On parasites, shampoo and planet Earth


I have been interacting with Dr. Ashish Shah, Environmental Education Expert at Centre for Science and Environment in their Facebook page recently. The discussions turned out to be a wonderful learning experience as he patiently answered my questions in a detailed manner. I thought of sharing those discussions here so that everyone can learn. You can join their Facebook page here, if you wish to take part in the discussion.

Venky: I often hear environmentalists speak about urban denizens living like parasites in planet Earth! Do parasites really behave parasitically or is our perception limited by our understanding of its ecology?


Dr. Ashish Shah: My dear friend,  it is just the way we look at it. Every living being on this planet is a parasite for the environment it lives on. We are also parasites of a more deadly nature. We alter the eco-systems we live on beyond repair. The beings we call parasites have been living in their respective eco-system niches for millions of years without altering the overall balance. Take for example the micro organisms in our guts. They help metabolize food in our intestines and help in extraction of important stuff for our body. Think, how we urban denizens contribute to the distant eco-systems we feed on? In fact we don't, as our consumption patterns are linear and the end result of urban process is destruction of an eco-system the way we have known it. On the other hand natural processes are cyclic. The millions of species in our eco-system help maintain this cyclic nature.
Venky: I read quite a strange article recently in The Hindu about how excess CO2 in our atmosphere is beginning to 'supercharge the food crops' by acting as a fertilizer. It is called as "CO2 Fertilization effect". Can u demystify it for me? This article seems to suggest its okay for us to be the way we are, as our action is becoming beneficial for the environment.
Dr. Ashish Shah: It is natural that the plants benefit from the increase in CO2 in our atmosphere. Simply put, the plants take water and minerals from the land using their roots, take sunlight from the sun using chlorophyll or more precisely the magnesium prophyryn and take CO2 from the atmosphere to make carbohydrates (food) for themselves and for us. An increase in any of these factors will lead to faster growth in plants. If all the three factors increase in proportion, it will give super growth effect in plants. Green houses are one example of using more heat and humidity for plant growth in cold areas. The rain forests all over the world are good example of effect these factors can have on plant growth. The nutrient cycle in rain forests is so optimal that they appear to grow sometimes on pure sand.

On the other hand you can call this effect adaptation also. It is beneficial for us, humans in the short term I guess because the fast plant growth will soon outrun fertility of the soil base since we return nothing to the soil except fertilizers and pesticides which in the long run render the soil base useless. See the green revolution states for example. The fall out of faster plant growth schemes like better seed, use of pesticides, use of artificial fertilizers and irrigation have had tremendous side effects. Now if we use excess CO2 as fertilizer it will also have some side effect later. 
This is the problem with our scientific approach since our idea is to extract maximum for our benefit out of natural systems. The means we use have tremendous side effects on our environment and us in the long run. Name one technology we have developed that has been tested to have no side effect over a period of 500 years. Look all around us there are millions of species working in such diverse ecosystems to produce what supports our species with side effect that does not matter for us since it is over so many thousands of years.
Venky: Thank you for providing an insightful answer. Scientific method is kept in such hallowed portals that it is considered blasphemous to question some of its ideals. For instance the popular scientific tenet, "Average is considered as normal", has such dangerous implications in our life, that to think of its multifarious impacts on our life is mind-boggling. 
For instance, the average duration of pregnancy is considered to be 275 days. When this average is assumed to be the normal criterion for pregnancy, irrespective of the makeup of the individual body, it plays dangerously with the health of the pregnant women.  Isn't it ironical we keep calling pregnant women patients inside hospitals?
Dr. Ashish Shah: You are right! Based on my experience of science I have come to believe that there is a serious problem with scientific approach. Anything that science has produced till now as solution to one or two of our problems has given us more problems than it has solved. We, humans somewhere lost the cause we began studying nature, environment with. In present times, applied science has taken over completely we no longer study anything for the sake of knowledge. 
Our aim is to know nature, environment from the point of view of using it to make our lives more and more comfortable. We want to become immortal and all powerful. There is a serious flaw in the scientific approach (Cartesian). It gets us on a treadmill where we cannot get down. It seems the only way is to go faster and faster!
One wise man said that nature will give us anything we want but simultaneously it will give us things that will render our initial want from it meaningless.
Venky: My 6 year old niece uses ITC's Fiama Di Wills Shower gel. I was surprised to see Sodium Lauryl Sulphate mentioned in the ingredients. I have heard quite often about the harmful effects of Sodium Lauryl Sulphate. In the case of consumer products, which clearly showcase harmful ingredients, what is that we could do to build awareness? 
Although, personally, I wouldn't want to create a big scene out of this. I would rather consciously take my decision for the products I use. I am also eager to know how could awareness be built amongst the common masses who aren't aware about these ingredients in consumer products.
Dr.Ashish Shah: This is a genuine concern. The story of beautiful hair is long. What the shampoo companies do is that they conduct research on people who have beautiful hair. They find out what are the constituents in their hair and the proportion of their combination that makes their hair beautiful. They also research on agents which cause hair damage again by studying people who have damaged hair. The shampoos they produce are of two types: conditioners and shampoos. 
Conditioners are product of first type of research and they are meant to nourish the hair. Shampoos are the second type and they are meant for washing away the damaging agents. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is a compound which is used for cleaning oil, fat and grease. It is there in most detergents. If used in excess quantity or used for a long period of time it could cause skin problems like rashes, dryness and very rarely cancer. Its cousin SDS - Sodium Dodecyl Sulfate is in fact a greater skin irritant but it has never been known to cause cancer. Both these compounds are not dangerous if used within limits.

The more funny part of the story is that all the beauty products are meant to work using mechanisms of our body. Therefore, they work differently in different body types. For example the hair growth and quality a person has at the age of 16 to 25 can never be attained again no matter what you use. You might want to check this video out!
Few lines from the video:
"Why do the makers of these products use these toxics? Are they really trying to poison us?No...They are working on 1950s mindset where people are totally swept up in better living through chemistry. In that excitement, they forgot to worry about human health impact!
Personal Note: I have been using Meera Shikakai shampoo for years. If I look at the ingredients of  the shampoo, it says, it is a surfactant based shampoo. Which surfactant is used in my shampoo? I dont know.  I have mailed the Corporate Communications of Cavin Kare which produces this shampoo asking for details along with the link to this blog.  I shall share their reply once I get an answer.
Do you know which ingredients are present in your shampoo?
Please feel free to share your knowledge, comments et al. 
If you have any query for Dr. Ashish Shah, you can address it here. I shall mail him and share his replies. Or if you wish to mail him directly, you can do so at ashish [at] cseindia [dot] org. He will be happy to answer your questions!

4 comments:

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Venkataraman said...

Comment received from Ram N,blogger from Bangalore through email:
Liked your \\\"On parasites, shampoo and planet Earth\\\" article.
Seriously. Felt happy for tech and management soul to be stretching
wider to accommodate thoughts on environment and sciences that touch our
lives.

Manasi said...

beautiful exchange!.. thanks for sharing

Venkataraman said...

thank you manasi!