Chemistry is necessary for all life—but we've unleashed an unprecedented synthetic chemical cocktail onto our economies, communities, and ecosystems.
This is an excerpt from the new book Silent Winter: Our Chemical World and Chronic Illness.
Chemistry is essential to all life on Earth. Indeed, it is a combination of radiation and chemistry that caused life to form on this planet. The chemical environment found within each of our bodies is a complex orchestra that has evolved in the natural world over an unfathomable amount of time. We developed into increasingly sophisticated creatures through the manipulation of our own internal body chemistry over countless generations. And chemistry continues to facilitate every single life-supporting function—no matter how small—within every living being on Earth. This includes the bacteria, fungi, plants, animals, and us.
Virtually nothing can happen inside any life form—including people— without a chemical being formed or released to catalyze the action. Human growth, metabolism, body temperature, organ function, immune system, thoughts, emotions, movement and reproduction are wholly dependent upon our internal body chemistry. Our genes and DNA lie dormant without the influence of chemistry. Our bodies would be dead without our natural chemistry. Indeed, we run on endless chains of sophisticated chemical reactions.
Biological chemistry has evolved over millions of years, and continues to evolve over time in every living species. New chemical reactions arise to help each species adapt to its environment and resist predators. This is how we ended up with useful things such as photosynthesis, cell division, reproduction, respiration, thoughts, emotions, and countless of other life-giving activities we commonly take for granted.
Evolution and adaptation
This life-giving chemistry does not evolve in a vacuum. Plants, animals and micro-organisms co-exist and-evolve in an intricate dance. For example, the bacteria in our guts evolve their chemistry over time to help safely digest foods that would otherwise be toxic; this guarantees a home and a host for them. Plants develop new toxic chemicals in order to be less desirable to those who want to eat them. They also create useful chemicals that encourage other species to pollinate them. Species evolve in their ever-changing environment to adapt and thrive. It is a beautiful and intricate web of life created by nature.
Each species can alter itself within a generation—meaning that you and I can develop new chemistries to adapt to our environment. We may move from a warm climate to a cold one and find it takes some years to physically adapt to winter; but it ultimately can be done. We may be resistant to chicken pox in adulthood after being ill with the disease during childhood. These types of adaptations take place within our lifetime and are dictated by epigenetics, or processes that do not require a change of the genetic code. We already have the mechanisms within our existing set of genes to make these types of physical changes occur.
However, there are many evolutionary processes that take generations to develop because they do require our genetic code to change. For example, we will not grow flippers simply because we go swimming every day. We will not learn to convert sunlight into energy through photosynthesis the way that plants do just by moving to a sunnier climate. Our genes do not have the programming to make this happen. As a result, these changes are too large to take place within one lifetime. Such changes could theoretically happen over the lifetime of the planet, which is long enough for our genes to change.
Whether we successfully adapt to our environment—within the course of one or multiple lifetimes—depends on our genetic starting place and how much time we have. Dinosaurs, for example, were unable to adapt to certain abrupt changes in the climate millions of years ago and became extinct. The changes came too quickly for them to adapt epigenetically or over multiple lifetimes. Native Americans died from disease in massive numbers when Europeans first moved to North America because they could not adapt quickly enough to illnesses that Europeans had grown accustomed to over many centuries. All of us can adapt only so fast to changing conditions. If changes in our environment exceed our physical capacity to adapt, we will not thrive and we may not even survive very long.
Rapid chemical changes
Rapid change is required in modern life. Over the last 80–100 years, we have unleashed an unprecedented synthetic chemical cocktail onto our economies, communities, and ecosystems. These chemicals have drastically altered our ecosystems and internal body chemistry. In approximately 80 years' time (roughly since the rise of the chemical industry in World War II), we have introduced more than 100,000 synthetic chemicals en masse into our lives. Trillions of pounds of synthetic chemicals are put into commerce annually and can be found in personal care items, cleaning products, clothes, food, water and the built environment.
We have been exposed to some of these chemicals only in the last few decades. Others went out of popular circulation well over 40 years ago but are still found in, and affect, every living being on the planet.
Silent Winter is about the silent spread of toxic chemicals in our daily lives and their role in the growing prevalence of illnesses such as cancer, chronic fatigue, diabetes, asthma, digestive issues, depression, dementia, and others. You can purchased the book at Algora Publishing.
Joanna Malaczynski has spent a decade working on eliminating toxic chemicals from consumer products as an attorney, consultant, and entrepreneur. She first became involved in the enforcement of environmental and consumer protection laws related to environmental health as an attorney. She subsequently started a software company focused on helping industry find safer alternatives to toxic chemicals. Before writing Silent Winter, Ms. Malaczynski consulted for sustainability entrepreneurs.