The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast

Episode 43: The Chemical Age. A Conversation with Frank A. von Hippel.

March 18, 2024 The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast / Frank A. von Hippel Episode 43
The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast
Episode 43: The Chemical Age. A Conversation with Frank A. von Hippel.
The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast
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Show Notes Transcript

Episode 43 of The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast is available now!
It’s called: “The Chemical Age.” 

It features a conversation with Frank A. von Hippel, Ph.D. 

Frank is a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Arizona. His research focuses on toxicology and health disparities, with a focus on Indigenous and underserved communities. Frank is the author of 2020 book, “The Chemical Age,” and he is the creator and host of the Science History Podcast:

You’ll hear Frank explore:

·      Why scientists developed pesticides to combat famine and diseases.

·      The toxic effects that pesticides have on the environment, wildlife, and humans.

·      That there are currently about 350,000 human-made chemicals polluting the environment.

·      How scientists understand how just a fraction of these chemicals are harmful.

·      That chemical pollution poses a serious threat to human existence.

Thank you for listening!
 Please share your feedback with us. We love hearing from you. 

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Aaron Goodman  00:05

Welcome to the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast. I'm Aaron Goodman, host and founder of the podcast. I'm a journalist, documentary maker, university instructor and Communication Studies researcher, and I've lived with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity or MCS for many years. 

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You're listening to Episode 43. It's called “The Chemical Age.” It features a conversation with Frank von Hippel, PhD. Frank's a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Arizona in the US. His research focuses on toxicology and health disparities with a focus on indigenous and underserved communities. Frank is the author of the 2020 book, The Chemical Age, and he's the creator and host of the Science History Podcast. 

In our conversation, you'll hear Frank explore why scientists develop pesticides to combat famine and diseases, the toxic effects that pesticides have on the environment, wildlife and humans; that there are currently about 350,000 human made chemicals polluting the environment, and how scientists understand just how a fraction of these chemicals are harmful. I hope you get a lot out of the conversation in the episode. 

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Professor Hipple, thanks so much for taking time to speak with me on podcast.

Frank von Hippel 04:19

Of course. I'm happy to be here, and please call me Frank.


Aaron Goodman  04:22

Okay, thank you so much, Frank. I wanted to perhaps start to invite you to talk a little bit about the origins of well, we'll get into pesticides because I think a lot of people are really interested in pesticides. But if you'd like, maybe we can start as you do in your book, talking about diseases. And it's not to say you have to go into detail about everything, but what is the connection, Frank, between diseases, if we go back in history and chemicals…


Frank von Hippel 04:51

Right, it's a great question. And when I was exploring the history for my book, I wanted to understand, why is it that scientists developed pesticides? What were their motivations? What were they trying to solve? And there are really a few things going on. So one was trying to solve famine because a lot of famines were driven by plant pathogens. These are microorganisms that destroy plants. And so developing pesticides that effectively killed those plant pathogens averted famine, another major motivation was the pandemic. So the various zoonotic diseases, diseases that are affected by animals, like vectored by mosquitoes, vectored by the body louse, vectored by fleas, and so on, ways to destroy those vectors or to destroy the transmission of those diseases to prevent pandemics. So I would say before the turn of the 20th century, you could expect to lose a number of your children to illness or to other kinds of problems during childhood, and it's just a really precarious state that people lived in. So of course, it was motivation to develop ways to avert that and in that sense, we're very lucky to live in a time where we can expect our children to survive childhood and not die from these diseases that are now easily preventable, but at the time were not.


Aaron Goodman  06:23

And when you mention diseases in your book, you write about Marsh Fever, Black Vomit, Jail  Fever, Black Death. What are some of the colloquial names of these illnesses?

Frank von Hippel 06:37

So I was just using the old terms for these because I was writing about the history of the diseases, and Black Vomit, Yellow Fever, and then the other one was Bubonic Plague. And I chose these four pandemics or diseases to study to talk about because they each illustrate a different problem about how pandemics have massively impacted humanity. Just take the case of bubonic plague. We've had two huge pandemics of bubonic plague that we know of. One was at the end of the Roman Empire, the Justinianic plague that basically brought about the downfall of the Roman Empire. And the second was in the Middle Ages that completely reorganized society, something close to half the population of Europe and the Middle East died of bubonic plague in the Middle Ages, 1340. So that's a huge impact on society. 

