My fourth edition of Fighting Chemophobia is now available on Amazon.com.
This edition is paperback and black-and-white throughout… hence the low price.
Chemophobia is an irrational fear of chemicals. It includes the fear of aluminium in vaccines, methylparaben preservative in cosmetics and formaldehyde residue in shampoo. Since the early 1990s, advances in toxicology have allowed scientists to detect traces of adulterant substances in everyday products – even down to parts per billion concentrations. Toxicological research has shown most of these substances are in such low doses that they pose zero threat to our health.
Nonetheless, we get scared. We overreact to harmless, negligible sources of contamination and buy “natural”, “organic” and “chemical-free” alternative products at elevated prices because we’re psychologically pre-disposed to think they’re safer. Consumers are victims of aggressive marketing and misleading labelling from “natural” and “organic” companies, who exploit our psychological quirks to expand their market share.
The supposed onslaught of toxic chemicals that special interest groups describe simply isn’t happening. Our products are safer than ever, yet people are becoming more scared. Consumers suffer from guilt, anxiety and mental stress of being coaxed into paying a hefty price premium for “natural” skincare products that are neither safer nor more effective than conventional ones.
This book explores the history of chemophobia and the recent events that amplified it; and describes how consumers, teachers, doctors, lawmakers and journalists can fight chemophobia by tackling the social issues that underpin it.
James Kennedy is the creator of the All-Natural Banana ingredients set of posters and the T-shirt store sporting the same designg. James is a British-born Chemistry teacher currently working in Australia. Since graduating from the University of Cambridge with a Masters degree in Natural Sciences, he has pursued a passion for science communication and science outreach by using festivals, lectures, posters and T-shirts to make chemistry more open and accessible for the public. He is a vocal pro-chemistry advocate and writes articles online and speaks occasionally in radio and podcast interviews. James’ first published book, Fighting Chemophobia, stemmed from a need for people to understand and cure chemophobia by seeing chemicals in a more rational light. He has been teaching for 8 years and researching chemophobia for 3 years. He lives with his wife and daughter in Melbourne, Australia.
Bisphenol A, or BPA, is used to line food cans and also to make strong plastic baby bottles. Eating large amounts of canned food – particularly canned soups or drinking hot liquids from baby bottles – can result in elevated amounts of BPA being detected in people’s urine. BPA acts as an estrogen mimic – albeit a very weak one – and some research has suggested a link between large doses of BPA and an increase of blood pressure. While this does sound worrying, remember that the dose is extremely important and that the molecules of BPA that do leech into food are too few to have any measurable effect.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (the FDA) conducted a four-year review of over 300 scientific studies and concluded that the traces of BPA that do migrate into canned food are so tiny that they have no effect on human health.
The decision to abandon the use of BPA in baby bottles was therefore based on public pressure not based on safety or on scientific evidence.
The science never suggested there was any safety concern with BPA.
After several hurdles, I’m happy to announce that Fighting Chemophobia is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions for international delivery. Amazon.com and three other independent online book vendors have signed up to stock Fighting Chemophobia.
Buy your copy by clicking the links below – or search Amazon.com or your Kindle device for Fighting Chemophobia to download the book.
Signed copies are of this new third edition are of course still available via this website. Click the PayPal link below to order your signed copy.
I’ve been working on some exciting things in the last few months. Watch this space for teasers.
There exists a myth that organic fruits and vegetables are healthier because they’re free from harmful pesticides. Bruce Ames, one of the key founders of the field of toxicology back in the 1970s, wrote a landmark paper in 1990 called Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural), in which, he showcased some of the many naturally-occurring pesticides we ingest every day.
Because plants can’t run away, they attack predators with chemical weapons instead. All plants produce natural pesticides called secondary metabolites that deter predators to varying extents. The production of these secondary metabolites is upregulated during predatory attack.
Some of the natural pesticides that plants produce are toxic. Some are carcinogenic. Some studies have even suggested that if synthetic pesticides are not sprayed onto the surface of the crops, as might be the case in some types of organic farming, plants increase their production of natural pesticides to compensate for the resulting increase in herbivory attack.
