Overcoming Chemophobia-Phobia

Chemophobia: the irrational and excessive fear of chemicals. Chemophobia-Phobia: the irrational fear of an irrational fear of chem...

Chemophobia: the irrational and excessive fear of chemicals.
Chemophobia-Phobia: the irrational fear of an irrational fear of chemicals (?!).
Chemophobia-Phobia-Phobia: Well this one is just ridiculous - and not real (yet).

Chemists are notoriously grumpy. We are also woefully defensive of chemicals and the field of chemistry in general.  I dare say we may even be obsessed with it, and like many others with an obsession, we often take things too far. It is not uncommon for these debates to devolve into insult slinging, where you might hear a particularly disgruntled chemist cry out banalities such as “Well I bet you don’t even know what dihydrogen monoxide is!” followed by a round of high-fives from the other chemists in attendance. (I wish this were not true, but chemists, when brought together, often bring this up…) And while I personally wish everyone were familiar with the standard IUPAC naming system for chemicals, I do not believe it to be a requirement for intelligence by any means. I also wish that everyone felt compelled to read this blog religiously, which is most certainly not a reality, and I’ve somewhat come to terms with it.

You must understand, we spend our academic lives seeking to understand differences between molecules; how swapping out a small fraction of a molecule can drastically alter reactivity and properties. Many of us practice chemistry that is dangerous and routinely work with molecules that will react violently upon exposure to air (there is excitement in danger, after all, and chemists are nothing if not thrill-seekers).  So you can understand that after spending all day dealing with chemicals that are often highly biologically toxic and sometimes explosive, to hear that someone is peeved about a component of a not-so-great bun is frustrating to say the least.  I will admit that it was this frustration that led me to write this in the first place, and shamefully, I had initially thought that this would be a post about chemophobia. Yes. I found myself turning into one of those chemists making snide remarks about how “nothing you buy is really chemical-free, didn’t you know that?!” and the like. While that may be true, there is evidence suggesting that people are well aware of the fact that everything is a chemical, and in hindsight, any time I’ve angrily expressed this sentiment to various people I’ve been treated to a series of eye rolls and head-shaking sighs.  

To the fellow chemists (the minority): this approach is not working. While we may mean well, we are coming across as patronizing and elitist, and NO ONE likes to be treated this way (take note physicists…).  To everyone else (the vast majority): we are sorry! Truly, we are not intending to insult your intelligence by telling you ‘well I mean, you DO know everything is a chemical, RIGHT?!” Yes, of course you do!

The reality is that when people refer to “chemicals” in food and cosmetics, they are talking about toxic, harmful chemicals. And while we may not like that there is negativity associated with the subject of our livelihood, it’s time that we face the facts, like the good scientists that we are, and accept that they way that people use the word has changed. Of course, this didn’t come out of nowhere by any means, there are certainly examples of dangerous chemicals being marketed as safe (incorrectly), which lead to negative effects, and this understandably has generated feelings of distrust between corporations and the public. Unfortunately, corporations are well aware of this, and are therefore feeding the proverbial fire, by capitalizing on this chemical apprehension felt by consumers. One prime example was Cheerios’ choice to add the statement “not made with genetically modified ingredients” on boxes as of 2014.  Sounds innocent, right? Except that Cheerios openly acknowledges that the formulation of their product has in no way changed, and in fact, the choice to include this label was simply because they thought, in their words, “consumers may embrace it”. Now I love a good cheerio more than most people, but this is downright insulting, and honestly, has a more damaging effect on the reputation of GMOs than any idiot out there writing a blog post.  When the companies that we trust tell us that things are “chemical free” and “GMO free” they are essentially telling us that these things are bad, and therefore they are going to help us by removing those nasty things from what we eat, all the while openly acknowledging (although not as openly as they could, unless you very closely monitor the General Mills blog) that there is no evidence to support that these things may be indeed harmful.

All of this amounts to large corporations doing what they do best – selling their product by any means, including fear-mongering, and don’t forget, even the seemingly friendly “all-natural” companies are making good money on the same ideas. Unfortunately, it is up to us, the consumers, to do the research and find out what is a “good” vs. a “bad” chemical, and unfortunately, with or without years of specialization in chemistry, these differences can be difficult to suss out in many cases. Ultimately, we need to be careful as consumers to avoid making inferences based on the labels on our favourite cereal boxes, and not to fear the things we don’t understand or have never heard of. Ideally, this would be complemented by honesty from companies about chemicals in products; all-natural is ok, but don’t tell me that it is necessarily better simply because it is natural. Perhaps this is far too much to expect, but I suppose I’ve got my idealist hat on.

Now, I’m definitely not the first person to talk about this, and I’m most certainly not even the best person to talk about this, but it is clear that this is an ongoing problem that we need to have a conversation about before things really get out of hand and all I can find at the grocery store is organic, non-GMO chemical-free tree bark.  

All this being said, Nature Chemistry has thoughtfully put together an official list of chemical-free products.
(I’m sorry, I had to)

Relevant Links:

General Mills Blog Post: http://blog.generalmills.com/2014/01/the-one-and-only-cheerios/

Interesting Blog posts about Chemophobia:

The Real Damage of Chemophobia- The Collapsed Wavefunction
#Chemophobia Blogversation - Luke Gamon
An Attempt at Combating Chemophobia Online - Lost in Scientia

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