"Dr. Ariel Fenster, Chemist of Everyday Life", by Monique Dykstra
Text and photo reproduced with the permission of the author

Do you know how to spot counterfeit money? How sunscreen works? That BHT-- that perplexing chemical in breakfast cereal-- may have anti-ageing properties? That fluoride is actually rat poison? Incidentally, speaking of drinking water, did you know that it can kill you? Polydipsia is a psychological disorder that causes people to drink water continuously. One "addict" was thrown into protective custody because he couldn’t stop drinking. Once the door was locked, however, he immediately ran to the toilet and started drinking.

Anything else you want to know about the world around you? How about a clear- eyed look at genetically modified foods? Estrogen replacement therapy? Food additives? Chemist and teacher Dr. Ariel Fenster can tell you everything you need to know.

"Just last Monday, I was giving a class on cold remedies, and how there are some concerns with using them. Many products contain phenylpropanolamine, or PPA, which can cause strokes, particularly in young women. That night on the news, they reported that the FDA had asked drug companies in the U.S. to stop making products containing PPA."

"My students were so excited! They’d just learned about PPA that day-- in fact, they were ahead of the news."

"That’s when I really enjoy teaching-- when my students say "I read about that in the paper," or "I told my parents what we learned today." At the dinner table, they just can’t stop talking."

"By teaching the chemistry of everyday life, I feel we play an important role in people’s lives. We’re more scared now we’ve ever been because we’re bombarded with information-- too much information."

"Through our courses, we try to provide people with useful information. Balanced information. We want people to understand that everything they do involves risk. We risk death by driving to work in the morning, but we take that risk because we know exactly how dangerous it is. With food, drugs and the environment, people don’t have that same information."

* Dr. Fenster teaches societal chemistry at Vanier College and McGill University.