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Guest Re-post: “In defense of chemphobia” by Andrew Bissette

Today’s guest re-post comes from Andrew Bissette, who blogs at Behind NMR Lines with co-blogger Emma Hooley. They are the keepers of the popular Twitter hashtag #chemclub, where chemists post and discuss interesting papers from the literature. Originally posted exactly one month ago, Andrew’s musings about chemophobia (or chemphobia as he calls it) are timely this week given the discussion at David Kroll’s blogs both at Forbes and here about chemophobia and the cinnamon challenge.

#chemphobia is a pretty popular topic at the moment, and for good reason. We’re often confronted with examples of people selling ‘chemical-free’ products, or articles scare-mongering about the terrible ‘chemicals’ lurking in everyday life. The anti-vaccine movement often takes this angle, blaming traces of chemicals such as mercury for all kinds of horrible effects they attribute to vaccines.

One typical response to this is the claim that all matter is chemical! or something to that effect, accompanied by much eye-rolling. I see the appeal of this response: in the lab, we don’t typically discriminate between different materials. They’re all chemicals to us. I regularly use water as a solvent and SDS as a catalyst – effectively, I do my reactions in shampoo! In the fume hood next to me, exotic Zr complexes and whiffy ethers are routine. Both of us are chemists, both of us are studying chemical reactions. It seems contrived to declare that, say, gold is not a chemical merely because it is familiar to non-chemists.

Naturally, I’m sympathetic to this response, and I find chemphobia as frustrating as anyone – but I think caution is warranted. However, I think this reaction is too strong and unhelpful. Of course, I am not including in this criticism some of the excellent responses to chemphobia out there – such as this by Michelle Francl. I am aiming specifically at the dismissive “all matter is chemical” response, for two reasons:

Chemphobia is reactive

Look at the history of our profession – from tetraethyl lead to thalidomide to Bhopal – and maintain with a straight face that chemphobia is entirely unwarranted and irrational. Much like mistrust of the medical profession, it is unfortunate and unproductive, but it is in part our own fault. Arrogance and paternalism are still all too common across the sciences, and it’s entirely understandable that sections of the public treat us as villains.

Of course it’s silly to tar every chemical and chemist with the same brush, but from the outside we must appear rather esoteric and monolithic. Chemphobia ought to provoke humility, not eye-rolling. If the public are ignorant of chemistry, it’s our job to engage with them – not to lecture or hand down the Truth, but simply to talk and educate. Given that the audience of this blog is largely composed of people who actively engage with the public, I suspect I’m preaching to the converted here. Regardless: I feel like the “water is a chemical!” response risks falling into condescension.

Material does not equal chemical

As I noted above, a common response to chemphobia is to define “chemicals” as something like “any tangible matter”. From the lab this seems natural, and perhaps it is; in daily life, however, I think it’s at best overstatement and at worst dishonest. Drawing a distinction between substances which we encounter daily and are not harmful under those conditions – obvious things like water and air, kitchen ingredients, or common metals – and the more exotic, concentrated, or synthetic compounds we often deal with is useful. The observation that both groups are made of the same stuff is metaphysically profound but practically trivial for most people. We treat them very differently, and the use of the word “chemical” to draw this distinction is common, useful, and not entirely ignorant. Even Wiktionary agrees.

This definition is of course a little fuzzy at the edges. Not all “chemicals” are synthetic, and plenty of commonly-encountered materials are. Regardless, I think we can very broadly use ‘chemical’ to mean the kinds of matter you find in a lab but not in a kitchen, and I think this is how most people use it.

Crucially, this distinction tends to lead to the notion of chemicals as harmful: bleach is a chemical; it has warning stickers, you keep it under the sink, and you wear gloves when using it. Water isn’t! You drink it, you bathe in it, it falls from the sky. Rightly or wrongly, chemphobia emerges from the common usage of the word ‘chemical’.

Anyway.

Dismissing critics of our profession as ignorant, as fear-mongering, or as having an agenda is essentially a grand ad hominem. It’s a sure way to alienate non-chemists, come across as smug and condescending, and to lose the argument. Defining “chemical” as “all stable matter” is begging the question: of course chemphobia is silly under this definition, but nobody actually uses it! Peddlers of chemphobia rightly reject this.