And then typhus is a disease that wipes out more people during warfare than anything else. It really decided the fate of war, more than battles have decided the fate of war. And so bubonic plague is vectored by the rat flea. And typhus is vectored by the body louse. And then the other two diseases that I covered in detail are malaria, which is vectored by the Anopheles mosquito. And it's a protozoan organism. And then finally, yellow fever, which is a virus that's vectored by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, so they each have a different kind of organism. We have bacteria with bubonic plague, we have a protozoan with malaria, we have a virus with yellow fever. And each has a different kind of vector, a different kind of problem to solve. All of those were instrumental in the germ theory of disease, of discovering that germs are the basis of disease, and then the discovery that there are animals that are reservoirs for these diseases that they get transmitted from animals to people, and they're vectored by different kinds of small animals, usually insects or similar organisms. So that then gave a target for chemistry to solve these problems by killing either the pathogen itself as medicines do or or killing the vector like the mosquito or the body last. And so…


Aaron Goodman  09:02

You're referring to the development of insecticide and pesticide?


Frank von Hippel 09:07

Yeah, so let's do a little terminology here. I think that would be helpful. A pesticide is any chemical that's designed to kill a pest and a pest is anything we don't like. So it's a general term for all of these chemicals that are designed to kill. So there are many categories of pesticides. Insecticides are one category of pesticide. And people often conflate the two though use the terms interchangeably, but they're not the same thing. Insecticides are a subcategory of pesticides. There's also fungicides that kill fungus, pyrethroids to kill fish, rodenticides to kill rodents, there’s herbicides to kill plants, and so on. All of those collectively are pesticides. They're also what Rachel Carson referred to as biocides because as she pointed out, they don't just kill the target organism. They also, of course, cause damage and kill all kinds of other organisms. And of course, it affects people as well, because we share a common biology.


Aaron Goodman  10:05

I'm really glad you mentioned Rachel Carson, and I'd like to invite you to talk more about Rachel Carson and her work in a bit. For the moment, you talked about some of the benefits of pesticides, right in terms of you know, we live now and our children, we can expect them to live and not succumb to these illnesses. But as a toxicologist, do you want to talk a little bit about the impacts, the negative consequences on the environment and human health…


Frank von Hippel 10:42

Positive aspects of these chemicals in terms of averting famine and, and and averting epidemics or pandemics, unfortunately, baked into our psychology as humans, whenever we get a tool that is useful, we overuse it, and by overusing it, we destroy its utility. And that's exactly what happens with pesticides. 

So these organisms that we're targeting, they evolve quickly, they evolve resistance quickly to those chemicals. So for example, the insecticidal properties of DDT were discovered in 1939, by Paul Mueller in Switzerland. And then he relayed that discovery or his company related that discovery to both the Germans and to the Western Allies, the United States started testing DDT for its effectiveness against these vectors of yellow fever and malaria and typhus and found it to be very effective. That was in 1943. And then we started using it heavily in the war theater to prevent these diseases in the South Pacific and North Africa, in the Mediterranean and southern Europe. And it was very effective. 

For example, when the US military took over Naples in December 1943, there was a typhus outbreak, and from December 1943, until February 1944, we sprayed every single resident of Naples with DDT to kill the body louse, and we stopped a typhus outbreak in his tracks for the first time in human history. And when there's a typhus outbreak, the mortality gets up to 70%. So it's a really serious thing that there was typhus there because residents of Naples had been huddled in these shelters underground and caves and dirty, crowded conditions, and that's where the body louse flourishes. 

But then because it was so effective, we started using it everywhere. And so the first kind of recreational use of DDT was in August 1945, when we sprayed it on Jones Beach, New York to make beachgoers not have to be hassled by flies and mosquitoes. And then we started using it all over the place in neighborhoods and even in airplanes. So you wouldn't have flies during your commercial flight. 

It got put into wallpaper, especially for nurseries so that babies wouldn't be bothered by flies. It got put into paint, we used it everywhere. And in those circumstances, the targets of, of DDT, those insects, that vector, these diseases, evolve resistance within a couple of years. And so then it was no longer effective. And so then we have to try a new class of chemical, and we have to use more of the chemical. And this is just built in anytime you have overuse of the chemical, you'll get the evolution of resistance, which means you have to use more types of chemicals and more of them. 

