In my early days in Spain I owned a little land and immediately found I was at war with weeds and insects. To keep down the fleas and ticks, the local vet hooked me up with a chemical that I needed to spray "all over everything", warning me not to get any on the dog, cats chickens or pigeons. I can't remember what it was called but it smelt awful and I had to wear a mask to avoid breathing it in.
The farmers were always recommending sprays as well. My apricot leaves started to curl-up one day and I made the mistake of taking a sample into a bar frequented by local farmers and asking their advice. Never do this! I nearly started WW3 as arguments raged about the best plan of attack. Again, I was steered towards various chemical sprays for bugs and fungi, each one of which smelt stronger than the last. I read the contents of one of these and found it contained chemicals that were banned in many countries of the EU and beyond. Eventually it was removed from sale in Spain but not until I'd been using it for a few years. In anticipation of the ban my farmer friends told me they had stock-piled quantities so that they would be able to continue using it for years to come. Such was the dangerous nature of the stuff, I erected a steel cabinet in my shed and kept everything under lock and key in case a visiting child had an urge to play with my 'chemistry set'.
I'd always eaten apple skins prior to coming to Spain. Then one day I was having lunch with a farmer who had lots of fruit trees of various types. He started to peel an apple and I mentioned that I generally eat the skins. He didn't have to say anything. He just wagged a negative finger and mimed a spraying action. I got the message. Clearly as a fruit grower he doesn't eat the skins because of the chemicals which land on there!
I had flu one day back then and a Spanish friend laughed when I told him I was taking Frenadol, the sort of Beacham's powder they sell as a cold remedy over here.
"That stuff is rubbish, you want to get some Algidol" he said as he pulled out a pen and wrote down the name for me. So I bought so Algidol over the counter in the chemists and sure enough it dried my nose up a treat. The list of ingredients on the packet included 'codeine phosphate' an opioid analgesic, which would require a doctors prescription anywhere else but Spain. Back then it was possible to get antibiotics over the counter too, and high strength 600mg Ibuprofen, though recent tightening of the regulations here are causing pharmacies to stop selling them.
You can see a theme arising here. Spain does have regulations for the sale and distribution for chemicals but they always seem to be lagging behind other countries, or sometimes ignored altogether.
Hardware stores (Ferreterias) and even general supermarkets in Spain sell a dizzying array of chemical products in concentrations and quantities that shocked me when I moved over here. Back in blighty where I'd lived for forty years I'd seen many dangerous chemicals removed from sale, diluted to reduce their potential to cause death, or sold in 'child proof' containers so difficult to open that they challenge even the most ingenious of adults. Not so in Spain. My local Dia supermarket sells bleach in large yellow bottles with a red screw-cap which is not child-proof or even sealed. Rather than being on shelves out of harms way, the bottles are stocked on the floor at exactly the right height to provide an inviting challenge to an inquisitive toddler.
This article was prompted by a Facebook post in which several chemicals got a mention. The first one people generally seem to encounter when they first come to Spain is 'Agua Fuerte' which is sold in all supermarkets as a cleaning product. At first glance it translates as 'strong water ' though you would be in for an unpleasant surprise if you tried to drink some, as it is in fact Hydrochloric acid. It is quite popular here, probably because most of the water here is very hard, so the acid works well attacking tiles and surfaces that are stained with calcium. I used to drain my pool once a year and sweep it through with 10 litres of the stuff to get rid of the limescale.
Much stronger products are sold in the supermarkets for the purposes of cleaning drains. Sulphuric acid in a frighteningly high concentration is available as a drain cleaner but it will also melt the metal drain in your sink or shower so has to be used with great care by someone who really know what they're doing. Caustic soda is also sold as a drain cleaner here. It sounds like something you would put in your washing but in fact it is a powerful alkali. A bar owner I once knew used it to clean a blocked toilet, which subsequently blew back in his face causing some nasty burns.
Recently I was working with epoxy resin, to resurface the fretboard of my bass guitar. I was advised that for cleaning, the best solvent to use was acetone, the essential chemical component in nail varnish remover. I thought I'd seen it in the hardware store so I trotted down there and had a word with the owner. He disappeared behind the counter and returned with a litre bottle of the stuff which, unusually did have a child-proof cap and several worrying warning signs hinting at fire and explosions. I knew little about acetone, so I asked my friend Google. I was surprised what a versatile and nasty chemical it is. The first Youtube video showed a chap with a five litre bottle of bleach into which he injected 100ml of acetone. He did nothing more than leave it to settle overnight. The next day there was a liquid layer at the bottom of the bottle which was neat chloroform! This is clearly powerful stuff!
My local Mercadona supermarket sells a product for cleaning glass in ovens and log burners. A friend recommended this but also issued a warning to be careful using it as it was nasty stuff. I read the small-print on the back and it contains hydrogen peroxide, but ten times stronger than you would use to lighten your hair! It's rocket fuel! Dye your locks with this stuff and you'll wake up bald as a coot in the morning! Again on a Youtube video, I found that this over-the-counter chemical mixed with the right quality of acetone leaves a solid residue that looks like salt. It is in fact acetone peroxide a.k.a 'The Mother of Satan' which came to fame when it was used in a failed suicide bombing attempt by the shoe-bomber Richard Reid in 2001.
Doubtless all these strong chemicals can be sourced in other countries but it seems much easier to find them here and Spain. The topic of the original Facebook post which inspired this article was a government warning about the danger of mixing cleaning products. As you can see from the above, this is advice really worth listening to.