by Kevin Hoover
Chemicals. The very word bubbles with all sorts of associations. It could trigger memories of a childhood chemistry set, or brutal chemistry exams in college. Maybe you think of environmental disasters such as chemical spills, heinous chemical weapons, or that lengthy list of scientific words in tiny print on your candy bar wrapper.
Are chemicals the life-giving vaccines that eradicate disease, or the junk proffered by the pusherman? Are they the vitamins and nutritional supplements in the "wellness" aisle, or the vile foamy liquids cooked up in chemical weapons labs? Basically, are chemicals friend or foe?
The simple answer is yes. Chemicals are all that and more. Every solid, liquid or gas is composed of chemical substances in various combinations. If it's made of atoms and molecules, it has chemical properties.
The Mona Lisa, mom's apple pie, Buzz Aldrin, the Liberty Bell, chipotle tofu ice cream, hydrogen bombs, your baby's blue eyes and even the brain you're using to process these words - all chemicals.
Chemicals are misunderstood, perhaps because they're so full of contradictions. Their names are hard to say, and some have numbers in them that don't sound very wholesome at all, especially when added to food.
How do we sort out which chemicals are benign and which are deadly?
There are a couple of simple, popular ways: scientific experimentation or blind fear. Or we could go back to blanket acceptance, as in the days of "Better Living Through Chemistry," but that didn't work out quite as planned.
[Clip from "Test Tube Tale," Chevrolet Motor Company, 1941]
We've learned a lot of hard lessons since that era, when dazzling new products and solutions for just about everything that ails us were going to come pouring out of a test tube.
Nowadays, instead of miracle products, chemicals are commonly associated more with toxic waste and environmental pollution, or suspicious additives in food and medicine. The words "toxic" and "chemical" have been used together so much that they may seem synonymous.
Chances are you've seen a Facebook meme of some insalubrious image with block letters blaming "chemikills," or ads for "chemical-free" products and other appeals to chemophobia.
Chemophobia is just what it sounds like: an irrational fear or obsession with chemicals. There's a phobia for almost everything and, like the others, chemophobia takes healthy concern to an irrational level, lumping together all chemicals regardless of quantity or toxicity.
You can blame our general lack of scientific literacy for this and other popular misapprehensions, for example the mythology about vaccines and GMOs, or evolution and climate change.
In all these cases, there are serial misinformers happy to build on the ignorance, fluff up the fear and loathing and pocket the profits.
You have every right to be annoyed, even insulted by someone trying to sell you something that's "chemical-free," whether its food, shampoo or cigarettes.
The marketers are assuming you know little about chemicals and suffer from chemophobia, and maybe, with their help, you do. For those who know something about chemistry, the impossible claims made them willing to put up so the marketers would shut up. In 2008, the British Royal Society of Chemistry offered a £1 million bounty to anyone who could provide it with a chemical-free product, knowing full well that this was impossible and that it would never have to pay.
Woo-workers, the various social media babes and rangers and mommies who demonize chemicals, often sell them under happy hipster names. I don't want to elevate any one brand of snake oil, but just visit the online stores of today's more militant chemophobe-codependent commentators. There you'll discover all manner of costly nostrums, many with the term "detox" or "cleanse" built into their name and all composed of chemicals.
Here we have chemicals marketing chemical-free chemicals to chemicals, based on fear of chemicals.
If you were able to snap your fingers and make all food chemical free, you might want to cover your ears or even take shelter, since food containers everywhere would suddenly enclose a vacuum as perfect as interstellar space. They aren't designed for that, and one can only imagine the imploded, crumpled wreckage that would litter your kitchen and supermarket food aisles everywhere.
The Name Game
In the commercially lucrative alternative reality governed by the Naturalistic Fallacy, there is some unexplained linkage between what you call something and whether or not it's good or bad for you, or even a chemical at all.
"If you can't say it, don't eat it," famously advised food activist Michael Pollan. "Don't buy products with more than five ingredients or any ingredients you can't easily pronounce."
Glib, superficially sensible and easy to remember, this advice isn't just foolish, it's impossible to follow.
Chemical names are as incomprehensible to the layperson as they are sensible to chemists. That's because they're determined by a standard set of rules for nomenclature defined by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry so that chemicals are known by the same names everywhere. This results in multisyllabic terms which may include numbers that sound far removed from everyday life.
The superstar of unpronounceaphobia is our old friend, that deadly dihydrogen monoxide. That DHMO, otherwise known as H20, or water, is dangerous has never been in dispute. DHMO scare websites play it straight, listing the substance's associations with disease, environmental destruction, even terrorism and corporate greed. Big corporations, who know you're hooked on it, make huge profits purveying this hazardous chemical. And as any sailor, submariner, swimmer, skier, surfer or scuba diver knows, DHMO deserves a healthy respect.
DHMO is drenched in comic potential. It's spawned radio DJ hoaxes, fake petition drives and been used to expose scientific ignorance among political candidates.
Beyond the rather repetitive hilarity, DHMO is a fine way to demonstrate how, with scary terms and selective information, a vital, inescapable substance like water can be made out as a toxic chemical - which it can be, but only in the wrong dose, or place, or state, or time.
Should you wish to lower your argumentation standards and challenge the name-gamers on their own terms, you might ask them: if I learn to pronounce it, does that render an ingredient harmless? Do chemicals behave differently in different individuals based on their powers of verbal articulation?