So just to put this in context, I think Rachel Carson would have been disappointed that, you know, she published the Silent Spring in 1962. She died in 1964. And by the end of the 1990s, we're using twice the volume of pesticides in the United States as we were in 1962. But of course that's going to happen as long as we're relying on them for agriculture and for home use. It's going to cause that resistance that forces us to use more and more of the stuff.


Aaron Goodman  14:16 

So thank you. So Rachel Carson, maybe if you want to talk a little bit about who she was and the book she wrote. I'll just read what she wrote in her book, Silent Spring about DDT. We've all heard a lot about DDT and what it will soon do to us by wiping out our insect pests. But she also asked what it will do to insects that are beneficial or even essential, how it may affect waterfowl or birds that depend on insect food, whether it may upset the whole delicate balance of nature if unwisely used.


Frank von Hippel 14:51

Yeah, that's right. So that's a good segue into understanding the toxicology of these chemicals. There are different classes of pesticides, their toxic effects work in different ways. At the time of the publication of Silent Spring, scientists did not understand how DDT was causing this kind of damage to wildlife. They knew that it was, and they knew that DDT was lipophilic, or fat soluble. And because it's fat soluble, it builds up within individuals over their lifetime. That's what we say as bio accumulation. So the individuals end up with higher concentrations in their tissues than exists in the environment in which they live. 

Because it's fat soluble, it also bio magnifies, which means as you go up trophic levels in the food web, the concentrations greatly increase. And because of that, the high trophic level predators like fish eating birds and a lake or, or things like killer whales, or polar bears, they're going to have super high levels of these chemicals like DDT. So this is generally true what are called persistent organic pollutants. 

So as a class, it's a term for chemicals that persist - they don't break down readily in the environment. In the case of DDT, it doesn't break down readily in the environment. Because the carbon chlorine bond is so strong, it's hard to break that bond. And DDT is a chlorinated pesticide, and then organic, that just means that it has a carbon skeleton to it. So it's not the same thing as organic food, organic chemistry means that it has a carbon skeleton. And then pollutant meaning that is toxic. 

And there are so many chemicals that fall into this class. So the latest calculations are that there are about 350,000 chemicals, man made or synthetic chemicals and their metabolites, there are byproducts that are currently polluting the environment. 350,000 of those, we probably understand the toxicology pretty well for about 10,000. And we probably have about 10,000 new chemicals coming into the environment every year. 

So we're just in an impossible situation where we can't possibly keep up with understanding the toxicology of all of these compounds. We know a lot now, what we know is how one two or sometimes three chemicals interact. We don't know how 1000s of chemicals interact. And so, chemicals like these organic chlorine pesticides, they are very destructive to wildlife because they bioaccumulate, biomagnify. 

And what we learned in the 1990s is that one of their main mechanisms of toxicity is their endocrine disruptors, that is they disrupt hormone function. In this case, they mimic estrogen. There are many different kinds of endocrine disruptors that the most common are estrogenic contaminants. And then that induces all of the effects of having excess estrogen like estrogen mediated cancers, or developmental effects of the baby in the womb can develop improperly because of exposure to these chemicals. 

So it was probably pretty safe to spray down the people of Naples with DDT because we don't readily absorb it through our skin. But we mostly get it through eating food and it's chronic exposure, that is the primary problem. So with all of these chemicals, you have to think about what's the mechanism of toxicity, like it might be that it's mutagenic, it might be an endocrine disruptor. You also have to think about the route of exposure, different chemicals have different routes of exposure. 

Because of the impacts on wildlife that Rachel Carson highlighted, during the 1970s in the United States, and a little bit later in the rest of the world, we shifted from using organic chlorine, pesticides, insecticides to using organophosphate insecticides. And in toxicology, we talked about this concept of regrettable replacement. There's a history of regrettable replacement where one chemical is determined to be toxic. And so we pull it off the market. And we substitute it with another chemical that then is shown later to be problematic in its own way. And this happens over and over again.


Aaron Goodman  19:19

Hi, just pausing briefly to say thank you for listening to the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast. You're listening to Episode 43. It's called “The Chemical Age”. It features a conversation with Frank von Hippel PhD. Frank is a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Arizona. His research focuses on toxicology and health disparities with the focus on indigenous and underserved communities. And Frank is the author of the 2020 book, The Chemical Age and creator and host of the Science History Podcast. I hope you get a lot out of the conversation and this episode. Please Subscribe where you get your podcasts. 

