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from The Textbook Letter, Volume 12, Number 4

Reviewing a high-school book in chemistry

Chemistry in the Community: ChemCom
Fourth edition, 2002. 600 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-7167-3551-2.
Copyrighted by the American Chemical Society (Washington, D.C.). Published by
W.H. Freeman and Company, 41 Madison Avenue, New York City, New York 10010.

It Almost Looks Like a Real Chemistry Textbook

Rollie J. Myers

When I reviewed the third edition of ChemCom, I said that it was interesting but it wasn't a chemistry text. (See The Textbook Letter, Vol. 8, No. 3.) Since then, W.H. Freeman and Company has replaced Kendall/Hunt as the publisher of ChemCom, and the fourth edition shows some very visible changes. The most obvious is the interchanging of the parts of the title: The third edition was called ChemCom: Chemistry in the Community, but this fourth edition is titled Chemistry in the Community: ChemCom. Freeman has also made the book more colorful, and the eleven-page table of contents sparkles with colored headings and full-color photographs.

As before, ChemCom tries to present chemistry by examining "socio-technological" issues that have chemical aspects. The basic outline of the book hasn't been changed much, but a great deal of rewriting has been done, topics have been moved around, and the unit that was titled "Personal Chemistry and Choices" in the third edition has been dropped. That unit started with a discussion of cigarette-smoking, presented some cell biology, then introduced the student to acids and bases. In this fourth edition, the student finds a discussion of acids and bases in the context of acid rain.

Some of this reworking has been very positive and has made the book better, but some of it has not.

The sparkling table of contents shows that each of the seven units in this edition includes two feature articles about "Chemistry at Work." In Unit 1, the first "Chemistry at Work" article is titled "Environmental Cleanup: It's a Dirty Job . . . But That's the Point." Set in the Aleutian Islands, it is focused on an "Environmental Contaminants Specialist" named Wayne Crayton and his participation in scientific investigations that are intended to assess pollution and contamination at sites that formerly were used as military bases or fueling stations. We read that "Wayne and his teammates recommend procedures for removing and treating contaminated soil and other material. In some situations, they decide that the best solution is to do nothing; the cleanup itself could destroy wetlands, disturb endangered wildlife, or have other negative effects on the environment." This article commands two pages, and it is presented as two blocks of text and pictures that have been placed against a very attractive background of rippling water.

It is really quite amazing that the ChemCom writers' example of an environmental program is one that deals with obscure sites where cleanup work may not be necessary or advisable, but this reflects a general characteristic of ChemCom: The book presents an unreal world. There are thousands of locations in this country where cleanup work has taken place or has been scheduled for the future -- most notably the Superfund sites. ChemCom stays clear of these, however, and the term Superfund is absent from the book's index.

A Nice, Imaginary Community

What "Community" is this book trying describe? It is certainly not Bhopal, in India, where in 1984 a release of methyl isocyanate from a chemical plant operated by an affiliate of Union Carbide Corporation killed at least 4,000 people and (according to the Indian government) left some 50,000 people permanently injured and unable to work. It is certainly not Butte, Montana, where much of the old mining community is now a Superfund site that dramatically exemplifies the problem of acid mine drainage, a problem that is common in much of the American West. Within a short walk from the center of Butte, residents and visitors can gaze on the Berkeley Pit -- an open pit, about a mile in diameter, that now is flooded with some 30 billion gallons of mine-drainage water. This water, which stands 700 feet deep above 200 feet of sediment, is very acidic and has 107 ppm of aluminum, 150 ppm of iron, 159 ppm of zinc, 49 ppm of copper and 1 ppm of cadmium, among other things. In 1995, 342 snow geese landed on the pit, and they all died. The water level is rising by 1 foot a month, and students in local schools have been doing science-fair projects that propose treatment schemes. (Formal plans for removing and treating the water are actually in place, but they are not fully operational yet. Educators can get the latest information about the Berkeley Pit by visiting a Web site: http://www.pitwatch.org.)

These cases may be a little extreme, but a text that purports to emphasize socio-technological issues should tell about some real pollution problems besides the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the depletion of the ozone layer.

Instead of telling about real places, ChemCom continues to focus on the nice, imaginary community of Riverwood, whose residents are worried about ionizing radiation, about an industrial plant that would create jobs but would also create pollution, and about the unknown cause of a fish kill in the Snake River, which runs through town. As in earlier editions of ChemCom, an inquiry into the reason for the fish kill becomes an important device for conveying some chemistry to the student, but now it has a new twist: In this new edition, the teacher apparently can manipulate the fish-kill problem to influence the outcome of the investigation. In the earlier editions, there was a standard plot which always led to the conclusion that the fish had died from "gas bubble disease," caused by a harmfully high concentration of dissolved air in the river water.

In some sections of the book, the writers give detailed explanations of chemistry, most particularly organic and polymer chemistry. In other sections, the chemistry is skimpy. For example: While the third edition mentioned both methylmercury and cadmium in the context of the heavy-metal contamination of water, the fourth edition does not. In this edition, cadmium has been tossed out and only the divalent mercury ion is discussed. The dropping of methylmercury is unfortunate, since the formation of methylmercury is an important step in the environmental chemistry of mercury, and it would have offered a fine opportunity to introduce the topic of organometallic chemistry.

Improved Presentation of Experiments

On the positive side, I like very much the new experiment that deals with the solubility of KCl in water, based on a real solubility curve. On the whole, the presentation of experiments has been much improved, and there are four new appendices, covering fifteen pages, which explain subjects such as scientific notation, dimensional analysis, graphs and -- above all -- moles and stoichiometry! This new ChemCom is almost looking like a real chemistry textbook.

The section on automobiles now makes a nice presentation of alternative fuels, including narratives about hydrogen and fuel cells, and the writers also properly summarize the rise and fall of the gasoline additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE). Yet they do a tragically poor job, on pages 200 through 202, when they try to deal with the idea that an automobile wastes energy. They fail to explain that some of this "waste" is unavoidable because a heat engine cannot convert all of its fuel energy into work. Recognition of this fact dates from the early days of the steam engine, when Sadi Carnot (1796-1832) showed that a heat engine which operates in a cycle must waste some fraction of its fuel energy, even in the absence of friction.

The extremely detailed unit about food has been moved toward the end of the book. I suspect that most teachers will not do much with it, because ideas about good and bad foods change almost daily, and many people want to invert their food pyramid completely. The writers do not touch the topic of genetically modified foods, which is a third rail these days.

On the inside of the book's back cover, the periodic table of the elements now shows the modern numbering system, but it still shows the old "A" and "B" designations too.

What teachers would like to use this text? My quest for such a teacher took me to a local upscale high school, where I found one who loves to use ChemCom in classes for students who have to take some science but do not want to take the regular chemistry course. She says that these students appear to like the ChemCom approach, and that the supporting material is quite good.

On the whole, this new edition is much more attractive than the third edition was, and the writers have gone a fair distance toward turning ChemCom into a chemistry book. If I were a high-school chemistry teacher, however, I probably would want to see even more chemistry in my teaching textbook, provided that my students could handle it, and less environmental chitchat.


Rollie J. Myers is a physical chemist, a specialist in spectroscopy, and a professor of chemistry, emeritus, at the University of California at Berkeley. He has taught introductory chemistry at that institution and has directed summer programs for high-school chemistry teachers.

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