If that witty rejoinder doesn't get you unfriended, you'll likely see the goalposts move. The typical chemophobic fallback position is that synthetic chemicals are the baddies, while natural ones are good to go.
Synthetic vs. natural
The naturalistic fallacy is alive and well - thriving, in fact, in chemophobia world. Cultivated in the fertile soil of scientific illiteracy and nourished with fear, misapprehensions about synthetic and natural chemicals flourish.
Serial misinformers work this rich vein of confusion, marketing products that promise to cleanse one from the effects of toxic, man-made chemicals. Some even suggest that synthetic medicine isn't necessary - that natural food and herbs are sufficient to prevent disease.
As with the pronunciation principle, the synthetic vs. natural proposition is as easy to puncture as it remains persistent.
For example, my town of Arcata, California has a hillside quarry that requires costly federal permits and continuing attention. The rocky field at the edge of a forest is laden with all-natural, gluten- and GMO-free asbestos.
Naturalism claims many well-intentioned victims. Actress and theoretical biochemist Gwyneth Paltrow told Cosmopolitan magazine that "We're human beings and the sun is the sun - how can it be bad for you? I don't think anything that is natural can be bad for you."
Modern medicine, which is clearly in the pocket of Big Sunscreen, dissents from the Paltrow doctrine in holding that naturally induced melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma are, arguably, rather bad for you.
In an ironic twist, as this episode is being prepared, a brand of all-natural, mineral-based sunscreen promoted by another actress, Jessica Alba, is fielding complaints from consumers for being ineffective and letting them and their babies get sunburned.
By the way, the active ingredient in Alba's sunscreen is zinc oxide, a chemical which has some effectiveness as a sun block and is also used in nuclear reactors.
Appeal to Yuckiness
Do you see what I did there? I associated an ingredient with something dangerous. That's a common practice among chemophobes and those who play on their ignorance.
This tactic, which has been called the "Appeal to Yuckiness," is used to great effect by the Internet superstar Vani Hari, AKA the Food Babe. She mounted a campaign against the chemical azodicarbonamide, used in breadmaking, based on the fact that it is also used in rubber production. After a scare campaign against the "yoga mat chemical," the sandwich chain Subway caved and took azodicarbonamide out of its bread.
Another successful, yuckiness-based "quackmail" campaign involved an ingredient used in beer production called Isinglass, the principal argument being that it is derived from fish swim bladders. After a petition drive garnered thousands of signatures, beer manufacturers posted online the ingredient lists Hari had demanded.
In each case, she was playing on gross associations, not the actual benefit or safety of the substance.
The dose makes the poison
Long, long ago, before there was an Internet to propagate misinformation, Paracelsus, who founded the science of toxicology, told us that, "All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison." In other words, the dose makes the poison.
Six centuries later, Paracelsus' axiom has been superseded by the all-knowing Food Babe, who instructs, "There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever."
Some chemicals are so toxic that even small amounts can be harmful. But with common food ingredients like salt, sugar, vitamins and the dreaded dihydrogen monoxide, it's all about how, and how much of them you ingest.
Chemical alarmists know this on some level, even if they don't acknowledge it. Anti-vaccinationist Jenny McCarthy rails against minute amounts of mercury in vaccines, while admittedly using Botox beauty treatments. Botox is made from the Botulinum toxin, an all-natural chemical composition which is the most acutely toxic substance known.
McCarthy and other anti-vaxxers have managed to do something that medical science can't, despite hundreds of scientific studies - and that's to link the vanishingly small amounts of mercury and formaldehyde in some vaccines to that go-to disease for fearmongers, autism.
The few vaccines that still contain trace amounts of fast-dissipating ethyl mercury contain less than half of the more persistent methyl mercury found in a can of tuna.
When a six-year-old child receives a bouquet of vaccines, that might include around 300 micrograms, or millionths of a gram of formaldehyde. If this concerns you, you better stay away from organic pears. Just one of those formaldehyde bombs might contain 12,000 micrograms of the naturally occurring substance - 40 times as much as the vaccines.
Your body even manufactures its own formaldehyde for various essential processes – two to three micrograms per gram of blood.
We do need to know what the toxic and lethal doses are for various chemical substances, and those thresholds are well understood in the world of toxicology.
It's a good thing, too. Too much Tincture of Tenderness transformed Milton the Monster into an obsequious gentlemonster, while Dr. Jekyll's potion, even made according to recipe, brought out the toxic, terrible Mr. Hyde.
It's easy to make light of chemophobia, as the panic is so ill-founded as to be laughable. But Skeptoid is loaded with serious resources for chemical amusement - of the educational variety. What you'll find here and elsewhere is that science doesn't tidily line up with anyone's politics, or care what anyone thinks.
The good news for chemophobes is that 95 percent of the universe isn't chemicals. Dark matter and energy apparently aren't made of standard-issue atoms and molecules, so the universe is almost chemical free.
On Earth, where chemicals abound, most are manageable and many are quite tasty, even lovable. Get to know your friends in the chemical kingdom, following all applicable safe handling practices, particularly with pears.
As Skeptoid's Alison Hudson observed, "You'd be amazed at what's not worth being afraid of."
[Clip from "Test Tube Tale," Chevrolet Motor Company, 1941]
Correction: An earlier version of this erroneously referred to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry as the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics. —BD
By Kevin Hoover
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