A Canary in a Coal Mine 



Simonetta Morelli wanted to chirp like a benighted canary in a threatened coal mine. Her message was bitter with truth and therefore in danger of being ignored. So with the patient-friendly astuteness of her years as a plastic surgeon she chose her venue with care. It had to be a place where severe science would be tempered with the familiar and offer the consolations of everyday life lived in measured tranquillity. She called the Berkeley Circle together in the venerable Cavalino home of Hilda and Nando Coppola. That was not the only way Simonetta prepared the Circle for the bad news she had to tell them. She began in a light-mannered and very personal way.  She told how her own intolerance to certain chemical substances had played havoc with her life, making for onerous domestic arrangements and calling for never-ending caution.

Allergies, she pointed out, were one thing and very serious indeed. Susceptible victims could be suddenly floored by the presence of a substance noxious to them that they had not managed to avoid. The shock could threaten their lives. Intolerance was a very different kettle of wheezing fish. It provoked a range of reactions going from simple discomfort to life disrupting conditions that left victims flat on their backs. Simonetta pointed out that the number of people affected by chemical additives to household products was limitless. In fact, the health of all of us, each and every one, was adversely affected. However, bad luck meant that some people, such as Simonetta herself, were much more vulnerable than others. 

Her advice was for us to not only read the small print on the items we brought home from the supermarket but to beware of the marketeers verbal trickery. For instance, a product could be boast of being “sugar free” but have to admit in its endless list of additives that it contained “artificial sweetener". Simonetta’s intolerance of scent and perfume had motivated her to make an enquiry at one of the most illustrious perfumery houses. Were any of their heavenly mixtures free of chemical top-ups? The answer was a truthful, “none”. Simonetta pointed out that such clarity was not always so easy to obtain. What, for example, did the label “organic” actually mean? A product could be fresh from pristine fields and still be bathed in chemicals before it got to market. You bought a bottle of “pure” alcohol for cleaning purposes and found the chemical added to make it undrinkable sent you to bed gasping for air.

Simonetta concluded by dipping into science proper. We learnt that musk, a natural product, has been synthesised in ever increasing quantities since the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The fact that the chemical version is to some degree toxic hasn’t curtailed its use. We encounter it as an additive not only in perfume but in a variety of familiar items such as aftershave and fabric softeners. The substance does not degrade easily and traces have appeared in surface water, edible fish and mothers’ milk. It was a somber note to finish on, but tempered by our energetic speaker’s spirited encouragement to keep scrutinising the very small print.

Peter Byrne

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