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A Short Lesson in Chemical Compounds

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A short lesson in why freaking out about a "chemical" because it is "derived from" something nasty (or nasty-sounding) or is "similar to" some other chemical, or contains an element or component that would be nasty in some other compound is completely meaningless.

For this brief lesson we will be considering carbon (at this point you may be picturing in your mind a charcoal brickette or a the graphite in a pencil), oxygen (like you are breathing at the moment) and hydrogen (the fiery crash of the Hindenberg my come to mind). Now you probably already know that H2O is water. You certainly wouldn't try to breathe water or fly an airship full of water, so you are already aware on one level how a chemical compound does not have the same properties as the elemental chemicals that make it up.

Now let's throw carbon in the mix. Hydrogen, oxygen and carbon will be our building blocks and we'll look at three orgainc compounds made from the exact same three elemental chemicals. Chemical compound "1" will be C12H22O11. Chemical "2" will be C2H5OH. Chemical "3" will be CH3OH. All three are just carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. 

  • Throw water and some soot together and you get a mess.
  • Chemical "1" (C12H22O11) is good in coffee and on cereal. It's sugar.
  • Chemical "2" (C2H5OH) will make you drunk. It is the alcohol in beer, wine and spirits.
  • Chemical "3" (CH3OH) will make you blind or kill you. It's "wood alcohol" a.k.a.  methanol. 

Same three elements, four different results: one mess, one tasty, one intoxicating, one deadly. 

Hell, even a single element can behave quite differently depending on how it binds to itself. You are quite happily breathing O2, but O3 in same concentration will kill you in a few seconds by dissolving your lungs. 

So really, if you are going to freak out about "chemicals" realise that it's not quite so black and white as "chemicals are bad." Not by a long shot. 

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