Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Psychology of Chemophobia – Part 5

Bananas contain unpronounceable ingredients, too. Ingredients of an All-Natural Banana by James Kennedy
Bananas contain unpronounceable ingredients, too

What is chemophobia?

The scientific community describes chemophobia as a “non-clinical prejudice” – rather like homophobia or xenophobia – that is, not a true medical phobia but a learned aversion to ingredients created in laboratories. Researchers Paul Slovic and Baruch Fischhoff identified a number of affective characteristics that help to explain deep and persistent overestimation of chemical risk. They found that people tend to overestimate human-made risks, and underestimate natural risks.

On Artificial Formaldehyde

The most dangerous consequence of this quirk is people’s fear of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a naturally-occurring compound that is found in fruits such as peaches and pears, vegetables, meat, eggs and foliage, and is found in very high concentrations in Peking duck, smoked salmon and processed meats (e.g. ham and sausages). These so-called ‘natural’ sources of formaldehyde are usually considered acceptable by the public, while artificial sources of formaldehyde such as vaccines and baby shampoo, have caused public outcry.

“People tend to overestimate human-made risks, and underestimate natural risks.” – Slovic & Fischhoff

One such outcry forced Johnson’s to undertake one of the biggest reformulations in history, and remove all traces of formaldehyde from its products. This was despite the fact that there was so little formaldehyde present in their baby shampoo that you’d need to take 40 million baths per day to reach dangerous levels. Johnson’s spent tens of millions of dollars on a reformulation project not because they were legally obliged to, and not because there was ever a safety risk, but because they were under pressure from irrational consumers to change their recipe. I call them irrational because nobody ever petitioned for an expensive reformulation of smoked salmon, Peking duck, peaches or pears because of formaldehyde fears.

Vaccines also contain tiny amounts of formaldehyde. Irrational fear of ‘artificial’ formaldehyde has led some people to avoid vaccinations altogether even though the level of formaldehyde found in a vaccine is 80 times less than in a single pear. People’s irrational fear of formaldehyde has caused many preventable deaths; anti-vaccination movements have caused measles outbreaks in California (2015), Germany (2015), Wales (2013) and other places.

Chemophobia is the irrational fear of chemicals, particularly artificially-created chemicals

People overestimate risks that are imposed on us, like contaminants and pollutants, than risks we engage in voluntarily

Another reason people fear formaldehyde in vaccines (but not in pears) is because humans are irrationally hard-wired to overestimate the magnitude of risks that are imposed upon us. Most people over-fear terrorism and under-fear obesity. Terrorism killed 32,000 people in 2015, yet obesity kills tens of millions of people each year. Despite that, terrorism remains a key subject in American presidential debates because people’s fear of terrorism is inflated out of proportion by the fact that it’s imposed on the public rather than being caused by the public themselves. Americans are 33,000 times more likely to die from a heart-related disease than from terrorism, yet terrorism tops people’s list of fears due to the irrational quirks of human risk perception.

We all are born with these afflictions, and only science education can help us overcome them

The psychology behind these irrational assumptions is innate and is present in all of us. It’s only with science education and a basic knowledge of toxicology that we can begin to assess the risks associated with different compounds in a meaningful way. Only science education can fight chemophobia and allow people to make rational decisions about healthcare, skincare and nutrition.

This post is part 5 in a weekly series about chemophobia. Not only are people less afraid of natural toxins than synthetic ones, but in some cases, safety legislation is more lenient when it comes to natural threats vs artificial ones. Next week, we’ll explore some specific examples of toxins that are present (naturally and artificially) in the foods we eat.

(Almost) Nothing is Truly ‘Natural’ – Part 4

Cezanne nothing is natural fruit and vegetables painting still life
Nothing on this table is natural – not even the fruits. The Basket of Apples by Cézanne

Corn isn’t ‘natural’

In 2014, I created a series of infographics to help convey this message. Corn, for example, used to be a spindly grass-like plant called teosinte, which Native Americans farmed and bred through artificial selection until it resembled the yellow corn of today.

In 9000 years, sweetcorn has become 1000 times larger, 3.5 times sweeter, much easier to peel and much easier to grow than its wild ancestor. In the 15th century, when European settlers placed new selection pressures on the crop to suit their exotic taste buds, the corn evolved even further to become larger and multi-coloured. Corn no longer resembles the original teosinte plant at all.

Watermelon isn’t ‘natural’

Watermelon began as a hard, bitter fruit the size of a walnut. It caused inflammation and had an unpalatable bitter taste. Thousands of years of artificial selection (unintentional genetic engineering) have resulted in a modern watermelon that bears no resemblance to its African ancestor. Modern (artificial) watermelons are sweeter, juicier, more colourful and easier to grow than their ancestral varieties.