Could you please talk a little bit about the connection between the creation of chemicals funded by the government, military, and then how that leads to the consumer buying these things on the shelf? And all of us being exposed to these, whether it's in a floor cleaner, or an air freshener, or what, what have you? How does that work? 


Frank von Hippel 20:38

That’s a very interesting question. And there's, there's this fascinating history on the interplay between the development of chemical weapons and the development of pesticides. Oftentimes, it's the same scientist who developed both and oftentimes, a chemical discovery in the realm of chemical weapons was then commercialized into a pesticide, or a pesticide that was already there was, was then developed further into a chemical weapons. So we have this happening in both directions throughout history. 

So we were just discussing organophosphates. And that's a great example because the very first organophosphate insecticide was developed by a Nazi chemist named Gerhard Schrader during WWII, and he was trying to develop insecticides that would be effective for German agricultural production to support the war effort. But when he created these organophosphates, he found that they were way too toxic to use for insecticides, and that they were so toxic that they would be an effective chemical weapon. 

The first one that he developed was called tabun. And then a year later, he developed another one called sarin, which people have heard about, because sarin has been used in various terrorist attacks around the world and in a variety of other places. So the Nazis, they started producing both tabun and sarin at massive levels. And then near the end of the war, another German, another Nazi chemist, a Nobel Laureate, actually developed another one called soman and when the United States, Britain and and Soviet Union conquered Germany, we each had our own part of Germany that we were in control of, and the United States and Britain took the technologies that that we discovered and the Russians took the technologies that they discovered - the Russians actually took an entire soman factory  disassembled it in Germany, brought it back to Russia, reassembled it and started producing so many. 

In the United States, in Britain, we focused on sarin initially. And we found barrels of this stuff in an animal testing facility. We didn't know what it was. But the chemists in Britain figured it out very quickly, they figured out the antidote to it. And they started developing, developing this and developing even more toxic chemical weapons. 

And eventually, in the 1950s collaboration between the United States and Britain, we developed VX, which is a related compound and was the first binary chemical weapon, which means that you have the relatively innocuous ingredients, they're held in separate chambers of the weapon. And then during the flight of a missile, there's a barrier between them that is blown apart, and the chemical reaction takes place during flight. And so the really dangerous chemical weapon VX is produced during the flight of the missile. 

And that was the most toxic chemical weapon ever developed until the early 1970s, when the Soviets developed novichok, which is another one of these organophosphate nerve agents. So those chemicals are so toxic that a single drop is enough to kill a person. And Schrader, who developed the first of these, when the war was over, he focused his chemistry brilliance on turning the same category of chemicals into effective insecticides. And they had the advantage, these other organophosphate insecticides, they had the advantage that they break down in the environment much quicker than their organic chlorine insecticides. So they're much less destructive on wildlife in the sense that they don't persist for very long, they don't build up in food webs. But they have the disadvantage that they're much more toxic. 

And so what we did is we shifted the burden from the consumer because with organochlorine pesticides, you end up with a lot of pesticide residues on the food because they're so persistent. So consumers were getting exposure to these. We shifted the burden to the farmworkers who are spraying the pesticides because they're getting exposed to these much more toxic chemicals. 

Just to give you a sense of how bad it got with organic chlorine pesticides during the 1960s, the average woman in the United States had levels of DDT in her breast milk that were four times higher than what was allowed by the FDA and cow's milk.


Aaron Goodman  25:07 

And there was a pushback. Right? And is it fair to say that it was timed with the publication of Rachel Carson's book in, was it 1962? And what did that pushback or resistance, I believe you called it environmental activism, did it lead to a change of thinking about pressuring the government to regulate harmful chemicals - less pesticide use, less chemical weapons?


Frank von Hippel 25:41

Yes, the Silent Spring had a huge impact. And it's a complex impact. Many people say that the publication of Silent Spring was the origin of the environmental movement. That's actually not accurate, though. The environmental movement was already underway before the publication of Silent Spring; there were scientists who were writing articles about the dangers of DDT as early as 1944, when it was first being used in the war theater. So there were scientists who were aware of the problems from day one, but it wasn't getting into the public consciousness. 

And of course, people were using it in their homes using it absolutely everywhere. What Silent Spring did is it brought attention to this problem to the public, in a way that that no one else could. And the reason Rachel Carson was able to do this was a combination of she was a brilliant writer, so anything you read of hers, she wrote mostly marine biology kinds of books. But this was her last book, Silent Spring. She was just an incredible writer. And so she was able to write about something that sounds as dry and as boring as insecticides in a way that captured the reader's attention. 