Proponents of organic food fail to realise that everything we touch, eat and breathe contains miniscule traces of toxins. Our bodies evolved in a pretty dirty environment and can cope with low levels of toxins being ingested. Some studies even suggest that ingesting these tiny amounts of harmful substances might not only be harmless but beneficial to our health.
Contrary to popular belief, natural foods (wild varieties) are not safer, more nutritious nor more delicious than conventionally-farmed foods. Organic farming is an unsustainable luxury that offers no benefit to consumers’ health.
For more information on organic food, check out my latest book, Fighting Chemophobia, which is available by clicking the link below.
It’s been a while since I posted. I’ve been working on some things that will be revealed in the next few months.
The second batch of Fighting Chemophobia books are finished! After a long search, we have finally found two great companies for printing and distribution in China. Dianzan design and printing company has laid the book out with great care and precision and turned Fighting Chemophobia into an excellent-quality product in both hardback and paperback editions. The 80 gsm Dowling paper feels great, and there are even some full-page colour images scattered throughout the book. Shunfeng Express is handling cheap, quick shipping and is currently achieving 2-day deliveries within China. They predict 7-day delivery times internationally.
This second batch is higher quality than the first. I’m sure you’ll love what these people have produced.
Working with a publisher could have saved me the search for an editor, a printer, a distributor, a marketer and a translator. Self-publishing has been more rewarding in this regard: not only have I selected the people I’ve worked with to bring this book to completion but I’ve probably learned more this way about the process of writing, editing, printing, binding, marketing and distributing a book than if a publisher had handled the entire process on my behalf.
You can buy your signed copy of the second batch of Fighting Chemophobia using the PayPal link below. Click subscribe on this page to receive future (approximately fortnightly) email updates.
Chemophobia is an irrational fear of chemicals. It includes the fear of sugar in food, formaldehyde in shampoo and aluminium in vaccines. Fitness bloggers, quack doctors and even small cosmetic companies take advantage of these quirks to sell fake-natural products at elevated prices. Almost always, the same people who spread a fear of ‘chemicals’ also have ‘chemical-free’ products for sale.
Some companies sell “natural”, “organic” and “chemical-free” products to combat the supposed onslaught of chemical pollution in conventional consumer products. Most of these alternative products are no less synthetic, and no safer, than conventional versions despite commanding much higher prices.
Chemophobia is spreading despite our world becoming a cleaner, safer place. People are becoming healthier, and product safety regulations are becoming stricter. The supposed onslaught of chemicals that these special interest groups describe simply isn’t happening.
Perpetrators of chemophobia create unnecessary guilt, stress and anxiety as consumers worry about making the right choices for their family. Consumers are the victims in this battle as pro-natural and anti-natural businesses spread fear about each other’s products.
This book analyses psychological quirks, evolved millennia ago, that prime us to fall victim to chemophobic ways of thinking such anorexia, a fear of vaccines, a fear of fluoridation or a dangerous fear of synthetic medicines. It explores how consumers, teachers, doctors, lawmakers and journalists can fight chemophobia by tackling the social issues that underpin it.
Order your signed copy of Fighting Chemophobia now
Unlike purple and pink pigments, which were rare and expensive enough to be reserved for royalty and high-ranking clergy, yellow pigments were abundant throughout ancient history. Yellow ochre, a powdery mixture of iron oxides, has been used in cave paintings around the world for up to 80,000 years and was still being used by artists in the early nineteenth century. Saffron and turmeric were also used as yellow dyes throughout ancient history. Vincent van Gogh was using mineral yellow pigments such as cadmium yellow and chrome yellow in his mid-nineteenth century paintings. By the mid-nineteenth century, people looking for yellow pigments already had plenty of options. Despite there being no pressure from consumers for a new yellow dye, chemists trying to replicate the fame and fortune that mauveine brought to William Perkin in 1856 were experimenting eagerly in pursuit of that goal.
In 1861, Mêne was reacting aniline with cold nitrous acid to produce a diazonium salt solution. He then added more aniline to the resulting salt solution and shook the flask vigorously and noticed a yellow precipitate formed at the bottom of the flask, which would later become known as ‘aniline yellow’ – the first ‘azo dye’. 
The reaction mixture must be kept cool (at around 5 °C) because different temperatures cause different products to form. If the same reactants are mixed warm, then smelly liquid phenol and inert nitrogen gas are formed, both of which are colourless, and neither of which are useful as pigments!
At the time, the ‘aniline yellow’ powder he discovered was considered useless because it didn’t dissolve in water. However, it did dissolve very well in oil. The dye eventually gained some niche uses as a microscopy stain (like fuchsine) but was never utilised by the garment or pigment industry.
After staying relatively unused for over a hundred years, aniline yellow left an unfortunate legacy for itself by becoming the culprit molecule in the Spanish ‘Toxic Oil scandal’ of 1981. A batch of Spanish rapeseed oil had been denatured (deliberately adulterated) with 2% aniline yellow so the company could report it as “machine oil” and take advantage of certain tax breaks. One local refinery obtained the denatured rapeseed oil and attempted to remove the aniline yellow dye so they could sell it on as “pure olive oil” on the market for profit. They sold the oil around much of north-western Spain in unlabelled 5-litre plastic containers.
The first casualty was an eight-year-old boy who died upon arrival at a hospital in Madrid on May 1st, 1981. The rest of his family then presented with an unusual set of symptoms: headache, fever, itchy scalp, lethargy and interstitial lung disease. The hospital diagnosed the family with “atypical pneumonia” and treated them all with antibiotics but they showed little improvement. 
Across Spain, 20,000 patients presented with similar symptoms within one month of the incident. Thinking that an unexplained pneumonia outbreak was unfolding, a children’s hospital in Madrid conducted a randomised, double-blind controlled clinical trial on the effectiveness of the antibiotic erythromycin, which is particularly effective on infections of the respiratory system.  Unfortunately, they found no difference in recovery or mortality rates between the treated group and the control group and decided to keep looking for potential treatments.
Attempting all avenues, the researchers conducted lifestyle surveys on many patients, which included (among many other things) questions about cooking oil. Sadly, even though the source of the problem was staring them in the face, the results of the oil usage survey questions came back “inconclusive”. 
A baby ultimately solved the puzzle. Prognosis for young children was generally worse than for adults after they contracted the strange set of symptoms. Oddly, babies under six months were unaffected even if the entire rest of the family had presented with the pneumonia-like symptoms. Their infants were completely symptom-free. When one baby did get sick, however, this prompted deep and urgent questioning of the parents involved to find out what they did differently from others. One unusual aspect of the baby’s upbringing was that the baby’s grandmother had been ‘supplementing’ baby’s formula powder with cooking oil that was sold in an unlabelled 5-litre plastic container. 
Spanish government agencies acted quickly. The Ministry of Health and Consumer Affairs issued a recall of all oil sold in unlabelled plastic bottles within 40 days of the first casualty reporting with symptoms (the 8-year-old boy). Rates of patients presenting with symptoms of Toxic Oil Syndrome, as it would later be called, plummeted after the recall was announced on June 10th, 1981.
The aniline yellow had all been removed. The problem was a side-reaction, completely unknown to the scientists who were purifying the “machine oil”, that formed a new, harmful molecule that was large enough to escape their detection methods.
The molecule responsible for Toxic Oil Syndrome is called “OO PAP” in scientific literature. Visual inspection of OO PAP’s structure reveals that it’s quite simply an olive oil triglyceride molecule (triolein) with one of its three fatty acid tails replaced with a large aniline group.  When the rapeseed oil was adulterated with 2% aniline yellow to disguise it as “machine oil”, some of the aniline yellow molecules didn’t just blend in with the oil but reacted chemically with it to make OO PAP molecules. ITH, the company who sold the de-adulterated product as “pure olive oil”, was likely unaware of this chemical reaction, and therefore (we assume) also unaware of the poisonous OO PAP that had formed in the oil. While ITH successfully removed the aniline yellow, they failed to remove the OO PAP molecules, which escaped their filtration techniques.  Sadly, hundreds of people died and 20,000 more were made ill from OO PAP poisoning, and financial damage was estimated by El País newspaper to be 2 billion pesetas (around 16 million US dollars today).  Just like the scandal of the pink fuchsine socks, government and industry were forced to work together to respond quickly to a growing public crisis.
