I saw on a board the other day someone referring to insecticide as "薬", which doesn't really fit with the English conception of "medicine". I looked up "薬" in Kenkyuusha, and sure enough, "chemical" was listed as a meaning (along with "enamel", which is just weird if you ask me, but anyway . . .). My question is, how broadly does the "chemical" sense apply in normal usage? For example, would an adhesive,a cleanser, or a solvent be classed as "薬"? Additionally, are there other senses which might surprise an English speaker?
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If you pronounce it くすり, then it basically exclusively refers to something that will have a positive effect on living beings (primarily therapeutic but also in a more lax manner). In a strict sense くすり will be material, but it can also be used as a metaphor:
Metaphorically, it can be applied to non-living things as well, but it must have an positive effect: 日本経済に処方するくすりとなるか？
When it's pronounced やく, it's basically exclusively used in conjunction with other kanji, as in 薬品、爆薬、薬量、薬価 etc. etc. Here it can more broadly refer to chemicals. If you are a chemist, a cleaner may well be a 薬品. If you are a layperson, to call an ordinal cleaner "薬品" sounds a bit odd. If it's some kind of an potent, special cleaning agent or something, then ppl use 薬品. I guess that's similar to English.
You might hear the word "ヤク", which I believe comes from 薬. This is exclusively a slang for entertaining drugs (basically illegal drugs).
I was surprised at how it is used in relation to explosives: