Monday, 13 July 2009

Racial polarisation and green chemistry

What has racial polarisation got to do with green chemistry? Ehmm, probably nothing. But it just so happened that I had two conversations with graduating students, one on racial polarisation (amongst other things) and the other, green chemistry, one after the other.

Racial polarisation is "a fact of life" on campus. It's there for everyone to see. But what does the term "racial polarisation" really mean, I asked the young lady. Well you can see the Malay students will sit in one corner of the lecture hall, the Chinese in another corner, and the Indians in between. They mix amongst themselves, eat amongst themselves, study amongst themselves. Is that it? Is there a feeling of hatred? Feelings of superiority of one over the other? Feelings of jealousies or envy? This is where it gets fuzzy. Nobody really wants to talk about it or dares to talk about it in the open (for fear of the consequences). But yes, a little bit of this and that. Of course, I have had students who say there really is no problem of racial polarisation on campus. "We just get along we each other" - "its the people outside campus who make into a political issue". Perhaps this is another important viewpoint. So, the next question I asked is "what can we do about it? what should we do about it?" Hhmm, tough one. She promises to think harder about that. Which brings me to a visit from a researcher who came to see me about measuring sustainability and proposed to measure racial polarisation on campus. I said, what for? We already know it's there. Perhaps we should measure what the universities are doing about it? Are we trying hard enough to work with all groups? Do we make the effort or just say, "its all up to them"?

OK, I see your finger pointed at me. I see many students here in my Kampus Sejahtera office. All shapes and sizes and colours. They tend to clique amongst their own races, which is fine. Do I try to make them work across races. I do, I do - but I make it a point not to compel. I try to create opportunities for them to be together. But it's tough. Ah, I heard that the student department was more successful this year in getting more Chinese and Indian students volunteers for the new students orientation programme. Making the effort is the first step.

And green chemistry? I had my simple lunch with two graduating chemists. Naturally I instigated them. Can USM focus entirely on green chemistry? For instance, we should only fund research and research fellowships (for post-grads) if they work on green, natural chemicals - nothing synthetic? It is the synthetic chemicals which are the major culprits of environmental pollution and health hazards. The response was intriguing. It we want to push our world ranking up, the fastest (or only) way to is to continue supporting synthetic chemistry (and the School of Chemical Sciences is one of the high flyers in publications) because it would take too long for green chemistry to get published. Why, you ask? Well, green means either we work on natural chemicals or we only invent chemicals which have no harmful impacts. That means we would have to subject it to rigorous and time-consuming life-cycle assessment. And most of the time we can't even tell how the chemical is going to be used in real life. Just look at plastics and polystyrene. The genius as DOW Chemical invented polystyrene but I am sure they didn't think about it becoming The White Coffin (or did they?). Talking of which I was at the Adventist Hospital in Penang to visit a pair of twins and found out that the hospital uses polystyrene containers for its patients. As I was leaving, I noticed a newspaper clipping in the lift proclaiming that polystyrence containers are safe for use. Hey, will someone tell them that it's the styrene that should worry about. Do they know styrene can migrate through the food? Do they know styrene is toxic (poisonous)? BTW, if you are having normal delivery it will cost RM2,000 - RM3,000 but a pair of twins will dig a big hole in your pockets (about RM10,000). For that kind of fees, don't they treat their patients with more tender loving care, instead of feeding them poisons? Yah, yah, I know, its a safe level of toxin. What kind of medical thinking is that?

Well, back to green chemistry. So, should USM as a sustainability-led university set a long-term target (maybe 20 years?) of focussing only on green chemistry?

1 comment:

Vanessa Granville, representing the Styrene Information and Research Center said...

Styrene occurs naturally in many foods including strawberries, beef, coffee and cinnamon and there is no cause for concern for the general public from exposure to styrene from styrene in foods or styrenic materials used in food-contact applications, such as polystyrene packaging and foodservice containers. In fact, polystyrene foodservice has contributed significantly to safe foods for consumers for more than 50 years and many health organizations endorse single-use foodservice products made from polystyrene because they lessen food-borne illness in hospitals, schools, nursing homes and cafeterias.

Both foam and solid polystyrene foodservice products have been tested extensively and deemed safe for consumer use by reputable government agencies. Since the 1990s, the polystyrene industry has conducted tests to measure the migration of styrene from food-contact styrenic plastics; the results have shown that these very low styrene levels pose no health concern. Specifically, the tests showed that the estimated daily exposure to styrene from polystyrene food-contact articles was 10,000 times safer than it needed to be.

For more information regarding the safety of styrene and styrene products, please refer to the Styrene Information and Research Center Website at