Every chemical – regardless of whether it’s found naturally or created synthetically – has the potential to be beneficial, harmful or harmless depending on the dosage and the way that it’s used. Aniline yellow, like all other chemicals, is incredibly useful when used correctly. It’s a fantastic microscopy stain but totally unsuitable for culinary use.
Today, people use aniline yellow to dye specimens for viewing under a light microscope. Aniline yellow’s dangers are stated clearly on its safety data sheets: handling it today requires training, permits, safety glasses, gloves and a lab coat to avoid all contact with skin and eyes. Now that chemistry has given us a better understanding of the aniline yellow, nobody dare use it to dye foodstuffs. 
The “deficit model” is a widely criticized theory that suggests that people who harbor attitudes of negativity or indifference towards science (in this case, chemistry) do so because they are uninformed about the topic (Chinese: 无知).
People’s misinformation might come from a lack of interest, a lack of exposure or an experience of poor science outreach in the past, where incorrect messages were delivered.
The “deficit model” stipulates that if people knew more about science, they’d naturally become more interested in it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always seem to work, and the ‘model’ is subjected to routine criticism.
Criticisms of the “deficit model”
It is patronizing to the public, which alienates them further from science
It implies that there is only one coherent, correct narrative of ‘science’
It implies that people who don’t like science are misinformed about it
Learning science isn’t always fun
Being forced to learn something they’re not interested in could reinforce negative attitudes towards science
The public is too varied to attempt to give a “one size fits all” theory of science outreach
It ignores the fact that members of the public have individual preconceived ideas about science before they’re introduced to new science information
It relies too much on monologue/lecturing the public rather than engaging them in dialogues
Employ alternatives to the “deficit model”
Critics of the “deficit model” tend to advocate solutions that involve dialogue (rather than monologue) with the public. Dialogue works better when the particular public audience in question has pre-existing views about the scientific topic being discussed (called ‘affected/partisan’ public groups).
There are four main types of ‘public’ audiences. The table below summarizes each of these types and how to engage with them, and is adapted from Canek Phillips report from 2013.
The general public consists of people with diverse views that represent a cross-section of society. In a group, these views cancel out somewhat, hiding the deviation of views. The “deficit model” of monologue delivery is an effective way to engage such a group.
The pure public is a group of people who have no pre-existing ideas about the topic being discussed. The “deficit model” can engage these audiences as well.
The affected public can only be engaged if their pre-existing views are acknowledged and respected beforehand. Dialogue is an excellent way of doing this. Examples of dialogue-based approaches include science shops, public hearings, citizen judies, stakeholder consultations and focus groups.
The partisan public is sometimes led by charismatic leaders or lobby groups. Their views might have been shaped by influential figures (e.g. Mercola, Food Babe) and the pre-existing views (misconceptions) delivered in this way need to be debunked through respectful dialogue rather than monologue.
In short, before telling your audience something, find out whether they have any pre-existing ideas about that topic. If they don’t, then go ahead with a monologue delivery. If they do, then launch a two-way discussion with them, in which you listen and respect their views. Only then, will they respect your opinion as well. ♦
Humans are irrational beings. Smoking kills 480,000 people per year in the United States, while an average of 170 lives are lost to terrorism each year in the same country. Counterintuitively, terrorism receives more media attention than smoking despite having a relatively tiny risk because we’re predisposed to fear dangers imposed by other people more than dangers with which we choose to engage ourselves.
Another great example is aeroplane crashes. Airlines today have an excellent safety record and flying is usually the safest mode of transport (safer than making the same journey by road or rail). We overestimate the dangers of flying on an aeroplane because someone else is in control.
