Tag Archives: chemicals

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.

On the Origins of Chemophobia – Part 1

800px-the_earth_seen_from_apollo_17
“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

All-Natural Banana Poster Series PDFs

Ingredients of an All-Natural Banana and other fruits set $99
New for 2016: Click to download free PDFs of all twelve All-Natural Posters

It’s been two years since I posted the All-Natural Banana. Motivation behind this poster was to dispel the myth that “natural = good” and “artificial = bad”. It’s been a very successful project. It’s spawned 11 more “Ingredients” posters, a successful clothing line, and has sold thousands of print copies worldwide via this website.

Online news portal io9 then published a news story about the All-Natural Banana, which was followed in quick succession by articles in Vox, Forbes, Business Insider, the New York Times and more.

The All-Natural Banana has now received over 700,000 views via this website and millions more views via social media.

From today onwards, you can download the original PDF artworks for free. They come with a Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Creative Commons License, which means that you can share them, print them and modify them as much as you like for non-commercial purposes only.

I’ll be following this up with an article on the ‘Origins of Chemophobia’ next week. Subscribe to this website below or subscribe via my Apple News channel here.

Click here to download the whole poster set.

Creative Commons Licence
All-natural Banana by James Kennedy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://jameskennedymonash.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/ingredients-of-an-all-natural-banana/.

The Chemistry behind the Tianjin Explosions

liu_bolin_tianjin_explosions_2016
Artwork by Liu Bolin: “Tianjin Explosions”

About the artist: Liu Bolin imbeds himself and others into the photograph, declaring their position as individuals within the catastrophic incident, thus calling viewer’s attention to the aftermath and investigation of the disaster. Through recreating the imagery of the damage and devastation caused by the explosion, the project is Liu’s attempt to reveal social issues in China, as well as to reflect on the complex relationship between the past and the present, the reality and the illusion, as well as individuality and society. Visit Liu Bolin’s gallery page here.

As a Chemistry teacher, my initial reaction to the enormous explosions at a hazardous chemicals storage facility in Tianjin, China this week was a need to find out what exploded and why. As soon as the news broke, I started following #Tianjin on Twitter and getting alerts from Google News. Here’s what I’ve learned about the Chemistry behind these two fatal blasts. We know there were several dangerous chemicals on site. We also know that firefighters were present at the facility putting out a fire before the first explosion. The second explosion was much larger than the first, with the two blasts measuring the equivalent of 3 and 21 tons of TNT, respectively. The second, larger blast was so powerful that it caused a magnitude 2.9 earthquake in the surrounding area. For a surface explosion to cause a measurable earthquake is rare.

Here’s my understanding of what happened.

Stage 1: Fire

An unknown substance caught fire inside one of the storage containers at the facility. Firefighters arrived at the scene to douse the flames with water.

Stage 2: Water touches calcium carbide, producing acetylene gas

CaC2(s) + 2H2O(l) → Ca(OH)2(s) + C2H2(g) ΔH = -127.7 kJ/mol

Calcium carbide, CaC2(s), is an unstable compound that’s used in the production of acetylene (ethyne) and also in steelmaking. When water (or moist air) touches calcium carbide, it fizzes gently, releasing acetylene gas, C2H2(g), which, when mixed appropriately with air, explodes upon ignition. The reaction above is only slightly exothermic, and the ethyne gas released is colourless and odourless: it’s possible that the firefighters didn’t even notice that the gas was being produced.

Stage 3: Flames ignite the acetylene gas, causing the first explosion

After the ethyne had mixed sufficiently with the surrounding air, one part of this explosive gas mixture was ignited by the pre-existing flames, causing the first explosion.

C2H2(g) + 5/2O2(g) → 2CO2(g) + H2O(g) ΔH = -1299 kJ/mol

Eyewitness reports have estimated this first explosion to be equivalent to 3 tons of TNT, which equates to 12.5 million kilojoules of energy. Using n = E/ΔH, we find that around 9662 moles of ethyne appears to have exploded. Using V = n×VM, we can calculate that at 25°C and 1 atm of pressure, that explosive gas would have occupied a volume of 236719 litres. Using r = (3V÷4π)1/3, we can approximate the ethyne gas to have occupied a sphere 76 metres in diameter, which is (very approximately) consistent with what we’ve seen in the video footage.

Interestingly, we can do a simple stoichiometric calculation using m = n×Mr and calculate the initial mass of calcium carbide that decomposed: 9662 × 64.1 = 619 kilograms. At a density of 2.22 g/cm3, those 619 kilograms would have occupied 279 litres in powdered form: this is about the same size as three large luggage cases.