But there were other things that happened just before the publication of Silent Spring that paved the way for Silent Spring’s impact. So for example, we had the United States testing nuclear weapons in the South Pacific, the hydrogen bomb. And there was the case of the “Lucky Dragon”, which was a Japanese fishing boat fishing for tuna. And they got exposed to the radiation from the fallout of the nuclear testing. And the sailors on board, some of them died, others got sick. That got a lot of media attention. 

There was the thalidomide disaster, which was the drug that obstetricians were given to pregnant women to reduce morning sickness and to theoretically improve the prospects of the pregnancy. But it turned out it caused horrific birth defects. And that came out just three years before Silent Spring, of course, it got worldwide attention. 

There was the cranberry scare that occurred during the presidential race, in 1959. And were split where the people growing cranberries had us and approved pesticide, but used it too close to the harvest state which led to dangerously high residues of that pesticide on the cranberries. And so the FDA basically pulled the cranberry crop right at Thanksgiving. And there was a lot of hubbub about this because not all growers had done this. And they felt unfairly treated if they had not done this. And if it was, it came up in the presidential debate where yeah, I think it was Kennedy who was showing that he wasn't scared of cranberries and eating them during the, you know, the election and all of that. 

But these things there were several others, lots of concerns about radioactive fallout, lots of concerns about annihilation, from nuclear war. So all of these kinds of societal worries about the environment were happening at the same time. 

And then she published her book in 1962. The chemical companies targeted this book massively, and they targeted her, which just backfired on them. But they tried to prevent its publication, they threatened to sue the publisher if it came out. The publisher went ahead and published it anyway. They organized a consortium of chemical companies to go after her personally to attack her in the press to attack her work. And all of that served to bring a lot of attention to the book and just made the book do even better. And so it was a massive bestseller. And just in terms of the history of environmentalism. It's the most important book ever published. But a lot of it had to do with events happening around it and the timing of it.


Aaron Goodman  30:06

I wonder what Rachel Carson would have to say about environmental illness and chemical intolerance today, I'd be really interested to hear.

Frank von Hippel 30:15 

Well, I would recommend all of your listeners read Silent Spring, it's a brilliant book. And they didn't know a lot of things that we know now. But there are hints of things even then like, even though endocrine disruption was not discovered, until the 1990s, Rachel Carson has a few lines in there about possibly this is disrupting hormone function. 

So she just had this amazing ability to anticipate things. You'll notice if you read the book that she focuses mostly on cancer, because at that time, cancer was the primary environmental illness of concern. And cancer, of course, was not nearly as well understood then yet either. We now know that it's not cancer, there are many, many types of cancers. There's strong genetic-environmental interactions with cancers, a lot of cancers are hormonally related. And so chemicals that disrupt hormone function are related to those cancers. 

But she really had the latest science as of 1962. She also talked a lot about workers getting poisoned by pesticides, children getting poisoned by pesticides accidentally getting exposed in the home, there were a lot of deaths back then from - there still are - from people getting exposed to very high levels of pesticides. 

So, I think Rachel Carson would probably be, you know, the most amazing guest you could have on your show because she had this ability to synthesize information. Across the board, of course, she was focused on pesticides, but both pesticides are the most heavily used chemical group in the world. 

But as I mentioned, there's about 350,000 synthetic chemicals out there. And there are other ones that are highly concerning for people. For just take, for example, all of these chemicals derived from plastics, all of the things like this. 

Phenols are a great example of regrettable replacement, because we all remember the withdrawal of BPA, Bisphenol A plastic bottles and baby bottles from the marketplace. What was that, about 15 years ago, and just great concern about people getting exposed to this Bisphenol A, which is a potent estrogen. And so, what did we do? We replaced this Bisphenol A with this Bisphenol S and other bisphenols that are similarly toxic. 

So then you can buy BPA free bottles, but you're just probably getting a different brand of phenol in them. This is the pattern. Unfortunately, the way our society is set up is backwards, where we have to prove a chemical is toxic, to get it off the marketplace, rather than companies have to prove something as benign before putting it in the marketplace. And they're producing these chemicals much faster than we can test them and much faster than, you know, the politics, it takes decades to get something off the market. 


