism. Thus, there is no scientific basis to conclude that natural products will be almost surely safe only because they are natural. Also the "harmful impurities" argument is pretty much moot: modern production and separation techniques give us chemicals with >99.9% purity - and we can know the nature of impurities, so that we can adjust the process to exclude the harmful ones. By contrast, a vegetable extract made with inappropriate techniques and not analyzed afterwards, may contain sensible quantities of dangerous substances. For example, organic acids and bases can leach some copper away from copper vessels.

This view of the world has deep cultural and ideological bases; it is also intimately linked to the idea that industry is evil. After all, Marx said that industry exploits workers: can the products of such an evil system be good? No chance!
While the products of a good system such the third-world farmer with his small field and primitive tools have to be good, don't they?

I do not oppose organic agricolture and proper consideration for the environment, but I become very uneasy when I see ideological crusades instead of a scientific, rational debate.

So let's give a (incomplete) list of nasty natural substances:

- Bacterial toxins: these are deadly, in tiny quantities.
- The toxins of some fish, reptilians and amphibians: like nerve agents, but much more perfected during millenia of evolution. Deadly in tiny doses.
- Aflatoxins, produced by fungi growing on improperly stored cereals: carcinogenic. The growth of these fungi can be avoided using synthetic fungicides...
- Taxus baccata: (its wood is used to make the traditional European long bow)a toxic plant.
- Alkaloids and other psychotropic substances: although many people believe that this stuff is cool, it also indisputably toxic, and does cause indirect casualties.

Other natural risks:

- Radiations: radioactive elements are mainly natural, and although this natural radioactivity background is assumed to be harmless, in some areas Radon gas emissions from the soil are an health issue. Not to mention cosmic rays, which become stronger at higher altitudes.

- Combustion products: combustion is a natural process, right? And its products are toxic.

- Grilled foods: (not only meat) the charred parts contain carcinogenic substances.

And so on and on...

There are many artificial/synthetic substances which are harmful toxic for sure. But the toxicity is mainly a matter of structure and composition, not origin.

And, often it's more practical and convenient to synthetize some substances rather than extracting them from plants (or animals): this is the case for salicylic acid, a chemical used in substantial amounts. Nowadays, it is not extracted from willow trees, but synthetised from carbon dioxide and sodium phenolate with the Kolbe process.

So let's not despise the dedication and genius of chemists, engineers and businessmen who created the chemical industry to serve the needs of mankind, because while nature can be our mother, it's a ruthless and inflexible one.


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