A quick search on Chinese wholesale directory Alibaba.com shows that very few companies offer calcium carbide in such small quantities, which might help narrow down which company was responsible. Interestingly, the raw material for that first explosion was worth a mere US$400 at 2015 wholesale prices… but the consequential damage was far more costly.

Stage 4: High temperatures caused nearby ammonium nitrate to detonate at >240°C, causing the second explosion

Temperatures of over 3000°C were generated by the combustion of the ethyne in stage 3. The immense heat from that initial fireball heated the surrounding containers to above 240°C, which initiated a runaway decomposition reaction of ammonium nitrate, NH4NO3(s), which was stored nearby. The reaction is shown below.

NH4NO3(s) → N2(g) + 2H2O(g) + 1/2O2(g)  (ΔH uncertain)

The enthalpy change for the reaction above wasn’t easy to find, but this book by Sam Mannan claims it to be 0.175 million kilocalories per tonne, or 732,000 kilojoules per tonne. Analysis of the video recordings have estimated this second explosion to be around 21 tons of TNT equivalent, which equates to 88 million kilojoules of energy. Using calorimetry formula m = E/heat of combustion, we can estimate the mass of ammonium nitrate in this second explosion to be 8300 tonnes, which seems extremely high: four times as big as the Texas City Disaster of 1947. Either the second Tianjin explosion was the biggest ammonium nitrate disaster in history, or I’ve made an error in this part of the analysis. Let’s wait for more information and see.

The above reaction has caused hundreds of fatalities worldwide in the last 100 years. Smaller incidents occur every 2 or 3 years worldwide, around half of which are fatal. Gases are produced under extreme temperature and pressure, which expand outwards and destroy almost everything in their path. Ammonium nitrate is supposed to be handled and stored under very strict government regulations. These rules aren’t always followed (or understood) in rapidly-developing countries such as China.

The Aftermath

The products of these two explosions are calcium hydroxide, carbon dioxide, water vapour, nitrogen and oxygen, which pose zero risk to nearby residents. However, the main concern now is that other (non-flammable) hazardous chemicals such as sodium cyanide, NaCN(s), might have been tossed into the air following the first two explosions. Residents living within 3 kilometres of the blast site have been evacuated as a precaution.

Fortunately, satellite imagery shows that almost all of the smoke plume was blown eastwards over the ocean, and not back westwards and back onto the city. We’ll get a clearer picture when China’s chemical experts report their findings in the next few days or weeks.

Common Names of Carboxylic Acids

Ever wondered why ‘formic acid’ is so-called? Or montanic acid? Or melissic acid? This handy A3 poster shows you the Latin/Greek/Persian origins of each of the carboxylic acids’ common names from ‘formic acid’ (no. 1) to ‘hexatriacontylic acid’ (no. 36). Each acid comes with a cute graphical description of where its name comes from.

Common Names of Carboxylic Acids
Click to enlarge

There are some interesting origin stories behind each of these names. Formic acid, for example, is found in insect stings (hence the name). Palmitic acid is found in palm trees (hence the name), and myristic acid is found in nutmeg.

Three of the carboxylic acids are named after goats: caproic acid, caprylic acid and capric acid. Together, these three molecules comprise 15% of the fatty acids found in goats’ milk, and many reports also suggest that they smell ‘goat-like’!

Many of the odd-numbered higher carboxylic acids are rarer in nature and thus didn’t earn a common name until recently. Undecylic acid, for example, which has eleven carbon atoms in its backbone, is named simply after the Greek word for ‘eleven’.

Click here for more Chemistry posters.

Artificial vs Natural Peach

Artificial vs Natural Peach jameskennedymonash

This artificial vs natural foods phenomenon has grown somewhat since the All-Natural Banana.

This infographic explores the differences between the natural, “wild peach” and its modern, artificial relative. It explores how the ancient Chinese developed a small, wild fruit (that tasted like a lentil) into the juicy, delicious peaches that we eat today.

This image also pays homage to the thousands of years of toil that farmers put into developing the Peach regardless of whether they were aware of it consciously or not.

After the wild peach was domesticated in 4000 B.C., farmers selected seeds from the tastiest fruits for re-planting. They tended to the trees for thousands of years, and the fruits became bigger and juicier with each generation. After 6000 years of artificial selection, the resulting Peach was 16 times larger, 27% juicier and 4% sweeter than its wild cousin, and had massive increases in nutrients essential for human survival as well.

Which one would you rather eat?