Peaches aren’t natural, either

Peaches used to be hard, cherry-sized fruits with giant pips. Like corn and watermelon, peaches became larger, sweeter and juicier over thousands of years of inadvertent genetic engineering.

Bananas, wheat, pigs and all farmed animals and plants are not natural

Before agriculture, carrots were white and spindly. Wheat was tall and scrawny with little calorific value. Apples were tiny and sour with giant pips (like crab-apples today). Strawberries were tiny, bananas had stones in them, and pigs were viscous creatures with tiny backsides that made for a not-so-delicious ham. Cows didn’t produce much milk (just enough for their own calves) and chickens were skinny little creatures that laid eggs weekly rather than daily. Every species that’s ever been farmed by humans has been genetically modified over time as a result.

I keep making this point because our ancestors deserve credit for their hard work: they toiled in the fields for thousands of years to breed plants and animals that are suited to our modern tastes and lifestyles. For modern humans to call the results of our ancestors’ hard work ‘natural’ is an insult to the millions of ancient farmers who worked so hard to produce them.

Engineers (including genetic engineers) know that humans have toiled for millennia to change nature and suit it to our own needs – animals became tamer and meatier, and plants started producing more edible portions. I want to counteract the misconception that humans encountered nature in a ‘pristine’ state.

Great documentary snippet – Animal Pharm

[ancient humans] toiled in the fields for thousands of years to breed plants and animals that are suited to our modern tastes and lifestyles. For modern humans to call the results of their hard work ‘natural’ is an insult to our ancestors.

I show the above documentary my Year 10 Science students to demonstrate what is currently being produced using genetic engineering techniques. The video explains all the concepts mentioned in this article and is accessible for and educated audience of any age.

This post is part 4 in a weekly series on chemophobia. Next week, we’ll look at the psychology behind chemophobia.

On the $$$ fuelling Chemophobia – Part 3

We’ve already asserted that chemophobia is an irrational psychological quirk that gained traction after the environmental movement of the mid-1960s. But I don’t want to make such allegations without proof. In part 3 of this weekly series on chemophobia, I’ll show you some of the irrational conclusions that chemophobia leads us to make, and the psychology that lies behind them. We’ll also look at some examples of companies that are using chemophobia with maximum leverage to inflate the prices of foods and skincare products in stores.

People perceive products with moral claims on the packaging as more effective than those without

Boyka Bratanova at Abertay University offered participants a choice between two cookies: one was normal, and another was labelled “organic/locally-produced/carbon-neutral”. The cookies were otherwise identical.

people believe these organic cookies taste better

Amazingly, when the participants were asked specifically to evaluate the taste of each cookie, they consistently rated the ‘morally-superior’ cookies as more delicious. Bratanova’s study confirms Meng Li’s hypothesis (discussed last week) that people confuse moral claims with actual superiority. Manufacturers are taking advantage of this psychological trick by writing meaningless claims of moral superiority such as “natural”, “pure” and “free from {insert harmless ingredient here}” on their product labels to justify price increases at the point of sale.

The global market for ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ personal care products is projected to reach US$16 billion by 2020. But are these ‘natural/organic’ products really any better than their non-organic equivalents? Evidence suggests not.

Take Gaia Natural Baby Skin Soothing Lotion, for example, which sells for 4.4 cents/mL in Coles. A comparable ‘normal’ product, Johnson’s Baby Lotion, sells for just 1.7 cents/mL. Gaia can charge its customers 2.5 times the price compared with traditional Johnson’s Baby Lotion largely because it claims “Pure, Natural, Organic” in large text on the front of the bottle. Unfortunately, these claims aren’t actually true (and this product was recalled in December 2015 because of its ‘inaccurate product label’; read more here).

Gaia makes these three misleading claims on all of its products
Gaia makes these three misleading claims on all of its products

“Pure” is a claim reserved for single-ingredient products only

By definition, mixtures such as baby lotion cannot be ‘pure’. Pure substances contain only a single ingredient (e.g. pure salt, pure white flour, pure cane sugar and pure spring water). No cosmetic or skincare product should ever be labelled ‘pure’.

“Natural” products must be sold as they’re found in nature

Very few products are truly natural. Not only is the definition vague, but there are no enforceable regulations on its use in Australia, New Zealand or the US. The Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom proposes some guidelines: “made from natural ingredients that have not been interfered with by [humans]”. Again, it’s impossible for any cosmetic or skincare product to be totally natural. All cosmetics and skincare products have been ‘interfered with’ by humans, and they the vast majority of skincare products contain artificial ingredients.

