Chemical Jigsaw Puzzles

Mendocino County

I’ve followed the chemical pollution conundrum for, what, fifty years and thought I understood all the risks to which we are exposed. The day before I began composing this, I stumbled upon an explanation of one alarming aspect of which I was somehow unaware: monoclonal antibodies as described by Stuart Kaufmann in his “Investigations”. This appears to be one of those critical patterns that connect of which most of us haven’t noticed, but which seem to me vital for us to understand. Can I not tell you? First, a bit of cellular biochemistry that has been cooked, I hope, to tender digestibility:

Every living cell has a cell wall consisting of fatty molecules that separate its interior chemistry from the world. The cell, however, must get nutrients from outside and otherwise sense what is going on out there in order to find that food and otherwise adapt to its living and non-living environment. In order to do this, certain molecular protuberances known as receptors poke from the inside through the cell wall to the outside. When a wandering molecule on the outside, referred to as a ligand, binds to a receptor, many things can happen depending upon the nature of the receptor.

A receptor may recognize a ligand as food and initiate a chemical process to move it through the cell wall. Alternately, when a binding occurs, the part of the receptor exposed within the cell may initiate a chemical reaction therein. For instance, if the ligand is the hormone cortisol, depending upon the nature of the receptor, a binding can result permitting fat storage, adjusting blood sodium levels, or cooling down an inflammation among others. That is, cortisol receptors may share an external molecular appearance while activating quite different functions inside. This is likely true for nearly all types of receptors.

Finally, there are those curious receptors known as antibodies that float around outside cells. When one end binds to a ligand, say a virus, the other becomes an active ligand for other receptors presented by immune system cells. This second binding results, hopefully, in the inactivation or death of the infecting agent.

Cells of all types, human, other animal, plant, and bacteria, have receptor/ligand pairs of multitudes of different types, many more of which are being regularly discovered. Thus, for us humans, there are those related to nerves (serotonin, dopamine, …), hormones (thyroid, female and male, cortisol, …), immune system (many, many), alertness (endorphins, …), wound and bone healing (interferon, …), food utilization (insulin, …), and so on. The community of all our trillion or more cells are constantly sending and receiving a storm of ligands of these many varieties. The resulting conversations direct the construction of our bodies from earliest times and maintain them through long lives. Wondrous stuff!

For a molecule to be capable of binding to a receptor, it must have the proper geometric shape so that it fits tightly. It must also have certain other appropriate chemical properties, such as those related to magnetism. Many, many molecules with different atomic components may satisfy these requirements, but few alternatives occur naturally. A couple of decades ago, some researchers discovered they could easily manufacture so-called monoclonal antibodies that had receptor ends identical to a given naturally occurring receptor. If they exposed a soup of these antibodies to a collection of, say, a million different types of molecules, perhaps 0.1 percent, about 1,000, would stick. Suppose a pharmaceutical company wants to find a patentable molecule that behaves like cortisol in cooling down inflammation. If that monoclonal antibody was derived from a cortisol receptor, any of these 1,000 potentially behaves like cortisol. There is no money to be made in manufacturing cortisol, but with able marketing and a gullible public, fortunes await a patented look-alike. Thus, Prednisone.

Cellular life has lived with cortisol and its precursors for hundreds of millions, perhaps for billions, of years, as is true for all naturally occurring ligands; there are no surprises. Before a new pharmaceutical enters the list, it must be carefully tested to see that it performs as advertised. But, only one face, maybe only one small facet of that face, acts like a ligand for the targeted receptor. What of all the other faces, other facets of that molecule? Is it possible one or more might bind to others of that multitude of receptor types and trigger completely unexpected actions, side effects if you will? How could one know? So, surprises, often deadly surprises, happen, but are seldom noticed until months or years after many have been exposed because it can be very difficult to recognize the association.

The Earth is saturated with manufactured chemicals that have molecular structures never before seen by living organisms. In addition to pharmaceuticals, we are exposed to a nearly endless variety in plastics, paints, cleansers, food additives, auto fumes and interiors, carpets, insecticides, fungicides, additives to disease inoculations, body care products, all those wonderful military chemicals, and on and on. One nearly must go naked to avoid artificial fibers. Reportedly, thousands of these chemicals are added to the list yearly, all without any precautionary testing. Now, genetically modified organisms are producing others in what appear likely soon to be nearly all our food crops.

A few years ago, it was noted by authorities that many of these chemicals emulated hormones, that is they acted like hormone ligands to the detriment of those exposed. For instance, if one is exposed to too much cortisol or emulations, obesity results (cf. Cushings Disease). In 1999, an NRC conference was held to determine what should be done, but it ended with everyone involved throwing up their hands in dismay. Industry’s response has always been that if you can’t prove it harms, get out of the way. None dared to respond that science is not about proofs, but about likelihoods.

The likelihood these artificial chemicals are causing harm, great harm, surely can’t be doubted, incriminating evidence piles up, but investors are only interested in profits and growth, CEO’s in vast personal incomes, and politicians in campaign and slush funds. The only chemicals that are notably attracting attention are the hallucinogenics, mostly naturally occurring but often stretched by manufactured chemicals. So, despite much chest thumping, the song goes on.

Some have hypothesized that no square centimeter of the Earth’s surface isn’t polluted with these chemicals. Sewage plants don’t remove these chemicals, so our rivers are polluted by most of them. Thus, we are exposing all lifeforms to them. As an example, it has recently been recognized that naturally-occurring soil antibiotics play many roles in promoting soil tilth. Now, in order to maintain the health of animals raised in factories, antibiotics are saturating the world and arguably disturbing what soil fertility is left. As another instance, birth control pharmaceuticals are disrupting the lifecycles of many animal species, notably frogs and other amphibians that have porous skins. As industry finds desirable, many of these chemicals resist breakdown for long periods, maybe centuries.