What about responses along these lines that avoid these traps? I think SeeArrOh’s recent post about dyes is exemplary. Confronted with a case-study in chemphobia, SeeArrOh doesn’t facepalm and groan “idiots”. Instead, he engages directly with the authors. He finds common ground and understands their perspective, attacks the weak logic of the petition, and points out the lack of evidence for toxicity. He doesn’t chastise them for being averse to lab-made chemicals, but simply points out the inconsistency of that position, and the poor analogy between these dyes and gasoline.

Anyway. My two cents. Let the rebuttals commence.

Update: Marc has shared a thoughtful post of his own along similar lines. It and the ChemBark post linked therein are worth reading if (like me) you’ve missed them.

10 Comments

  • Apr 25th 201309:04
    by Matt

    I think that you hit on something really important here. One thing that we chemists assume or play on is the “fact” that chemophobes are ignorant to chemistry. This is very much not true! Ironically, chemophobia is a reaction that is based on some chemical intuition. People are afraid of REACTIVE chemicals. As we chemists would be quick to point out … ALL CHEMICALS ARE REACTIVE. But that’s not necessarily true in all circumstances. In fact, in normal, everyday instances, many chemicals are inert. They are unreactive to other materials in the environment. And, they our bodies also have no response to these materials.

    A while ago I wrote a post on rebranding or remarketing of the chemical-free slogan. Perhaps, in our defense of some molecules and their use, we should support “chemophobes” fear of reactivity (and not just fear of chemicals). And, I think that this support is a not unimportant point. I think that all chemists would agree that creating/using biologically and environmentally inert materials is of extreme importance. This is our common ground. We should exploit that.

  • Apr 25th 201309:04
    by Andrew Bissette

    Thanks for your comment, Matt. I absolutely agree that engaging with “chemophobes”, finding common ground, and encouraging a more nuanced understanding of what it is that makes many chemicals harmful is far more productive. As the post I linked to at the end highlights, this ties into the much broader challenge of engaging with and educating the public about our work.

    Promoting an understanding of how we determine which chemicals are harmful, and how to assess risk, could go a long way to reducing “chemophobia”. Much easier said than done, of course!

    For those playing at home, the post Matt refers to is here: http://sciencegeist.net/my-chemically-fueled-life/

  • Apr 25th 201310:04
    by Carmen Drahl

    Matt- I am not sure the majority of folks who think in chemophobic terms are concerned solely with reactivity. I think it’s impossible to talk about chemophobia without talking about the lack of trust people have in large corporations. “How can I be sure that Company XYZ REALLY makes bottles that are safe for my baby? They only care about the bottom line.” Nick Kristof plays up this fear brilliantly with the “Big Chem” line. It’s why companies that hawk homeopathy or other woo portray themselves as mom and pop outfits.

    Andrew- I really liked this part of your post: “If the public are ignorant of chemistry, it’s our job to engage with them – not to lecture or hand down the Truth.” At ScienceOnline, I was introduced to the faults of the Deficit Model, and it was a revelation for me. Deficit model claim is “If only people knew these wonderful facts, they’d think the way we do about chemistry.” Nope, not gonna happen. It’s about engagement, just as you said.

  • Apr 25th 201310:04
    by Tyler Irving

    I agree that the everything-is-made-of-chemicals argument can seem a bit pedantic and counterproductive. Still, I think that even if you accept a loose, popular definition of the word ‘chemical,’ you can run into problems.

    My example would be botulinum toxin, the most lethal substance we know of. Although it can be found in a concentrated form in a lab, it is naturally occurring, produced by the microorganism Clostridium botulinum. And if you buy unhygenic food, especially stuff that has not been treated with artificial preservatives, it can easily find its way into your kitchen. So is it a ‘chemical’ or not?

    Furthermore, in minute quantities botulinum toxin (Botox) is used to treat muscle spasms and many other disorders, not to mention its cosmetic uses. So here we have a natural yet deadly chemical, found in both the kitchen and the lab, that is nevertheless often used in a safe, even beneficial way.

    My point is that it doesn’t make sense to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ chemicals, however we might define them. What matters is our exposure: how much, by what routes, and for what duration. As Paracelsus says in an oft-quoted line “the dose makes the poison.”

