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Watch Twitter on Saturday for #Chemophobia

This week, the Research Triangle area is hosting ScienceOnline2013, an international science communications unconference that draws Pulitzer Prize-winning science writers, big media, graduate students, new media, science teachers, old media – pretty much anyone who’s involved in communicating science to diverse audiences via digital media.

The gathering began as the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference in 2007 (and probably before that) and has grown to be a highly-competitive ticket for 450 attendees. So popular are the conversations there that “watch parties” are being held in cities worldwide – London, Paris, Adelaide, Denver, Dublin, Belgrade, and others.

But the conversation can also be easily accessed via Twitter by following the hashtag #scio13.

I’d love to draw the C&EN and CENtral Science crowd to a superb session that will be held Saturday, 2 February, with our own Dr. Carmen Drahl and chemistry professor/former ACS intern Dr. Rubidium on chemophobia: the public aversion to anything that carries the label of “chemical.”

Here’s the description from the unconference wiki for tomorrow’s 10:30 am EST session:

Description: In today’s advertising and pop culture, words like “chemical”, “synthetic” and “artificial” are synonyms for harmful, toxic and carcinogenic, while words like “natural” and “organic” imply a product is wholesome and good for the environment. This widespread misconception colors public perceptions of chemistry and its role in the modern world. Chemophobia may not be as direct a threat to our future as, say, climate change denialism or the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, but it clouds public understanding of real and very important issues we face (e.g., how to boost agricultural productivity) and plays into the hands of quacks and cranks. How can bloggers and the media effectively combat chemophobia? How much chemistry does the public need to know to be well-informed and make good decisions, and what’s the most effective avenue for disseminating that kind of information? Proposed session hashtag: #chemophobia

Over the past year, several folks in the blogosphere and chemistry education realm have been providing folks like Carmen, DrR, and author Deborah Blum with examples of chemicals being portrayed as “bad.”

Yet, each of us are a glorious bag of chemicals (thankfully).

Where does the negative perception arise and how can we in chemistry-related fields better communicate with the public?

Carmen and DrRubidium have asked us to follow the #chemophobia hashtag on Saturday 10:30-11:30 am EST.

Here’s a world clock so you can plan when to follow the discussion on Twitter.

 

Making People Hate Chemistry on Halloween

Actual Twitter profile picture of the contributing editor at Gizmodo.

Thanks to a tip from ChemBark et al., here is the most “insanely irresponsible” promotion of hazardous chemistry demos that I’ve seen. Written by Gizmodo Contributing Editor Eric Limer, the post draws from books by author William Gurstelle (Backyard Ballistics, Absinthe & Flamethrowers).

On one hand, Gurstelle has done much to promote scientific curiosity among the public. That’s a good thing. Plus, Gurstelle has safety glasses in his promo picture. But Limer takes some of Gurstelle’s ideas out of context and suggests that they be used to scare or harm others.

Thankfully, many commenters have gone over to Gizmodo to register their disapproval but the post remains up. I understand from his profile and website that Limer lives in an area hit by Hurricane Sandy but I encourage him to take down his hurtful post as soon as is feasible.

Quirky is fun and interesting and people can find this information elsewhere with a little work. But promoting it at a major geek site is a Bad Idea.

Poisons and Policy: Arsenic and Aflatoxins

The other problem. Credit: Nakhonsawan Field Crop Research Center, Thailand.

In the past 24 hours, do you recall hearing anything about arsenic in rice? If you’re in the United States, the answer is very likely, “yes!”

A great many pixels were spilled yesterday when Consumer Reports and the US Food and Drug Administration released — almost simultaneously — analytical data on inorganic arsenic concentrations in 200 samples of commercial rice products, particularly those grown in the southern US.

You can’t do any better in understanding this story than reading, “Arsenic and Rice. Yes, again,” on Deborah Blum’s Elemental blog at Wired Science Blogs. Professor Blum has been discussing arsenic in the diet for a few years, an interest she developed while composing her superb book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Science in Jazz Age New York.

Deborah’s post puts in perspective the risks of inorganic (and organic) arsenic concentrations in food products such as rice relative to drinking water. Arsenic occurs in nature but exists in higher concentrations in water from areas where arsenical pesticides have been used in cotton farming or poultry deworming (the latter discussed in 2006 at NYTimes). While she closes in being critical of the FDA for lack of clear consumer guidance, let it suffice to say that no character in Blum’s book was killed by poisoning with rice from Louisiana.

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