What, then, can we do? Protect ourselves by buying organic, right? I have been observing two organically certified organizations closely for some time. The certifiers demand each keep excruciatingly complex records, but never check in my experience that the companies are doing what they say – one is cheating a bit. None are checking whether their products are indeed chemically benign or GMO-free. A few years ago, we attempted to determine if grocery, i.e. packaged and processed, products on the UNF Co-op’s shelves were GMO-free and only half of the manufacturers would respond. In fact, though organic certification requires GMO-free and testing is possible, it is very expensive to assure and hardly anyone is. That is, the USDA Organic Certified label is effectively only a marketing device, a matter of buyer beware. My recommendation, which we strictly follow: buy locally from farmers you know and grow your own using heritage non-hybrid seeds. But, that answers only the food aspect, maybe. Our and the Earth’s exposure is much wider than this.

We send contributions to support lobbyists and the needy, but never enough; we may write letters, sign petitions, march, block entrances, refuse to buy or use any product using these strange chemicals, and so on. Of course, some have been objecting for decades, which hasn’t stanched the flow in the slightest. So, do you think we’re going to throttle the release of greenhouse gasses? Now, an industry is being created that focuses on strange chemical ways to cool the climate, without interrupting world economic growth, with the manufacture of ever more and stranger chemicals.

The other day, we received a request for funds from the Friends Service Committee. For about ninety years, they have been protesting U.S. involvement in wars, often with many serving long prison terms. They have been joined by many other groups, yet our military presence in the world is the largest it ever has been. This request is only one of many we regularly receive promoting some long-standing social or environmental action, almost all of which would be welcomed should they give evidence of success. We ceased to hold our breaths long ago. Should we then give up?

A few days ago, I stopped into Dave’s Mulligan Books and purchased three wonderful books, one of which was Wendell Berry’s “The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays”. What he writes therein I feel to be apropos our situation. I quote:

“As signs, or perhaps symptoms, of the general destructiveness of the industrial economy, we now have hundreds of large and small organizations devoted to protecting or saving things of value that are endangered: peace, kindness, freedom, childhood, health, wilderness areas, rivers, species of plants and animals, cultures, languages, farmland, family farms, farm families, families, the atmosphere, scenic roads, fine old buildings, historic places, holy places, quietness, darkness. More, and more, as I tell over our lengthening catalog of calamities and discouragements, I think of these organizations. I think of them with great sympathy, and with love, for I think they are the basis of our worldly hope. They are the basis of our right to hope that our own greatly endangered species may somehow be saved, if not from extinction, at least from the necessity of recognizing itself as the ultimate parasite, deserving extinction.  …”

“And yet, grateful as I am for these organizations, so many of whose names begin with ‘Save,” I can’t help but notice that this movement or this consciousness I’m calling redemptive, and am moreover part of, is not only the losing side in our current public struggles, but in terms of standing and influence is hardly a side at all. … It is now impossible to find a major politician standing up in public and asking, Why are so many irreplaceable things, from mountains to memories, being destroyed by so-called economic development? Why are so many things we need, from healthy farms to health, being priced out of existence by the so-called free market? …”

“And so I need to add to my praise some criticism, not in disparagement, but in hope, for when we try to see all these organization all together as a constituency we see that, as such, it is badly disintegrated and fragmented. Its efforts are scattered, often mutually exclusive, sometimes mutually competitive, and mostly negative. In some of its parts, it is fearful of becoming too radical. For the purpose of its coherence, it is not radical enough. …”

“… in so destructive an age as ours, it is possible for our sense of wrong to become an affliction. All of us who are committed to saving things of value have been in what Wes Jackson calls ‘the ain’t it awful conversation,’ in which we recite the current litany of outrages. … The logic end of the ain’t-it-awful conversation is despair. People quit having any fun, they begin to talk about the ‘inevitability’ of what they are up against and they give up. Mere opposition blinds us from the good of the things we are trying to save. And it divides us hopelessly from our opponents, who no doubt are caricaturing us while we are demonizing them. We lose, in short, the sense of shared humanity that would permit us to say even to our worst enemies, ‘We are working, after all, in your interest and your children’s. Ours is a common effort for the common good. Come and join us.’ …”

“We have too many reasons to suspect that even the most valuable things cannot be preserved, or not for long, merely by the desire to save them, or even by the necessary money, or even by the necessary votes. And let us say that a whole thing is anything worth preserving and its context. Let us call the preserving context a community, for that is the name of the having-in-common that does in fact preserve us. And let us understand that we must never allow our thoughts or wishes to separate the community from its habitat, or from its culture, which is its way of remembering (or forgetting) where it is and how to live there. …”

“The common denominator is the local community. Only the purpose of a coherent community, only fully alive in the world and in the minds of its members, can carry us beyond fragmentation, contradiction, and negativity, teaching us to preserve, not in opposition but in affirmation and affection, all things needful to make us glad to live. … We have no place to begin but where we are. …”

Berry concludes, “We are going to have to resign ourselves to patience and small steps.” He wrote that in 2004. Maybe there was still time then; there isn’t now. As I’ve written in previous essays, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Pathways have been beaten that will permit us to hit the ground running, if we dare. But, as I’ve stated repeatedly and Berry intimates, if we are to have a chance, if anything is to be left, this industrial civilization must fail and soon. To further this, we each must step off a far as we can, as soon as we can. What is to be saved of it that won’t come at too great a cost? Too radical? Surely scary, but as frightening as the chemical-drenched alternative I touched upon above?