A chemical plant performing synthesis is a place where the materials in use are purposely selected for certain attributes of instability. Chemical stability refers to the tendancy of a substance to remain unchanged when exposed to some kind of stimulus. That stimulus may be exposure to heat energy, mechanical shock, or a more precise chemical attack on particular functional groups. Unstable substances have a low threshold to change. Stable substances require more stimulus to cause a change in composition.

Substances that are extremely stable are often not very useful in near-ambient temperature chemical synthesis, i.e., saturated hydrocarbons, metal sulfates, silica, etc.  The lack of lower temperature reactivity (say, up to 200 C) can be compensated for by application of high temperatures. Petroleum refineries take full advantage of high temperature reaction chemistry to alter the composition of otherwise stable hydrocarbons.

We choose stable substances for duty as solvents, diluents, carriers, etc., precisely because of their non-changeability or stability. “Inert” solvents allow chemists to bring molecules into solution for selective transformations. Of course, we all know that most solvents have some influence on the course of a transformation, the point is that we can transform solute materials without the fuss of altering the solvent too.

Chemical synthesis requires the manipulation of reactivity (and therefore stability) to perform useful transformations. Without well placed instability on a molecule, there cannot be efficient, directed synthesis. It is the job of the synthesis chemist to apply the knowledge of reactivity.

Because of the inherent instability of reactive and flammable materials, chemical plants must require that certain behaviors, procedures, and knowledge be set into a formal structure. Actions and conditions must give predictable consequences. This structure is comprised of a set of standard- operating procedures, equipment, test methods, and safety requirements.

It seems silly to go to the trouble of detailing the merits of running a safe plant, but it is worth pointing out the layers of requirements on an operating plant. 

  1. Preservation of life, health, and the environment
  2. Compliance with federal, state, and local regulations
  3. To provide for the uninterrupted flow of goods and services in the conduct of business
  4. To qualify for affordable business insurance
  5. To be a good neighbor and stable source of gainful employment for all concerned

A company in the business of manufacture is exposed to many kinds of liability. A chemical manufacturing plant is subject to modes of failure and liability that set it apart somewhat. 

One result of chemical manufacture that sets it apart from other forms of industry is the combination of unknown risk and dread fear. For communities in the vicinity of chemical operations, fear comes from the combination of the unknown as new risks, unknown effects, or delayed effects with the dreaded possibility of catastrophic or fatal consequences, inequitable consequences, involuntary effects, and high risk to future generations (see: Perilous Progress: Managing the Hazards of Technology, Edited by Kates, Hohenemser, and Kasperson, 1985, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, p 108. ISBN 0-8133-7025-6).

While the neighbors of a furniture factory may be annoyed by the presence of a nearby woodworking shop, it is unlikely that the neighbors will be stirred into existential dread by its presence. The hazards of a woodworking plant are easy to imagine and therefore, easier to rank into the grand list of life’s dangers.

Chemical and nuclear risk perception score at the extreme ranges of risk perception. Both domains involve an agent of potential harm that is poorly understood by most people. Ionizing radiation is inherently destructive to tissues, but the exact relationship between quality and dose to risk is fuzzy at low level exposure. And because it cannot be sensed directly, fear of it’s presence can induce disturbing excursions of imagination and dread.

Fear of chemicals is widespread in the industrialized world. The downside to chemical operations has been immortalized by numerous well known industrial calamities like Love Canal (Hooker Chemical), Bhopal, numerous dioxin fiascos, PCB’s, or occupational exposure to asbestos or chromium (VI). There are a great many chemical items of commerce that are unavoidably hazardous to health.

Because of the risks associated with toxicity or exposure to hazardous energy from machines, chemicals, radiation, heat, noise, gravity, sharp implements, etc., the many layers of government have established agencies and a regulatory structure to diminish risk exposure to workers specifically and citizens generally.

The purpose of the chemical industry is to produce goods and services for people who want or need the value of it’s output. Like the ad says- “We don’t make the surfboard, we make it better”. Well, making the surfboard better inevitably requires that certain kinds of hazards be unleashed and managed. The expectation that hazardous materials can be eliminated in manufacturing is a fantasy. The manipulation of instability is inherent to chemical transformation. Zeroing out hazards has to come from the demand side of the market.