School chemistry notes: How chemical and pharmaceuticals affect our lives

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8. Products of the Chemical & Pharmaceutical Industries and their Impact on Us

(Suitable for AQA, Edexcel and OCR GCSE chemistry students)

Sub-index for this page

8.1 What do the chemical and pharmaceutical industries make for us?

8.2 Scale of production and What does the chemical industry in the UK consist of?

8.3 Developing products in the pharmaceutical industry and NEW chemical products

8.4 The impact on the environment of using chemicals

8.5 Government Regulations to protect us and the environment

See also 7. Chemical & Pharmaceutical Industry Economics and Sustainability

and 9. The Principles & Practice of Chemical Production - Synthesising Molecules

7. to 9. are all connected as a survey of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, lots of overlap

INDEX of selected industrial chemistry sections

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8. Products of the Chemical & Pharmaceutical Industries & Impact on Us

8.1 What do the chemical and pharmaceutical industries make for us?

Well, rather a lot! The number of useful products produced can be observed by merely looking round your own home, but, this applies mainly to the developed world with all its readily available consumer products and all developed by chemists.

Most of the products you come across in the home have to researched, formulated and tested by companies to meet the various health and safety regulations, but note any hazard warning symbols on some chemical products e.g. powerful cleaning agents for the toilet.

Examples of the thousands of products that are available to us in the developed world, many would be described as consumer products ...

Drugs e.g. analgesics for headaches like aspirin and paracetamol, blood pressure reduction tablets, stomach powders,

See Keeping healthy - defence against pathogens, infectious diseases, vaccination, drugs, monoclonal antibodies

Food supplements and additives e.g. vitamin tablets, food flavourings, food colourings, preservatives

Cleaning products and disinfectants e.g. oven cleaner, toilet cleaner bleach, washing-up liquid, washing powders, soap, household ammonia,

DIY products e.g. glues, paints and their pigments,

Clothing industry e.g. dyes, fabric fibres

Cosmetics etc. e.g. perfumes, fragrances, hand creams

Agricultural industry e.g. fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides,

Electrical goods e.g. plastic casing structure of TV, computers, kettles, plug and socket casings, copper wire,

Fuels e.g. petrol, diesel, central heating oil, paraffin - all from the petrochemical industry utilising crude oil

Industrial chemicals produced in large quantities to be converted into useful products e.g. ethene from cracking oil fractions to make polymers, sulfuric acid for fertilisers, ammonia to make fertilisers and nitric acid, hydrogen, chlorine and sodium hydroxide from the electrolysis of brine (the last three form the basis of the chlor-alkali industry)..

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8.2 Scale of production and What does the chemical industry in the UK consist of?

Some chemical products are produced on a large scale ('bulk chemicals'), but not necessarily of high value per 'unit'. A million tonnes of sulfuric acid may be produced, along with large quantities of ammonia and sodium hydroxide but its still only in the 2% by value of the UK's chemical economy (see pie chart).

Some chemicals are produced on a small scale, but despite the low volume output, they are often of high value and essential products e.g. for the pharmaceutical industry. They are called 'fine chemicals' and include drugs, food additives, perfumes,

Shown in the pie chart is the UK chemical industry sector shares of gross value for 2005 from somewhere on the internet?

I couldn't find any more recent data than 2005, so how different it is in 2013, I've no idea!

Its worth noting that ...

44% of the chemical economy is linked to the pharmaceutical industry,

11% for soap, detergents and cosmetics, nearly twice that for plastics!

Fertilisers 1%, and agrochemicals (herbicides and insecticides) 2%, are actually quite small

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8.3 Developing products in the pharmaceutical industry and NEW chemical products

The drugs developed and produced by the pharmaceutical industry are often very costly in the making for several reasons

You have to carry out a lot of research and development to find a suitable compound that performs an effective medical treatment for some condition e.g. to reduce blood pressure, kills cancer cells, slows down the development of dementia

The compound must be tested, often modified and retested.

All drugs must be fully tested in trials including animal trials (controversial) and human trials and this all takes time and money.

Until a drug has fully passed all safety and effectiveness tests it cannot be marketed and sold to medical institutions from hospitals to high street pharmacies etc. The manufacturer must prove that any pharmaceutical product like a drug does meet all legal requirements that it does actually work and is safe to use.

See Keeping healthy - defence against infectious diseases, vaccination, drugs

Most drugs are manufactured in a multi-step batch process that is costly because it is labour intensive and can't be automated in a continuous process (see Chemical economics of processes for more details).

Apart from the additive energy costs, drugs tend to be manufactured from expensive raw materials, some of which may be quite rare from natural plant resources and costly to extract in a batch process. (see plant material extraction experiment).


Whenever any new chemical products are made after the research and development stage, they must be tested for any potential health and safety issue. It doesn't matter whether its a bulk chemical for the chemical industry itself, or a fine chemical like a domestic cleaning agent.

In the product development stage, which can be costly and time consuming, the optimum conditions for carrying out the reaction must be worked out e.g. the best temperature, pressure, concentration and catalyst which involves a lot of trial and error.

A considerable amount of work goes into catalyst development because they speed up the reaction and sometimes the reaction will not occur without the presence of a catalyst. The better the developed catalyst the more it can facilitate a faster more efficient safe reaction at lower pressures or temperatures saving engineering and energy costs.

Most modern continuous chemical processes will be computer modelled and the model becomes more effective as more experimental data can be fed into it.

You would also monitor the yield and quality of the product for each set of reaction conditions or new catalyst used in the experimental trial runs of a small scale version of the large chemical plant that would be used for mass production.

