Good chemicals, bad chemicals, everything is chemical: the cry of the lonely chemist

The UK’s Sense about Science folks (first mentioned here in an Aug. 9, 2012 posting) have launched (today, May 19, 2014) a campaign/book, Making Sense of Chemical Stories with an eye catching and thought provoking poster,

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That’s right, pears contain formaldehyde. (BTW, A courgette in Canada and the US is commonly known as a zucchini.) The poster accompanies a book, Making Sense of Chemical Stories, and is referenced in a passionate Guardian science blogs May 19, 2014 posting by chemist, Mark Lorch (Note: Links have been removed),

Chemicals are bad, right? Otherwise why would so many purveyors of all things healthy proudly proclaim their products to be “chemical-free” and why would phrases such as “it’s chock full of chemicals” be so commonly used to imply something is unnatural and therefore inherently dangerous?

On one level these phrases are meaningless – after all, chemicals are everywhere, in everything. From the air that we breathe to the pills we pop, it’s all chemicals. Conversely, many would argue (the Advertising Standards Agency included) that we all know perfectly well what “chemical-free” means and those who rail against the absurdity of the phrase are just being pedantic.

… The point is that every time anti-chemical slogans are used people are being misinformed. The implication is always that the terms “chemical” and “poison” are interchangeable. This is a perception that permeates our subconscious to the extent that chemists themselves have been guilty of exactly the same lazy language.

As a result of this common usage of “chemicals” the whole subject has been tainted with unpleasant connotations. And while physics and biology have their celebrity scientists extolling the wonders of bosons, bugs and big bangs, chemists are left floundering in their wake or are left completely unrepresented in the mainstream media (where’s the Guardian’s chemistry blog?).

Lorch makes a good point when he notes that biologists and physicists get more attention. Frankly, I’d add mathematicians and, possibly, engineers to the list of those with better outreach programmes.

Here’s more about the book, Making Sense of Chemical Stories, from its webpage on the Sense about Science website (Note: Links have been removed),

The new edition of our public guide, Making Sense of Chemical Stories, was published by Sense About Science today with support from Royal Society of Chemistry.

People are still being misled by chemical myths. This needs to stop. We urge everyone to stop repeating misconceptions about chemicals. The presence of a chemical isn’t a reason for alarm. The effect of a chemical depends on the dose.

In lifestyle commentary, chemicals are presented as something that can be avoided, or eliminated using special socks, soaps or diets, and that cause only harm to health and damage to the environment.

The public guide flags up the more serious misconceptions that exist around chemicals and suggests straightforward ways for people to evaluate them.

People needn’t be scared by chemical stories. The reality boils down to six points:

You can’t lead a chemical-free life
Natural isn’t always good for you and man-made chemicals are not inherently dangerous
Synthetic chemicals are not causing many cancers and other diseases
‘Detox’ is a marketing myth
We need man-made chemicals
We are not just subjects in an unregulated, uncontrolled environment, there are checks in place

The poster was designed by Compound Interest (from the About page),

‘Compound Interest’ is a blog by a graduate chemist & teacher in the UK, creating graphics looking at the chemistry and chemical reactions we come across on a day-to-day basis.

I found a few tidbits in their May 19, 2014 post which describes a (new to me) condition and which highlights one of the other graphics Compound Interest has created for the Making Sense of Chemical Stories book/campaign,

The term ‘chemophobia’ has been used on social media amongst chemists with increasing regularity over the past year. Defined as ‘a fear of chemicals’, more specifically it refers to the growing tendency for the public to be suspicious and critical of the presence of any man-made (synthetic) chemicals in foods or products that they make use of.

I think this campaign/book is a good reminder to check our assumptions even for those of us (moi) who fancy ourselves as being thoughtful, critical readers. I got my first reminder (comeuppance) earlier this year in a Jan. 26, 2014 article by Melinda Wenner Mayer for (Note: Links have been removed),

I want to start off by saying that this column is not about whether organic agriculture is worth supporting for its environmental benefits (I think it is) or whether we as a society should care about the chemicals found in our foods and household products (I think we should).

So let’s focus on that other major claim about organic food—that is it’s healthier, particularly for kids, because it contains fewer pesticides. First, let’s start with the fact that organic does not mean pesticide-free. As scientist and writer Christie Wilcox explains in several eye-opening blog posts over at Scientific American, organic farmers can and often do use pesticides. The difference is that conventional farmers are allowed to use synthetic pesticides, whereas organic farmers are (mostly) limited to “natural” ones, chosen primarily because they break down easily in the environment and are less likely to pollute land and water. (I say “mostly” because several synthetic chemicals are approved for use in organic farming, too.)

The assumption, of course, is that these natural pesticides are safer than the synthetic ones. Many of them are, but there are some notable exceptions. Rotenone, a pesticide allowed in organic farming, is far more toxic by weight than many synthetic pesticides. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency sets exposure limits for the amount of a chemical that individuals (including kids) can be exposed to per day without any adverse effects. For Rotenone, the EPA has determined that people should be exposed to no more than 0.004 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. Let’s compare this toxicity to that of some commonly used synthetic pesticides, like the organophosphate pesticide Malathion. The nonprofit Pesticide Action Network calls organophosphates “some of the most common and most toxic insecticides used today.” (Sarin, the nerve gas used in two Japanese terrorist attacks in the 1990s, is a potent organophosphate.) Yet the EPA has deemed it safe, based on animal tests, for humans to be exposed to 0.02 milligrams of Malathion per kilogram of body weight per day. This is five times more than the amount deemed safe for Rotenone. In other words, by weight, the natural pesticide Rotenone is considered five times more harmful than synthetic pesticide Malathion. [emphasis mine]


Following through logically, one wants to know what dosages of Rotenone are used in farming and how much of that is later found in one’s fruits and vegetables. Getting back to where this post began, ‘The Dose Makes the Poison’.

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