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How can we recognize when there are delayed side effects?

Most of the chemicals we absorb are via our food and in the air we breathe. So understanding the relevance and potential consequences of catalytic effects from traces of impurities is a prerequisite when looking at food products. They are bound to exist and will have entered our bodies from food grown in different soils, or treated with fertilizers and herbicides. They will also be unavoidable in the liquids we drink. I have already mentioned that tap water contains both traces of chemicals used in purification, and drugs and pharmaceuticals expressed in the output from earlier users of the water systems. (Delicately phrased!) Other liquids, such as wine, owe their distinctive regional flavours not just to the soils and grapes, but also to additives, fertilizers, and the types of barrel in which they were fermented. These taste enhancers may be viewed as contaminants or as flavourings that make them so desirable.

Several of these examples of how traces of key chemicals can influence our lives have emerged relatively recently, and as we gain greater precision in measurement in the physical and biological sciences, the list of examples becomes extremely long. The disquieting feature is that many of the effects on people are dramatic, even lethal. Some of the damage has a long incubation time, and removing the harmful chemicals from the environment and usage is either difficult or economically unwelcome. There is therefore a concern that as we progress ever more rapidly to make new products and chemicals, we may unwittingly be unleashing long-term time bombs for humans, animals, and agriculture, as well as modifying the climate.

Perhaps worse is that up until now many of the chemical-derived technologies have used only simple chemicals in processes where we have a moderate understanding of the science. The recent advances in medicine, biology, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and genetic modifications are taking us into more complex territory where we will find it increasingly difficult to correlate traces of drugs and delayed changes. The new products may seem marvellous, but unexpected side effects may not initially be apparent, or may be irreversible. The producers will take care to look for unwanted side effects, but animal testing is not a direct model for changes that appear in humans or creatures other than the test species.

A further difficulty is caused by the fact that every human (and animal) is unique, and there will be always be species and humans that do not fit the standard pattern. This is exactly the way drug-resistant diseases survive. The inverse is that a chemical, which is harmless for most, may be lethal for a minority. There is no way we will stop technological progress, but we need to become far more aware of and responsive to symptoms of negative outcomes, especially if they require only small traces of the original substances.

 
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