Conversely, because summer heat waves are a natural phenomenon, we’re prone to underestimating their danger: tens of thousands of people die from excessive summer heat each year in the United States alone.
Irrational: we worry about terrorist attacks more than summer heat waves
Our ‘perceived risk’ almost never matches the ‘actual risk’. In the bubble chart below, the area of the circles above the line represent how much we worry about each risk. The area of the circles below the line represents the actual size of the risk in terms of how many people are harmed each year. In many cases, there is a huge disparity between ‘perceived risk’ and ‘actual risk’.
The table below shows the factors that increase and decrease our perceptions of risk.
Let’s evaluate two examples. First, smoking:
Conclusion: people are predisposed to underestimate the risks of smoking (9:1)
Second example: azodicarbonamide (dough improver) added to bread
Conclusion: people are predisposed to overestimate the risks of adding azodicarbonamide to bread (1:9)
This strange psychological quirk is one of the roots of chemophobia that I discuss much further in my upcoming book, Fighting Chemophobia (coming out late 2017).
Try it yourselves: use the table to find out whether we’re likely to over-fear or under-fear aeroplane crashes, climate change and parabens in cosmetics. You’ll find that we overestimate the risks of chemical ingredients in our food and products not because they necessarily pose any danger, but because we have this strangely irrational way of assessing risk in the world around us. ♦
The wines your great-grandchildren might one day drink on Mars will soon be coming to a bottle near you. Ava Winery is a San Francisco-based startup creating wines molecule by molecule, without the need for grapes or fermentation. With complete control over the chemical profile of the product, Ava’s wines can be created safely, sustainably, and affordably, joining the food technology revolution in creating the foods of the future.
For Ava, foods in the future will be scanned and printed as easily as photographs today. These digital recreations will be more than mere projections; they will be true chemical copies of the originals, capturing the same nutritional profiles, flavors, and textures of their “natural” counterparts. Our canvas will be macronutrients like starches and proteins; our pixels will be flavor molecules. Future generations won’t distinguish “natural” from “synthetic” because both will simply be considered food.
Consider ethyl hexanoate, although scary-sounding it is the very chemical that gives pineapples their characteristic smell and also fruity wines a tropical note. From pineapples, or indeed other organisms, ethyl hexanoate can be extracted much more efficiently. By sourcing more efficient producers of each of hundreds of different components, wines can be recreated as their originals.
Future generations won’t distinguish “natural” from “synthetic” because both will simply be considered food.
In fact, by eliminating the variability of natural systems as well as potential environmental contamination, this digitized future of food can increase the safety, consistency, and nutritional profile of foods. Such food products can reduce overall land and resource use and be less susceptible to climate fluctuations. Indeed this future will see significant reductions in the costs of food production as the cost of the raw ingredients shifts to more efficient sources of each molecule.
So why wine?
We knew there would be a controversial love/hate relationship with our mission to build wine molecule by molecule. To the elite who value the high-end wine experience, our molecularly identical creation of the $10,000+ bottle of 1973 Chateau Montelena will be a mockery; but to the public, the $10,000 turned $20 bottle will be a sensation. To the purists who still believe organic is the only way to eat or drink healthily, our wine will get “some knickers in knots”; but to the nonconformists, our wine will be a contemporary luxury made by contemporary technology.
In short, wine is just the beginning. Soon, Ava hopes to build more food products molecule by molecule further blurring these lines between natural vs. synthetic while simultaneously making luxury items available for all. With our groundwork, the Star Trek future of food might be closer than we thought.
There’s an interesting psychological quirk that makes us yearn for a benevolent, caring Mother Nature that can cure our ailments without any side effects. Academics call it the “naturalness preference” or “biophilia”, and the Norwegians call it “friluftsliv” (literally: free-air-life).
Friluftsliv began in 18th century Scandanavia as part of a romantic “back-to-nature” movement for the upper classes. Urbanisation and industrialisation in the 19th century disconnected Norwegians from a natural landscape to which they’d been so interconnected for over five thousand years.
