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KEEN Connects: Better living through chemistry?

My father, now well-retired, was an organic chemistry professor for his career and often used to say, “Better living through chemistry,” with a sly smile and a shrug. Sometimes as I lie down to sleep I think of all the things that can kill me — quickly or slowly. A macabre way to go through life perhaps, but that’s the way my brain works. Sigh.

I work for the Toxics Cleanup Program at the WA Department of Ecology, and on a daily basis I learn about this chemical and that pollutant, each with their specific consequences for our lives. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of my time researching the historic use of the pesticide lead arsenate on orchards in Central Washington (it was used on orchards between 1900 and 1950). Arsenic is a known carcinogen, and there is no safe level of lead in your blood.

As I gaze out on my backyard, enjoying my too many dogs frolicking on the dirt that used to be grass, I see them run up to and around an ancient-looking pear tree. My mind wanders and I think, “Huh, wonder if my backyard used to be an orchard?” and then, “I wonder how long it would take me to wash their paws each time they walked into and out of my house? Four dogs times four paws times two minutes each times 10 trips in and out — holy moly!”

A couple of weeks ago I watched the movie Dark Waters and then attended a presentation about PFAS at work (PFAS stands for a broad group of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances). Wow. That stuff is everywhere! Better living through chemistry indeed. PFAS are in food packaging, water- and stain-repellant fabrics, nonstick products, fire-fighting foams, electronics manufacturing, and drinking water. They are also found in fish, animals, and humans where they build up, stick around, and do nasty things to your body. Yikes.

It can be hard these days to wake up and think positively about our world. Bad news permeates the airwaves, political discourse, and even neighborly relationships. And when you have a brain like mine that tends to “awfulize” everything, it can be truly exhausting. I’m learning that on a daily basis I have to seek out good news stories, inspiring people and fun opportunities, just to save my sanity.

The good news is, there is actually a lot of good news out there.

I still believe that “think globally and act locally” is a relevant concept and it is how KEEN functions. I also love to hear about amazing folks in our own backyard. Right now, there is a group of students, parents, and other concerned community members gathering to make a difference. They identified a problem (use of polystyrene trays for school lunches), received support from the decision-making body to study the issue (school board), researched the issue (health and environmental impacts of polystyrene), invited input from the broader community (surveys and in-person meetings), came up with solutions (reusable trays?), and made a cogent proposal for change (still under consideration).

Is it groundbreaking? Not particularly. Is it going to make a difference in the world? Heck yes! What’s that quote from Margaret Mead? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

This local effort shows us a lot of great lessons. It shows us how kids and adults can work together to enact change. It shows how to approach the “system” and use your human rights to make it work for you. It shows just how important critical thinking is as a skill in our world.

Simply put, critical thinking method of teaching people “how” to think instead of “what” to think. It is the cornerstone of environmental education and something that KEEN strives for in all our work. Presenting information, science, and facts to the audience and then allowing critical thinking to take over so that people make informed decisions and possibly lead to behavior change in the long run.

Beyond all that amazing stuff, people using their voices to effect change in their communities cannot help but be inspiring.

I used to ask my dad what it meant to be an organic chemist, what did he “make?” And his response to me was, and still is, “I did science for the sake of science.” What other people did with that science is the result of critical thinking, and what we need more of in the world. Even if, sometimes, it makes it hard to fall asleep.

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