    You are right to bring up examples like Bhopal, which have fomented mistrust, and for good reason. In my view, what distinguishes a chemophobe from anyone else is the lesson they draw from such a disaster. Chemophobes take it as proof positive that it is impossible for humans to ever use dangerous chemicals in a safe way. This belief implies that chemistry is something mystical, beyond the ken of mere mortals, and that any attempt to control or exploit it will inevitably lead to harm.

    We know better. Yes, chemists, like all humans, are not perfect and accidents do happen. But the vast majority of examples show that when we put our minds to it, we can and do use chemicals – even dangerous ones – to positive effect. Our ability to do that has given rise to modern medicine, transportation, and a host of other systems that bring us health, comfort and safety. They key to fighting chemophobia is to gently, constructively, and positively convince others of that fact.

  • Apr 25th 201310:04
    by Andrew Bissette

    Glad you agree! Now we can fix it, right?

    I can see the appeal of the deficit model, as it presents an obvious and achievable solution. It also seems somehow honest – no marketing tricks, just the facts.

    This is one reason I think things like RealTimeChem are great, and that giving them wider exposure is important. It puts a human face on science, and maybe can help shift the public’s image of us away from a monolithic ivory tower and towards something more accurate and even wholesome.

  • Apr 25th 201311:04
    by Andrew Bissette

    Hi Tyler, you make good points and I generally agree with them. Precisely how we define chemical, and as you say, whether it even makes sense to try to define ‘good’ and ‘bad’ chemicals (or ‘harmful’ and ‘safe’ chemicals) is not straightforward. Dose, route of exposure, and so on are all factors. My point is simply that the solution to this complexity is, as you say, gentle and constructive engagement rather than the simplistic “matter = chemicals” position.

    I very much like how you characterise the chemophobe’s response to Bhopal. Thanks for your comment!

  • Apr 25th 201312:04
    by Matt

    @Carmen, I can quickly lump your argument “How can I be sure that Company XYZ REALLY makes bottles that are safe for my baby? They only care about the bottom line” into one about reactivity. If its not safe for the baby, it is reacting with her body. People buy from mom and pop outfits and homeopaths and natural producers because they assume that their materials are inert. I still maintain that “inertness”/environmental and biological safety is our best line of compromise.

  • Apr 25th 201312:04
    by Matt

    one more thing … this article in the washington post decries the use of “chemicals” (62 times) http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/at-chicken-plants-chemicals-blamed-for-health-ailments-are-poised-to-proliferate/2013/04/25/d2a65ec8-97b1-11e2-97cd-3d8c1afe4f0f_story.html and only mentions what these chemicals are towards the end of the article. This type of instance is a good chance for chemists to show that we stand with “chemophobes” in wanting safe work environments and using our expertise to show how that can happen.

  • Apr 25th 201318:04
    by CoulombicExplosion

    I’ll disagree with the use of “chemical” as an umbrella term for a synthetic substance. Andrew’s position (as I see it) is that the chemist’s definition of “chemical” (stable matter, basically) is too broad to be useful in general use. I’d argue that the chemophobe’s use of the term can also be too broad to be useful. Matt has gotten closer to my line of thinking. People are concerned with reactive/harmful chemicals. The tricky thing about categorizing the harmful ones as being synthetic is 1) not all synthetic chemicals are harmful and 2) harmful chemicals occur in nature as well.

    I would suggest, especially to those marketing a product to chemophobes, to be more specific in what types of chemicals the product is free of. Is it free of pesticides? Artifical flavoring and coloring? CFCs? Is there a good reason not to provide this specificity? In my opinion, this approach would be more useful than letting the term “chemical” be hijacked and associated soley with the bad actors of the field.

  • Apr 27th 201308:04
    by Andrew Bissette

    CoulombicExplosion – your comments about ‘folk’ use of the word ‘chemical’ are spot on.

    Your solution seems reasonable and in many cases is desirable. It could potentially fuel the problem, though. Take artifical flavouring and colouring. I’m in favour of labelling these on the grounds of consent – if you don’t want to consume artifical flavours and colours, that’s fine. However, why would people avoid them? There are several reasons and not all fall into ‘chemophobia’, but I’d guess one common reason is the assumption that artifical = bad.

    Other than that quibble, I generally agree with you.

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