Norway’s sparse population, vast landscapes and midnight sun (in the summer months, at least) make it an excellent place for hunting and exploration. These ideal conditoins produced some of the greatest trekkers and hikers the world has ever seen. I’ll show you two heart-warming examples.
The first is Norway’s infamous explorer Fritjof Nansen, who (very nearly) reached the north pole in 1896 as part of a three-year expedition by ship, dog-sled and foot. When world war one broke out, Nansen put his trekking knowledge into practice by helping European civilians escape the perils of war and move to safer places. He facilitated several logistical operations in the early 20th century that saw the movements of millions of civilians across Europe. When famine broke out in Russia in 1921, he arranged the transportation of enough food to save 22 million people from starvation in Russia’s remotest regions. Deservedly, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his efforts.
The second example is Norway’s Roald Amundsen, who was the first person to reach the south pole in 1911. Nansen lent his ship, Fram, to Amundsen for a north pole expedition in 1909. Before Amundsen set sail, however, he learned that two rival American explorers – each accompanied by groups of native Inuit men – had already reached the north pole and were disputing the title of “first discoverer” among themselves. When Amundsen finally did set sail, he took Nansen’s Fram vessel to Antarctica instead, where he and his team disembarked and trekked a successful round-trip to the south pole. While Amundsen admits he was inspired by Nansen’s successful polar expeditions, I’m sure that Norway’s vast landscapes, summer sun and long-standing tradition of “Allemansrätten” (the right to traverse other people’s private land) also contributed to Amundsen’s yearning for friluftsliv: the obsessive search for a truly untouched wilderness. (Amundsen 1927)
The world’s first tourist organisations were founded in Norway (1868), Sweden (1885) with the goal of helping Scandinavian elites in their search for true nature. When the Industrial Revolution brought many indoor, sedentary factory jobs to Scandinavia, workers craved the outdoors that their culture had been in harmony with for thousands of years. Elites in the late 19th century signed up to go on expeditions to escape encroaching urbanisation. Later, in 1892, a group of Swedish soldiers founded the non-profit organisation Friluftsfrämjandet, which provided outdoor recreational activities to the labouring classes with a particular emphasis on giving free skiing lessons to children. Thanks to Friluftsfrämjandet, and the working-time legislations that came into play in the early 20th century, the middle and lower classes were finally able to pursue their obsession with finding nature, or friluftsliv.
“…[W]e arrange activities to win great experiences, together. We hike, bike, walk, climb, paddle, ski and skate together. We train the best outdoor guides and instructors in Sweden. And we have fun together!” (Friluftsfrämjandet 2017)
Hans Gelter, Associate Professor at Luleå University of Technology, writes that even friluftsliv has become commodified in the age of consumerism. He claims that the high prices commanded for outdoor equipment and transportation to remote places act as a barrier between hikers and the nature they claim to be seeking. (Gelter 2000) In Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered (1985), Timothy Luke argues that outdoor pursuits are now more about testing fancy equipment than finding a deep connection with Mother Nature. Snowboarding is now more about testing the latest boards and wearing eye-catching outfits than it is about enjoying pristine mountain vistas. Golf is now as much about donning luxury clothing brands and using expensive golf clubs as it is about enjoying the outdoors. Even many shower gels and body washes now contain a drop of lemon essence or avocado oil – for which you pay an extra dollar – that adds nothing to the utility of the product. We do this because we crave nature in an industrialised world.
My book Fighting Chemophobia (coming at the end of 2017) is approaching 60,000 words in length. Copious reading and lively discussions with many colleagues and academics is helping to shape the stories in the book.
Follow me on twitter to stay up-to-date with the book’s progress.
It’s been exactly three years since I uploaded the original banana poster.
In 2014, I soon followed up with podcasts, radio appearances, press interviews, a T-shirt Store and twelve more fruit ingredient labels. I’ve done six more customised fruit ingredients labels for private clients. The images have since appeared in textbooks, corporate promotional material, YouTube videos, T-shirts, mugs and aprons.
