A revolution in analytical instrumentation circa 1920 greatly improved the ability to characterize chemical substances. This analytical foundation resulted in an unprecedented explosion in the design and production of synthetic chemicals during and post-World War II. What is now often referred to as the 2nd Chemical Revolution has provided substantial societal benefits; with modern chemical design and manufacturing supporting dramatic advances in medicine, increased food production, and expanding gross domestic products at the national and global scales as well as improved health, longevity, and lifestyle convenience at the individual scale. Presently, the chemical industry is the largest manufacturing sector in the United States (U.S.) and the second largest in Europe and Japan, representing approximately 5% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in each of these countries. At the turn of the 21st century, the chemical industry was estimated to be worth more than $1.6 trillion and to employ over 10 million people, globally.
During the first half of the 20th century, the chemical sector expanded rapidly, the chemical industry enjoyed a generally positive status in society, and chemicals were widely appreciated as fundamental to individual and societal quality of life. Starting in the 1960s, however, the environmental costs associated with the chemical industry increasingly became the focus, due in part to the impact of books like “Silent Spring” and “Our Stolen Future” and to a number of highly publicized environmental disasters. Galvanizing chemical industry disasters included the 1976 dioxin leak north of Milan, Italy, the Love Canal evacuations in Niagara, New York beginning in 1978, and the Union Carbide leak in Bhopal, India in 1984.
Understanding the environmental impact of synthetic compounds is essential to any informed assessment of net societal benefit, for the simple reason that any chemical substance that is in commercial production or use will eventually find its way to the environment. Not surprisingly given the direct link to profits, manufacturers intensely investigate and routinely document the potential benefits of new chemicals and chemical products. In contrast, the environmental risks associated with chemical production and uses are often investigated less intensely and are poorly communicated.
An imbalance in the risk-benefit analysis of any synthetic chemical substance or naturally occurring chemical, which presence and concentration in the environment largely reflects human activities and management, is a particular concern owing to the fundamental link between chemistry and biology. Biological organisms are intrinsically a homeostatic balance of innumerable internal and external chemical interactions and, thus, inherently sensitive to changes in the external chemical environment.