Aaron Goodman  33:21

I think you've basically said this, but what is the solution? Is there enough regulation? We've talked about environmental activism. It's very difficult for folks who are made ill by these products, you know, for the burden to fall on them to be the activist. So what will it take? Is it time for another maybe wider consciousness raising among the wider population? As took place when Silent Spring was published? Could you foresee anything like that happening today? Given that we're inundated with chemicals? Everyone of us on a daily basis?


Frank von Hippel 34:01

Yeah. So I think that we have to switch to a completely different model. And I don't think it's a question of whether we will, because we have to. It's a question of how long it's going to take. Because this is not a sustainable situation. And so, if a company wants to develop a new pharmaceutical product, a new drug for treating cancer, for treating, you know, any illness, they have to go through animal testing, they have to go through rigorous, placebo controlled trials, they have to demonstrate efficacy and safety of that product before it can go on the marketplace. And that's the kind of requirement that we have to have for all kinds of chemicals as well, which as I mentioned, we don't have. 

So you talked about fragrances for example, and I never would buy anything that has fragrance. And basically, we have this other broad category of chemicals that are not structurally related, but we call them pharmaceuticals and personal care products. So there are tens of thousands of chemicals in this class, everything from makeup to shampoos, and soaps, and you name it and all the pharmaceuticals. And so of those, the only ones that go through any kind of safety testing are the pharmaceuticals. 

But even the pharmaceuticals are at least causing environmental problems, because many of the drugs do not break down in our water treatment systems. And so you have things like birth control pills, which are active hormones, and those are getting into our rivers and causing fish to be intersex or causing wildlife not to develop properly. And so there's that side of it. The environmental side is huge. 

But just even focusing on the human health side, if we ignore the environment completely, this is not a sustainable situation to have chemicals be able to be developed, marketed, thrown out there at massive volumes, and then have us have to fight for decades to get, one by one, getting them off the market. 

So everyone knows global climate change is a global threat. And the modern way to think about these global level threats are what are called planetary boundary threats. These are threats. This human activity of some kind is threatening the very ability of the planet to sustain life as we know it. And so climate change is one of those. 

But there are currently nine known planetary boundary threats, where these have been quantified in terms of how this human activity is causing an unsustainable threat to the planet's health. And one of those nine is chemical pollution. And this one, it may be, it may be the most important one, and we don't really know at this point, how best to categorize them. But it's certainly one of the most important ones, if not the most. And, and yet, is getting the least attention. So if you look at grants for research or publications, probably 90 percent of them are focused on climate change. And just a few percent are focused on chemical pollution, even though the scale of the problem is absolutely enormous.


Aaron Goodman  37:33

Yes. And the same for research about TILT, multiple chemical sensitivity. As I understand that there's not enough funding. 

I have a few questions as we aim to wrap up, if possible. The first is, and I'll just put them out there. How about that? 

So are there any countries or regions, for example, I've heard that Europe is pretty good in terms of its regulation. And based on personal experience, I've found it to be more manageable. And in terms of the doesn't seem to be as many scented products in Europe, UK different story but Europe. So is there more regulation there? And can the rest of the world learn from that? 

We know some countries have experimented with 100% organic agriculture, like Sri Lanka in the last few years, many people have likely heard of that. And it didn't go well or the government reversed course on its decision. Could you maybe talk a little bit about why or can pesticide free agriculture on a wide scale work and feed the planet? 

And we're also seeing some resistance or pushback to Europe right for governments wanting to have lower use of pesticide. So those are two questions about are any countries doing it well? And is there such a thing as a pesticide-free future?


Frank von Hippel 39:11

Europe is doing a better job than the United States in terms of regulating chemicals, but they're still not doing a great job. And so they have, for example, implemented testing for endocrine disrupters as part of their chemical safety standards. But the problem is just like in the United States, they still are heavily influenced by industry, by chemical companies, pharmaceutical industry, you name it, it's the same problem where these companies with their incredible wealth and political influence or lobbying and all of that, they end up warping the legislation, and it's really hard thing to combat. So Europe is not doing the kind of protective measures in the law that we really need to see, but they're a step closer to that than the United States is. They're just they haven't crossed that line yet. We'd have to get away from chemical companies having this outsized influence on the process. And that's still the case in Europe. 

So with regard to having purely organic agriculture, probably what we need to be doing right now, organic agriculture is awesome. When I was a kid, we had an organic farm in Alaska. And it's an awesome thing to do. But probably what we need to do now for feeding the world, is use what's called Integrated Pest Management. And this is an agricultural scheme where you only use pesticides where it's absolutely necessary and in a very spot treatment to prevent a pest outbreak can use all kinds of other controls to prevent pests like using biological controls, using you know, using things like spiders and parasitoid wasps and birds and things to control the pest. 