Momentum built in 2015. Parodies emerged online, and a copycat image appeared in one Chemistry textbook. I started writing about chemophobia and consulting with experts on how to address the issue. In short, it’s very, very complicated, and has deep evolutionary origins. I set a goal to understand chemophobia and provide a roadmap to tackle it effectively.
In 2016, my voluminous OneNote scribblings turned into a book. I have a first draft saved on OneDrive (thank you for keeping it safe, Microsoft) and I’ll be proofreading it on an long-haul intercontinental flight for you later today.
My next book, tentatively titled “Fighting Chemophobia”, will be published in late 2017.
I promise that my book “Fighting Chemophobia” will contain the following:
Stories you can share on a first date;
Maths – but just a little;
Chemistry – but not too much;
A deep exploration of chemophobia’s roots;
Tangible solutions to chemophobia;
More stories. Lots of true stories.
This “Fighting Chemophobia” book is for:
Educated people who are interested in a fascinating, growing social phenomenon;
People who want to settle the ‘natural’ vs ‘artificial’ debate;
People who love reading.
To get your hands on a copy, subscribe to this blog for email updates. Just click ‘Follow’ somewhere on this page (its location depends on which device you’re using).
I promise that throughout 2017, you’ll receive teasers, snippets and discarded book fragments via this blog to get you excited.
In 1808, a massive volcano erupted somewhere on Earth. So large was the eruption that it bellowed sulfate particles into the atmosphere that caused significant global cooling in the years that followed (Guevara-Murua 2014). Despite its gargantuan size, nobody to this day has been able to locate the volcano or find any direct eyewitness accounts of its eruption. The volcanic eruption of 1808 remains an unresolved scientific mystery to this day.
How do we know this mystery volcano ever erupted at all? The first piece of evidence is an increase in sulfuric acid concentration found in Greenland ice cores, which are a characteristic ‘chemical signature’ of sulfur-rich volcanic eruptions (Dai 1991). The only major spike in sulfuric acid concentration in Greenland ice that doesn’t align with a real volcanic eruption observed somewhere on Earth is the spike found around 1808, suggesting the existence of this mysterious volcano.
The second piece of evidence is called the ‘sulfur isotope anomaly’. Deposits of sulfur buried deep underground have a different isotopic composition compared with sulfur sources on the planet’s surface. In the same way that we can monitor the effects of fossil fuel combustion on atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, we can quantify the amount of sulfur emitted from volcanoes by measuring changes in the relative quantity of sulfur-33. A huge spike in Δ33S suggests an enormous volcanic eruption occurred – and that’s exactly what we see when we study samples from the year 1808.
The third piece of evidence comes from trees. Trees grow at different rates depending on the climate. In particular, trees grow faster when it’s warmer (but not too hot, of course, which inhibits their growth somewhat), and they grow more slowly when it’s cold. Counting tree rings can reveal not only the age of the tree, but measuring the thickness of each tree ring allows researchers to estimate the amount of growth the tree accomplished in a given year. By measuring different trees in the same region, researchers can gain insight into the past climate of that particular region. Analysis of tree rings has shown that bristlecone pine trees had drastically decreased growth rates in the summer of 1809, suggesting the climate cooled significantly around that time (Salzer 2007). Cooling might have been caused by a giant volcano.
While none of this evidence amounts to a direct observation that the mystery supervolcano ever erupted, we do have eyewitness accounts of volcanic ejecta from exactly the same time. All the evidence, taken together, definitely points to the fact that the supervolcano did in fact exist. Scientists, in fact, are certain.
The first eyewitness account was written a highly respected Colombian scientist called Francisco José de Caldas, who described “a transparent cloud that obstructs the sun’s brilliance” over Colombia for several months from December 1808 to February 1809. The second eyewitness was a physician named José Hipólito Unanue who wrote about seeing “sunset afterglows” over Peru in the same time period. Both these observations are characteristic of large volcanic eruptions.
The fact that atmospheric haze was observed in both Colombia and Peru, which are in the southern and northern hemispheres respectively, suggest that this volcano was located somewhere in the tropics. These observations imply that ash was cast 2,600 km in all directions but the effect on the climate was global. One researcher is quoted as saying the mystery volcano “blanketed the planet in ash”. (Cole-Dai n.d.)
