On the Origins of Chemophobia – Part 1

“The Blue Marble” is a famous photograph of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft en route to the Moon.

The rise of the environmental movement is most often attributed to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, which demonised chemicals as it introduced them to the public:

“Chemicals are the sinister and little-recognised partners of radiation entering into living organisms, passing from one to another in a chain of poisoning and death” – Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962

Later that decade, the Apollo missions and the six moon landings between 1969 and 1972 gave us a new perspective of planet Earth that was so profound that we felt a sudden compulsion to protect its natural beauty. Watch Neil deGrasse Tyson argue this point below.

In 1970, we are still going to the moon, we are still going until 1972, so watch these sequence of events. In 1970, the comprehensive Clean Air Act is passed… Earth Day was birthed in March 1970. The EPA was founded in 1970… Doctors Without Borders was founded in 1971… DDT gets banned in 1972, and we are still going to the moon. We’re still looking back at Earth. The clean water act 1971, 1972 the endangered species act, the catalytic converted gets put in in 1973, and unleaded gas gets introduced in 1973… That is space operating on our culture and you cannot even put a price on that. – Neil deGrasse Tyson in April 2012

Together, Rachel Carson and the Apollo missions made the public in Western countries quickly aware of the Earth and its natural beauty. Humans were portrayed as selfish destructors of a planet that was supposedly most ‘beautiful’ when in its ‘natural’ state. The field of toxicology was spawned in wake of this concern, and had the goal of analysing the toxicity of different chemicals on humans and the environment. As the first edition of Human and Experimental Toxicology stated:

“Politicians cannot be expected to come to rational and acceptable decisions without adequate impartial and objective information, and toxicologists have grave responsibilities to produce such information”. – Human and Experimental Toxicology

While the field of toxicology accumulated a wealth of scientific evidence about ‘chemicals’, this evidence largely hasn’t trickled down to the public and certainly hasn’t allayed their fears. There remains a lingering skepticism about chemicals, especially artificial chemicals, which some people still feel are more harmful than those found in nature.

Take the Think Dirty iOS app, for example, which gives cosmetic ingredients a safety rating out of 9. According to the app’s creators, “Fragrance” gets the worst possible rating (9), while “Natural Fragrance” gets the best rating (1). Black-and-white ‘natural’ vs ‘artificial’ decision-making such as this is completely unfounded and ignores toxicological evidence. This kind of thinking is misleading, has no scientific basis and sometimes causes consumers to make harmful conclusions – no matter how benign their intentions. (More on this in future posts.)

This simplistic thinking is a remnant of the environmental movement back in the 1970s: that ‘selfish’ humans were destroying a ‘pristine’ planet Earth. While the ‘natural/good’ vs ‘artificial/bad’ dichotomy was an effective solution to short-term environmental problems of the time, this black-and-white thinking is actually leading people to make bad decisions today. We can no longer assume that “natural” is always “best”: the issue is actually far more complex than that. Toxicological evidence needs to be made public and easy to digest so that consumers can make more enlightened decisions.

This post is part 1 of a weekly series on Chemophobia. More next week.

Neil deGrasse Tyson – Space as Culture transcript


15 thoughts on “On the Origins of Chemophobia – Part 1

  1. You exclude the introductory clause to Carson’s sentence. The original reads,
    ” In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world—the very nature of its life. Strontium 90, released through nuclear explosions into the air, comes to the earth in rain or drifts down as fallout, lodges in soil, enters into the grass or corn or wheat grown there, and in time takes up its abode in the bones of a human being, there to remain until his death.” In that context–because your quote also excludes her next sentence— the statement is not irrational, as you paint it.


    1. Do you expect the public to know the difference between Strontium 90 and Polysorbate 20? The take-home message from Rachel Carson’s book was not an enlightened view of chemicals and the ability to analyse toxicological results, but the simple fact that “chemicals” as a whole were bad.


      1. I’ve previously heard that counter argument from Joe Schwarcz, from McGill’s Office for Science and Society, here in Canada or from Campbell(not even a scientist) the president of ACSH. Schwarcz means well, as you probably do, but his battle with chemophobia is sometimes indistinguishable from the rhetoric of some corporations who consciously exploit the public’s ignorance of chemistry. We have to expose the grey areas and give the public more credit, rather than getting caught in a tug of war between chemophobia and chemophilia, both of which are motivated by $$.


  2. This is such a great post! I’m excited for the next one.

    I’m a big fan of John Emsley, an excellent crusader against chemophobia. I trust you’re familiar with some of his chemistry popularizations? My favorite is Nature’s Building Blocks. Such an awesome reference.

    Any chance you’re ever in San Francisco, give me a shout out. I’d love to meet you. I’m good friends with Simon Quellen Field, another chemistry popularizer and can introduce you. Simon, in turn, is close with Theo Gray



    On Thu, Jan 28, 2016 at 12:09 PM James Kennedy wrote:

    > James Kennedy posted: ” The rise of the environmental movement is most > often attributed to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in > 1962, which demonised chemicals as it introduced them to the public: > “Chemicals are the sinister and little-recognised partners of rad” >


  3. Sadly, I fear the problem comes down to a few key words in your last sentence… “Public”, “enlightened” and “decisions”. My mother is a nurse and still believes dioxins are leached into food if you microwave it in a plastic container. The power of ignorance and the Internet are strong, Yoda.

    That said, there is no doubt you are correct.


  4. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM198003273021307
    Excerpt: “I should think we might fairly gauge the future of biological science, centuries ahead by estimating the time it will take to reach a complete comprehensive understanding of odor. It may not seem a profound enough problem to dominate all the life sciences, but it contains, piece by piece, all the mysteries” (p. 732). — Lewis Thomas as cited in “The Scent of Eros: Mysteries of Odor in Human Sexuality”

    Excerpt: WHAT are we going to do if it turns out that we have pheromones? What on earth would we be doing with such things? With the richness of speech, and all our new devices for communication, why would we want to release odors into the air to convey information about anything? We can send notes, telephone, whisper cryptic invitations, announce the giving of parties, even bounce words off the moon and make them carom around the planets. Why a gas, or droplets of moisture made to be deposited on fenceposts?

    If not for nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled RNA-mediated DNA repair, we would have much more to fear from radiation than chemophobic pseudoscientists have to fear from others who have learned about human pheromones.


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