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Synthetic versus Natural: the Ongoing Debate

 width=Up until the middle of the 19th century, everything was natural and nothing was synthetic. The world was probably better off without synthetics but of course novelty and new are always exciting and when a vast array of synthetic materials hit the market place in the early to mid twentieth century, they caused great interest and enthusiasm that lasted for many decades.

A nostalgic and more healthy return to many natural versions

Synthetics cover a wide range including manufacturing processes such as plastic; fabrics of every type; drugs and pharmaceuticals as well as additives to food products such as artificial colorings and flavorings. Even food itself can become synthetic – think of processed foods and GMOs. The first truly synthetic plastic was invented in 1905 by Leo Baekeland - a very successful Belgium chemist living in New York. He found that when he combined formaldehyde and phenol, he produced a material that bound all types of powders together which he called Bakelite - after himself - and it was the first thermosetting plastic in the world. Many early bakelite objects have become collector's items today. Bakelite had many uses but particularly 78 rpm records and telephones.

New plastics were invented - Neoprene in 1932, Polythene in 1933 and Perspex in 1934

Nylon, the first and “wonder” fiber appeared in the US just in time for World War 11 when it became famous for women's nylon stockings (replacing silk) but was also used by the military for gearing wheels in vehicles, parachute cords and more. Meanwhile, plane cockpits were made of Perspex, polythene was used in insulating radar and plastic to make synthetic rubber for tyres. More modern plastics include Teflon for non-stick cookware, Lycra famous for sports wear and Dacron which is the crease and rot-resistant material used in sailing and tents. All these have a background that stems from the work done by Baekeland and his Bakelite.

Many problems with synthetics both for the environment and our health

Plastics versus glass and other more natural elements Glass has been around for centuries, is safe, non toxic and easy to recycle. Plastic is mainly derived from fossil fuels, can have nasty additives that can leach into our bodies and is less recyclable in many cases. But glass, aluminum, steel and plastics all have a use in the right place and time. When you are buying food and beverages, consider how far they have to travel. If you can buy local, then glass containers are best especially if they can keep on being re-used while a long distance to travel could mean a plastic container would be less of a strain on the environment. However, your main effort should be to reduce, reuse, recapture and recycle everything you can as well as buying local and with the least amount of packaging. Teflon has its own set of disadvantages. Although this coating on pans has revolutionized how we cook, if the Teflon is burned or flaking it could be adding perfluorooctanoic acid, which is a toxin, to your food. It has been reported in the US that traces of Teflon had been found in 100% of breast milk tested. Fumes given off by a hot Teflon pan can be lethal to caged birds in the same room although Teflon are quick to point out that cooking fumes from any type of unattended or overheated cookware (not just non-stick) can damage a bird’s lungs with alarming speed. They add that their non-stick coatings will not begin to deteriorate in appearance or performance until the temperature of the cookware reaches about 500°F. Synthetic fibers versus natural fibers - our skin is particularly sensitive and certain skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis or eczema will be aggravated by wearing and sleeping in synthetic fabrics. Our skin is also affected by the products we use on it – many of which can also be synthetic. Natural clothing worn next to the skin is kinder than other material. Bed linens and towels should be pure cotton too. Avoid all synthetic or itchy fabrics as well as tight or ill fitting clothing. When you have a skin condition, even labels on clothing can be a source of irritation. You can introduce a more natural element to your home by changing to natural fibers for your clothing, bed linen and even upholstery. A new baby in the family might be the perfect opportunity for change as you can plan and broadcast that you want to grow a natural baby, ensuring that any baby gifts given to you by kind family and friends will be gifts you can use. There are plenty of natural baby products on the market today so there is no lack of choice. Top of the list can be natural fiber, biodegradable or re-usable diapers; pure cotton linen, clothing and mattress covers for the nursery; sheepskin, wool or cotton to cover synthetic car seats; and of course beautiful long lasting wooden toys. Synthetic and chemical pharmaceuticals versus natural remedies - modern but synthetic medicine has made incredible advances in the treatment of many diseases, especially those caused by viruses and bacteria with many diseases having been wiped out or others rendered harmless. While synthetic drugs act faster and can be effective in some cases, they have many drawbacks and even very serious side effects. Many people prefer natural medicine and remedies. Prescription pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter medications are mostly metabolized by the liver. This means that taking for example regular, small doses of painkillers could cause drug-induced liver disease and failure. It is safer to look for a natural alternative for treating any condition rather than going the pharmaceutical route unless your condition is obviously life threatening. For example, each and every essential oil has a host of healing properties for different conditions. The pharmaceutical industry was actually founded on natural remedies like willow bark (the active ingredient in aspirin), foxglove (the active component in digitalis) and opium poppy (the key ingredient in codeine). For thousands of years our ancestors cured themselves with natural remedies literally collected from the woods. Artificial aromas versus natural aromas - aromas can boost your mood and enhance your spirit but not if you turn to artificial fragrances which can actually be quite toxic and unhealthy. Look out for natural fragrances – there are many different options including the use of essential oils. Jasmine and lavender are particularly recommended for uplifting the mood and lowering any anxiety or stress levels. Fresh flowers always lift the spirit but don’t forget lovely natural aromas in your kitchen – the smell of home baking or the use of vanilla, cinnamon or spices from your pantry cupboard. There is also nothing to beat the smell of fresh air. Don’t let you home become musty and stuffy because no one ever opens a window. That can be the cause of really bad air pollution. Artificial colorings versus natural colorings - countries other than the US are much stricter about the use of artificial colorings in food and as a result Kellogg, Kraft, McDonald’s and other American companies that do business in Europe and elsewhere have had to change to safe, natural colorings for the European market. It is a great pity that they have neither the conscience nor the legislation to change their ways in the US where they still use the same harmful and synthetic petrochemicals in the artificial food colorings added to food for the American public - cereals to cough medicines and everything else in between. Of course there are many synthetics that have their place in our lives and do the job best. But for the most part, perhaps we should go the nostalgic route and use what our great grandmothers would have used – natural rather than synthetic. Sources: http://www.squidoo.com/natural-vs-synthetic-medicine http://www.ourstolenfuture.org/newscience/phytoestrogens/phyto.htm