Vulcanologists rate volcanic eruptions on a scale called VEI (volcanic explosivity index), which is similar to the Richter scale for earthquakes. It’s a logarithmic scale that approximates the volume of ash that’s ejected by a particular eruption. The logarithmic nature of the scale means that while a VEI-3 eruption is called “severe”, a VEI-4 event is called “cataclysmic”. In 2010, Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland, resulting in ash cloud so large that it caused severe delays to air traffic across Europe, Greenland, Russia and eastern Canada. The Eyjafjallajökull eruption was a VEI-4 (“cataclysmic”) event.
When Mount Saint Helens erupted in 1908, killing 57 people and causing $1.1 billion of damage across Canada and the US, it was classified by vulcanologists as a VEI-5 (“paroxysmic”) event. Alarmingly, the mystery volcano in 1808 was at least 10 times more devastating than Mount Saint Helens in terms of the volume of ash ejected. The mystery volcano was a VEI-6 event, and it’s described by vulcanologists as “colossal”.
Volcanic ash acts “like a giant window shade, reflecting sunlight and lowering temperatures on the ground for years afterward” (Cole-Dai n.d.). Temperatures across Europe were measurably lower in the years that followed as the ash cloud obscured incoming rays from the sun. Trees grew more slowly (as evidenced by tree ring data), harvests were diminished and the climate cooled for several years afterwards.
This cooling came at a very inconvenient time. Temperatures were already lower than usual in the northern hemisphere due to the Little Ice Age. In a further devastating blow, a second, much larger volcano erupted on April 10, 1815. It was located on Mount Tambora in Indonesia and had an intensity of VEI-7 or “super-colossal” (this is just one level away from VEI-8, which is named rather horrifyingly, “apocalyptic”). Mount Tambora’s eruption was so ‘super-colossal’ that 90% of the islanders on Tambora were killed by lava flowing down from the sky. Downpours of hot ash killed trees and fish for miles around, covering them with inches of grey dust. Hot ejecta was propelled eighteen miles into the air above the volcano producing a ‘boom’ that could be heard a thousand miles away. People across Indonesia mistook the volcanic ‘boom’ for a ship’s rescue signal or a bomb detonation. Some army officials across Indonesia’s vast archipelago even dispatched troops to defend their islands after mistaking the ongoing volcanic roar for the sound of an invading army.
The sulfur dioxide released from the super-colossal Mount Tambora explosion reacted with gases in the stratosphere to produce 100 million tons of sulfuric acid, H2SO4. The sulfuric acid condensed and remained suspended in an ‘aerosol cloud’ (basically a cloud) that was accelerated by stratospheric jet streams (basically very strong winds) until the entire globe was smeared with a thin layer of H2SO4. This is a rare event, and only happens following truly colossal volcanic eruptions. Interestingly, H2SO4 reflects incoming rays from the sun, and temperatures, which were already low as a result of the mystery supervolcano in 1808, were lowered yet again. The year 1815 was, as some writers put it, “the year without a summer”. Temperatures that year were about three degrees lower than usual across Europe, which is incredible considering that both volcanoes erupted near the equator.
If the Mount Tambora volcano was a little smaller, the sulfuric acid would have formed in the atmosphere instead, and would have rained back down to the surface as acid rain. But at stratospheric altitudes, far above the clouds, the sulfuric acid haze stayed there for years acting as a kind of sunscreen for our planet.
How does this relate to chemophobia? The combination of the Little Ice Age, the 1808 mystery eruption and the super-colossal eruption of 1815 had cooled the climate to such an extent that the weather in Lake Geneva was terrible in the summer of 1815. Who was there at the time? Mary Shelley, of course, who was staying indoors drinking because the weather was too bad to go boating. Cold, bored and disappointed at the lack of a ‘summer’ holiday, Shelley and her companions set about writing ghost stories instead. Among them was Frankenstein, which featured the original, quintessential stereotype of a mad scientist. The cliché lives on to this day.