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8.4 The impact on the environment of using chemicals

The huge list of uses at the top of the page is testament to the value we place on our life-style based on the products of the chemical industry. Whatever the problems, and some are outlined below, we derive great benefits from the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, not least its contribution to our health and lifestyle. Perhaps in some ways we have become a bit too dependant on them?

However, we should all be aware there are health, safety and environmental issues that need consideration. I'll defend the products of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries having worked in them, taught chemistry and benefited from their products, but I'm no apologist for them, there are situations which are not as they should be.

Agrochemicals are used a lot to increase crop yields by killing off insects, weeds and moulds etc. Many toxic chemicals that do not readily breakdown, so, if they get into the environment, they stick around for quite some time. both on land and in water e.g. getting washed into steams, rivers and lakes. It may be due to a chemical factory fumes or a spillage, but we do apply lots of agrochemicals directly onto the land, so pollution results from over-use or careless spraying or spreading. Unfortunately, they then, somewhat indirectly enter the food chains of animals. Therefore harmful-toxic chemicals can become more concentrated in animals further up the food chain and even enter our own bodies. There are other more 'global' problems from using chemicals and allowing them to escape into the environment e.g. the depletion of the ozone layer (see Ozone, CFC's). Some examples ...

(a) Pesticides - Insecticides

To increase fruit, crop or vegetables yields, pesticide insecticides are sprayed on crops to kill insects and other creatures that may damage them. They tend to be toxic to other animals too and so if other animals eat contaminated animals, the insecticide can be passed down the food chain, potentially harming the health of any animal en-route. Ideally, any insecticide should breakdown relatively rapidly after its done its job, so no contamination is left in the soil or any residual edible material.

One of classic tragedies of using a pesticide is the case of the chlorinated aromatic hydrocarbon called DDT. DDT was widely used in the 1960s as something of a 'blanket' pesticide, if moves on the plant 'kill it'! DDT is a very stable chemical and the result was many contaminated food chains, both on land and in water, so top predators in particular suffered poisoning effects and declined in population numbers e.g. birds of prey and otters. Once the problem was recognised, and it took some time!, the use of DDT is now banned in many countries, but not all!

As you go up the food chain the amount of DDT in the organism increases as does the mass of an individual organism and it is this accumulation that causes the poisoning effect.

1. Lots butterflies are eaten by little birds, and little birds are eaten by birds of prey who suffer the greatest poisoning effect.

2. Tadpoles eat lots of weeds or tiny plants, water beetles eat tadpoles, fish eat aquatic insects and otters eat lots of fish. This food chain can start with little fish eating tiny plants, then they get eaten by bigger predatory fish, and the result poisoned otters.

(b) Herbicides and fungicides

Crop yields of e.g. grain, are sprayed with herbicides to kill weeds competing for soil nutrients (both natural and artificial). Fungicides are applied to growing crops to stop the growth of damaging moulds. Both are likely to be poisonous to animals too, with the same polluting effect as described above for insecticides. Hopefully, quickly degradable or biodegradable chemical insecticides or herbicides will always be used, but, are they? I doubt it!

(c) PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls)

PCBs have been used as plasticizers to make polymers more flexible when used in various plastic applications. They were used in polymers like PVC which can be quite stiff without a plasticiser. Unfortunately, they can leach out of plastic materials into aquatic environments and enter the food chains with similar poisoning effects as DDT etc. and building up concentrations in fish and us! The manufacture of PCBs is now banned in many countries, but plastic materials may still contain them and end up in land-fill sites!

(d) Washing up liquids and washing powders

These sort of cleansing agents contain several chemicals with the potential for environmental harm. They can contain phosphates which are important plant nutrients, so if they get into streams, rivers or lakes they can contribute to eutrophication - overgrowth of aquatic plant weed that ultimately kills most like in the water (see Fertilisers-environmental problems)

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8.5 Government Regulations to protect us and the environment

The production and use of chemical and pharmaceutical products is strictly regulated (in theory!) by government legislation. These detailed and strict controls are for the protection of the general public and the well-being of the environment with all its complex ecosystems of plants and animals.

hazard signs

Examples of using chemicals

All hazardous chemicals, however unlikely an accident, must be labelled with the appropriate hazard warning symbol. These hazard signs give you some idea of how to handle the chemical concerned whether in the factory, laboratory or in the home.

All dangerous chemicals e.g. toxic must be stored in a secure locked cabinets, flammable liquids in well-ventilated storerooms. Chemical storage is a serious matter and not to be taken lightly.

When chemicals are being transported by rail or road, the containers must be secure and suitably labelled with the correct hazard signs. This is particularly important in the case of an accident leading to spillage or fire. Such containers carry identification numbers to help the emergency services deal as safely as possible with the situation - containment of spillage, safety of personnel e.g. wearing appropriate protective clothing etc.

Agrochemicals should be applied to fields within government regulations specifying the amounts that can be spread per area of land - per acre or hectare. If the agrochemical poses a hazard to the public, then warning signs should clearly be displayed.

Where next?

Index of selected pages describing industrial processes:

Limestone, lime - uses, thermal decomposition of carbonates, hydroxides and nitrates

Enzymes and Biotechnology 

Contact Process, the importance of sulfuric acid 

How can metals be made more useful? (alloys of Al, Fe, steel etc.)

Instrumental Methods of Chemical Analysis

Chemical & Pharmaceutical Industry Economics & Sustainability and Life Cycle Assessment

Products of the Chemical & Pharmaceutical Industries & impact on us

The Principles & Practice of Chemical Production - Synthesising Molecules  

Ammonia synthesis/uses/fertilisers

Oil Products

Extraction of Metals

Halogens - sodium chloride Electrolysis

Transition Metals

Extra Electrochemistry - electrolysis and cells

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