Introduction

Me with my breakfast. Genevieve Wilson

How does your morning routine go? Mine goes like this: Drink a cup of tea, shampoo and condition my hair, apply lotion and makeup, get dressed, eat cereal with milk and apple slices, brush teeth. Ready for the day ahead!

I never used to think about the products I lather on my hair and rub into my skin every morning, but recently I squinted at the shampoo bottle. It had an awfully long list of ingredients. What are all those impossible-to-pronounce words?

Of course I know they’re chemicals. After all, everything on our planet is made of chemicals. Chemicals are simply groups of basic elements like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and 115 others. I’m made of chemicals, and so are you and anything you can touch, taste, hear, see or smell—and even some things our senses can’t detect.

But what are all those chemicals doing in my shampoo? Do any of them harm me while they’re cleaning my hair? Do any of them harm the environment after they wash down the drain? Same for the lotion, the makeup, the toothpaste.

We all need food to live, grow and learn. What goes into our bodies each time we eat? martinedoucet/istock.com

And then there’s my breakfast. What am I putting inside my body each time I eat or drink? Was the environment harmed while the ingredients were being grown or processed?What about the things I toss out—the tea bag, the apple core, the empty plastic milk jug? Does my household waste cause problems for the environment?

I decided to learn more about environmental chemistry and all the chemicals I interact with every day. I found out some fascinating things, some sad things and some alarming things too. The good, the bad and the unknown.

Grab a drink—maybe a nice glass of hydrogen and oxygen in the form of water—and I’ll tell you more.

Chapter One

A Chemical History Tour

Wait! What’s a Chemical Again?

Fire is a chemical reaction known as combustion. Evdoha_spb/shutterstock.com

If you’re not sure, you’re not alone. Many of us are a bit fuzzy when it comes to understanding chemicals. As I said before, a chemical is a bunch of basic elements joined together. Look at the periodic table of elements. Different combinations of these basic elements make up everything on Earth.

Every living thing has four main elements—carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. On the periodic table find the letter for each one. Put the letters together, and it’s easy to remember that every living thing—from red-tide algae to an elephant—is made of the four elements that spell CHON. Living things contain small amounts of other elements too.

Nonliving things—like water, air and rocks—are also made of basic elements. Water has hydrogen and oxygen. Air (at least, the air we breathe on Earth) has nitrogen, oxygen, argon and tiny amounts of several other elements. And rocks—well, rocks come in lots of chemical combinations. For example, limestone has calcium, carbon and oxygen. Granite rocks are silicon, oxygen and other elements.

But this isn’t a book about rocks, so let’s move on to a burning question.

The periodic table of elements. The elements were first placed in this arrangement in the 1870s

IT’S ELEMENTAL: Of the 118 elements on the periodic table, 92 are found in nature. The rest are made by humans.

Taming Fire

Imagine a family of cave dwellers huddled in their cave, eating raw meat. They are made of chemicals and so is everything around them—the cave walls, the meat, the bed of dried grass. Suddenly a spark blows into the cave from a nearby wildfire and whoosh! The grass catches on fire.

Why are we talking about fire? Fire is an example of a chemical reaction. In a chemical reaction, one or more chemicals transform, or change, into one or more different chemicals.In fire’s case, a fuel (such as grass) plus oxygen in the air get kick-started by a spark and transform into carbon dioxide plus water. As this transformation happens, heat and particles (smoke and soot, for example) are released.

Early humans would have known about fire from wildfires and volcanoes before they knew how to make or control fire themselves. Archaeologists—scientists who study human history—have found old fire pits, ashes and other evidence showing that people started making fires deliberately at least 700,000 years ago. As well as warmth and cooked food, fire gave people a place to gather and socialize. Knowing how to light a fire was an important step in human evolution. Fires were also one of the earliest types of pollution.

Mixed Metals

These ax heads found in present-day Hungary date to the years 2000–600 BCE, which are within the time frame of the Bronze Age. bridgemanimages.com

Early humans used stones and bones as tools. Then they started working metals like copper and tin—also basic elements—into spear tips, knives and bowls. Later humans found a way to mix copper and tin to make a new, strong metal called bronze. Bronze is an alloy, meaning that basic elements have been melted together in a physical reaction, not a chemical one. The basic elements are still there but in a new arrangement.

Here’s a way to remember the difference. In a physical reaction, you can get the original ingredients back as individual things. For example, when you spread jam on bread, the jam is still jam and the bread is still bread. In a chemical reaction, the original ingredients change into something new and you cannot get them back. For example, when you cook an egg, the gloppy white and runny yolk become firm. You can’t get the original white and yolk back. Seems like magic, but it’s chemistry.

The Alchemist’s Mystical Lair

An Iranian painting of alchemists from 1893. bridgemanimages.com

Have you read the first Harry Potter book? If so, you’ll remember the philosopher’s stone (or sorcerer’s stone, depending on where you live). This stone turned metal into gold and produced a liquid giving immortality (eternal life) to the person who drank it. Author J.K. Rowling created a fantasy world, but did you know that the idea of the philosopher’s stone is true? In Rowling’s novel, an alchemist named Nicolas Flamel created the stone. In real life, alchemy was an early form of chemistry. There was a real Nicolas Flamel too. He lived in France in the 1300s and 1400s. Centuries after his death he became known as an alchemist, but there is no evidence that he really was one.

Real-life alchemists tried to transform metals into gold, discover a medicine to heal all ills and create an “elixir of life” to give humans immortality. Alchemists didn’t achieve any of these goals, but they still made discoveries. They found elements like phosphorus and zinc, and they created mixtures like gunpowder (the first explosive).

Over time, people’s thinking began to shift away from alchemy, and by the late 1700s, modern chemistry had largely taken its place.

IT’S ELEMENTAL: Clay is a soft material made up of the basic elements silicon, aluminum, oxygen, hydrogen and others. When clay is heated to very high temperatures, it goes through a series of chemical reactions that burn off some elements and rearrange the connections among other elements, eventually turning the soft clay into a hard ceramic. Shards of ancient pottery have been found in China and date to about 20,000 years ago.

Chemical Concoctions

A boy holds up a kerosene lamp. Valeriy Minyaev/Dreamstime.com

Throughout the 1800s, chemists discovered many new materials and mixtures, which gave society many exciting items. Here are a few examples:

  • Iron or steel containers lined with tin became the first tin cans, capable of preserving food.

  • Vulcanized or cured rubber—created by heating the thick sap of rubber trees together with sulfur—made flexible items like hoses, shoe soles, waterproof clothing and, later, car tires.

  • Kerosene, an oil refined from coal and shale, replaced smelly whale oil in lamps.

The Age of Plastics

Mauveine was the first synthetic dye. It was discovered accidentally by a British chemistry student, William Henry Perkin, and allowed ordinary people (not just royalty) to afford purple clothing. Courtesy of the Science History Institute