“Organic” only makes sense when applied to foods

Adding a couple of drops of ‘organic’ ingredients into your product to justify writing “organic” on the label should be illegal. But that’s exactly what Gaia has done: the ingredients certified ‘organic’ in their Natural Baby Skin Soothing Lotion amount to approximately just 7% of the product.

Because ‘organic’ is a farming technique, farmed foods are the only products that should ever be labelled ‘organic’. It’s impossible for cosmetics and skincare products to be ‘organic’ because many of the ingredients (even in self-proclaimed ‘natural’ brands such as Gaia) are artificially synthesised rather than grown.

Consumers are being tricked into paying a higher price for a product that isn’t necessarily superior.

Natural chemicals can be harmful, too (and the most harmful compounds on Earth are all natural)

Gaia’s “all-natural” baby lotion was recalled because it contained undisclosed allergens. Nine out of the top ten most dangerous compounds on Earth are naturally-occurring. When it comes to skincare, synthetic compounds are often gentler and more suited to their purpose than are their natural counterparts.

Natural compounds are sometimes far more dangerous than synthetic ones. Blue, artificial compounds; green, naturally-occurring compounds.
Natural compounds are sometimes far more dangerous than synthetic ones. Blue, artificial compounds; green, naturally-occurring compounds.

Some studies even suggest that crops on organic farms produce more pesticide within the leaves in order to protect themselves from increased rates of insect predation. Some of these natural pesticides are actually more potent skin irritants than the synthetic pesticides used in conventional farming methods.

In addition, organic crops can be sprayed legally with many pesticides, some of which are potent irritants. Lists of pesticides approved for use on organic farms can be found here and here. There exists a misconception among consumers that organic produce is ‘pesticide-free’, which is a concern considering that ‘no pesticides’ is the most common argument heard in favour of buying organic produce.

Consumers are being tricked into paying a higher price for a product that isn’t necessarily superior, and still might contain harsh (natural) compounds that irritate their skin.

Many brands are making these misleading claims…

Some of Sukin's "fragrance-free" products contain fragrances such as sesame oil and rose hip oil
Some of Sukin’s “fragrance-free” products contain fragrances such as sesame oil and rose hip oil
Envirocare's hair cleanser made extreme 'natural' claims before it was recalled by the Australian Government. Source: recalls.gov.au
Envirocare’s hair cleanser made extreme ‘natural’ claims before it was recalled by the Australian Government. Source: recalls.gov.au
Mustela's milky bath oil claims to be 'natural' but contains mostly artificial ingredients
Mustela’s milky bath oil makes a vague claim about having ‘natural ingredient [sic]’ but contains mostly artificial ingredients e.g. PEG-6 isostearate and propylene glycol
Sukin makes claims that aren't even relevant to the product being sold. Moisturisers are labelled "SLS-free", for instance. SLS should never be in a moisturiser!
Sukin makes claims that aren’t even relevant to the product being sold. Moisturisers are labelled “SLS-free”, for instance.
Sometimes, the ingredients labels make no sense whatsoever. They've put a 'word salad' instead of actual ingredients on this one. This product should be recalled or over-labelled immediately.
Sometimes, the ingredients labels make no sense whatsoever. They’ve put a ‘word salad’ instead of actual ingredients on this one. This product should be recalled or over-labelled immediately.

Update: Gaia has recalled the product above due to its ‘inaccurate product label’

Their signature baby lotion is being withdrawn from sale due to an undisclosed ingredient labelling problem… Gaia was unable to provide any further information and declined to comment on the issue.

Gaia has recalled the product mentioned in this article due to the presence of undisclosed allergens
Gaia has recalled the product mentioned in this article due to the presence of undisclosed allergens. Source: recalls.gov.au

On the Pervasiveness of Chemophobia – Part 2

Bill Gates drinks water purified from sewage at Seattle's Omniprocessor plant
Bill Gates drinks water purified from sewage at Seattle’s Omniprocessor plant

Would you drink water that’s been purified from sewage? Bill Gates did:

“It’s water,” he says. “Having studied the engineering behind it… I would happily drink it every day. It’s that safe.” – Bill Gates

He’s talking about the Omniprocessor in Seattle, USA, which illustrates perfectly the prevalence of chemophobia in our society. The Omniprocessor takes sewage waste and purifies it into clean drinking water. The dried sewage is then combusted to power the plant, producing electricity that can be sold back to the grid. Essentially, it’s a free sewage disposal system that also gives you clean drinking water and a plentiful supply of electricity. Omniprocessors could be a huge income boost for farmers in developing countries.