Remember that when we use pesticides, we also kill the natural controls of the pests. And with integrated pest management, you don't have these vast monocultures of crops that promote huge pest outbreaks, you do the protection of the soil and various kinds of even microbiome treatments of the soil to make the soil really healthy. So there's a whole suite of things you can do with that approach. It still allows you to feed the population of the world, but it uses a tiny fraction of the best size as what we're doing now.


Aaron Goodman  41:32

Thank you very much. I'd like to just ask you one more question if possible. And that is, you mentioned, you don't buy fragrance products? And I'm pretty sure, I can guarantee most listeners if not everyone's on board with that. Are there any other practical things folks can do to stay safe in the world we live in, where we are exposed to, you mentioned hundreds of 1000s of chemicals on a daily basis. What can we do to stay safe?


Frank von Hippel 42:08

I'm really glad you asked me that question. Because one of the things that I really like about working in the area of pollution contaminants is that we can do a lot personally, to protect ourselves and protect our children and protect our neighborhood. Whereas with something like climate change, it can feel like what could I do as a person that would make any difference to this problem? So this happens to be an area where with regard to pollution we can do a lot. 

So for example, having our yards be more of a wild garden for birds, for butterflies, and so on, not using any pesticides, there's no reason at all to use pesticides in your garden or in your home. 

Every problem you can imagine you can solve by another means. Like one time I came home when we're in Tucson, and there was a column of ants in our house, it was about four inches wide. There must have been millions of ants marching through the house, most people would just go out and call the exterminator. But what I did is I followed the column upstream to see where they were getting in the house. I got some spackle, I blocked the hole where they were coming in, I got out the vacuum cleaner, I filled up an entire vacuum bag with ants, and the problem was solved. So we can do those kinds of things. 

But also, for example, never heat up plastic. So if you have to microwave something, don't microwave it in the plastic tupperware because that volatilizes the chemicals from the plastic. In choosing what you buy for your home, what kind of products you have, you can avoid most of these chemicals by buying natural products. So for example, having something made out of wool versus synthetic materials having not having synthetic carpets, which have a lot of chemicals in them that volatilizes. 

Not purchasing anything with flame retardant, because those flame retardant chemicals are our endocrine disruptors and they don't covalently bond to the materials they're in. So they come off as household dust. They cause all kinds of health problems. 

So there's a whole huge list. There are groups like the Environmental Working Group that have guides for consumers where you can look up what products are good with regard to safety and, and not having these chemicals of which ones are problematic. 

But just as a general rule of thumb, if it occurs in nature, like wool, like wood, then that's going to be something that is good to have around it's not going to be toxic for you. If it's something that's synthetic, then, you know, avoiding it. 

Those synthetic products have a place, you know plastic has a place in our lives, there are things that that plastic works very well for but never single use plastics. We shouldn't be using plastics at all. We use it and throw it away. It's horrible for the environment, it's not good for us either. So you know, the coolant reservoir in my car is made out of plastic. That's a good use of plastic. It'll last a long time if it serves its function. But we just way overuse it. 

There's something like 10,000 chemicals associated with plastic. So all of those kinds of things we could go on for a long time discussing what you can do in the home. But the general idea is that in your home and your garden in your neighborhood, there's a lot you can do to protect yourself, protect your kids and promote a chemical free life. 


Aaron Goodman  45:37

Well, thank you so much, Frank. Is there anything else you'd like to share?


Frank von Hippel 45:41 

It's been a pleasure talking with you and I appreciate the invitation.


Aaron Goodman  45:47

That brings us to the end of this episode of the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast. Thank you very much to Professor Frank von Hippel for speaking with me. We release new episodes twice a month. Subscribe where you get your podcasts. Find us on social media and search for the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast or podcasting MCS. Leave your comments about anything you hear on the podcast and please share the podcast with others. Find the podcast on YouTube, just go to YouTube and search for the chemical sensitivity podcast and click subscribe. You can read captions of any episode you like. Leave a review online where you get your podcasts. It's a great way to help others learn about the podcast. And if there's someone you'd like to hear interviewed on the podcast or a topic you'd like us to explore, just let us know. Email Thanks for listening!