[VIEWPOINT]Rush to high-tech has dangersThe chemical compounds called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, are used in home refrigerators and air conditioners. DuPont, a chemical company, developed and marketed one type of CFC, colorless, odorless and nontoxic, under the trade name Freon. It replaced then-existing toxic refrigerants such as ammonia. CFCs were miracle compounds that changed people's eating habits and lifestyles. But production of CFCs was banned in 1986 after an unexpected problem came to light. CFCs destroy the ozone layer in the earth's atmosphere.
In 1946, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, or 2,4-D, was developed. It was a near-miraculous herbicide that caused no harm to human beings and crops but killed weeds. Trusting the safety of the herbicide, the United States government ordered in large quantities a product named "Agent Orange," the mixture of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid, or 2,4,5-T, and employed it during the Vietnam War. The herbicide successfully defoliated the jungles of Vietnam but unexpectedly caused incurable diseases in a number of the soldiers who handled it. The manufacturer of Agent Orange heated the aqueous solution during its production in order to raise the efficiency of the herbicide. That caused a chemical reaction that produced a small quantity of extremely poisonous dioxin in the herbicide. Currently, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, which are produced at temperatures low enough to avoid the production of dioxin, are still in general use.
Those examples show that technologies should not be evaluated based only on fragments of their effects. Thorough scientific examination of high-tech products from their development to their abandonment is needed. There are examples which show that scientific examination can help people escape disasters.
A drug called thalidomide was developed by a German pharmaceutical company in 1957. A number of countries in Europe and in other regions allowed it to be marketed, trusting the insistence that the drug gave pregnant women relief from morning sickness and was safe for them. As a result, women who used the drug gave birth to deformed children. When an American company submitted an application to introduce thalidomide to the United States, Dr. Frances O. Kelsey at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration demanded more scientific data about the side effects of the drug. As a result, American pregnant women escaped that disaster. One person's belief in the importance of science saved numerous lives from possible misfortune.
All new technologies should be thoroughly examined and their safety and side effects confirmed, but even those efforts cannot completely guarantee the safety of modern technologies. Firms that develop products are driven by profit motives, so it is the duty of the government and the public to demand that companies disclose the results of scientific testing of their new technologies. The general public should demand scientific examination of all the procedures involved in the production, consumption and disposal of new products.
The writer is a professor of chemistry at Sogang University
by Lee Duck-hwan