The plant in Seattle was met with resistance. One study showed that 26% of survey participants were so disgusted by the idea of “toilet-to-tap” that they agreed with the statement: “sewage water could never be purified to such an extent that I would be willing to drink it”. Try it yourself: which glass of water would you rather drink?

We all feel a slight preference for the glass on the right. Chemophobia, an irrational psychological quirk, is more prevalent than you might think.
We all feel a slight preference for the glass on the right. Chemophobia, an irrational psychological quirk, is more prevalent than you might think.

If science tells us the purified sewage-water is perfectly clean, then why aren’t people comfortable with drinking it?

Instinct: Once contaminated, always contaminated

Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania provides an explanation. He uses the term “contagion” to describe the perceived, permanent grossness that objects or substances acquire once they have touched something disgusting. No amount of purification can remove the ‘disgust factor’ that’s been acquired by the object. It’s purely psychological, and has no basis in science, but might have evolved as a useful behavioural adaptation that protects us from disease.

Mark Schaller at the University of British Colombia coined the phrase “behavioural immune system” to describe this phenomenon. It includes a suite of feelings and behaviours, including repulsion and disgust, that prevent us from eating contaminated food. It’s overly sensitive, and is at the root of many culinary taboos (e.g. don’t eat pork/prawn/insects).

All of this makes evolutionary sense: for millions of years of human evolution, we had no way of purifying food once it had become contaminated. We had no way of boiling water (and no fire) for 90% of human history. We had no modern medicines for 99% of human history, which made even small illnesses a horrifying, life-threatening prospect. Paranoia about cross-contamination has probably saved our species from extinction.

So why do some people see ‘synthetic chemicals’ as contaminants?

Science teachers are partly to blame. I tell my students never to eat in the lab because we’re fearful of contaminating the student’s food with lab chemicals, which might make them ill. I tell my students never to pour back into the stock solution because we might contaminate the stock solution, ruining future experiments. When an unidentified clear liquid (either pure water or a highly corrosive acid) splashes onto a student’s skin, I tell them to assume it’s the highly corrosive acid and wash immediately with copious amounts of water, just in case. Science teachers inadvertently instil in students a fear that laboratories are highly contaminating places. We do this with the absolute best of intentions.

Science teachers contribute to the notion that labs are full of contaminants.

Paranoia about contamination in laboratories has likely prevented countless accidents worldwide. It’s saved lives and limbs, too, and that’s why teachers must keep emphasising these safety messages. In doing so, however, do need to be mindful of the the unfortunate side-effect of ‘contagion’, which is the gut instinct that foods and lotions (or even water) created in a lab must be contaminated with something nasty. We need to counteract that notion in the following way.

We must emphasise purification techniques in school

When my students made aspirin last week (about 8 tablets’ worth), I told the students we cannot ingest the aspirin because “it’s contaminated: it contains unknown impurities”. Similarly, when we made esters last term (edible artificial flavourings), I told the students not to touch the esters or smell them too closely because they “contain contaminants such as highly corrosive sulfuric acid”. These safety warnings are valid and necessary – they’re actually a legal requirement of my job.

In industry, however, both aspirin and esters (and everything else) would be purified after production to a very high standard (usually 99.99%) before being certified safe for human consumption. Generally, however, high-school chemistry students don’t learn about purification techniques – not even in theory – so for them, the laboratory remains a dangerous place where dirty, contaminated things are created. Inadvertently, that’s become the take-home message from high-school science.

“…for [students], the laboratory remains a dangerous place where dirty, contaminated things are created.”

Purification techniques such as fractional distillation, centrifugation, recrystallisation, affinity purification and liquid-liquid extraction are all beyond the scope of a high-school chemistry course. Water purification and extraction of substances using supercritical carbon dioxide (scCO2) are in the Year 11 textbook, but these topics are not taught by many schools. Students don’t need to know the details – but they do need industrial relevance built into their course, and they need to be made aware that many of the products we use were made or designed in labs. Most importantly, they need to know that these products were purified to a high standard before being put to use.

People go for ‘natural’ products because they try to avoid potential contaminants from the laboratory

After years of hearing these messages in school, it’s no surprise that some people are so averse to eating foods or using products made in a lab. As one of my survey respondents put it so succinctly:

“If I can’t eat in a lab due to fear of contamination, how could food made in lab possibly be safe to eat? If I have been taught to treat every lab chemical that gets onto my skin as potentially corrosive, how could a moisturiser made in a lab from synthetic ingredients ever be good for my skin? This goes against what I’ve been taught throughout school!”

Science education in schools might just be one of the root causes – and one of the solutions – to the widespread prevalence of chemophobia. More next week.

This post is part of a weekly series on chemophobia. Read part 1 here.