Tag Archives: chemophobia

LIVE Chemophobia Session Thursday 11th August @ 2pm ET

Click to register for the free webinar
Click to register for our free webinar hosted by the American Chemical Society

What can I expect to learn?

  • What does the public think of chemistry, chemicals and chemists?
  • How prevalent is chemophobia?
  • How did we evolve the propensity to become chemophobic?
  • Who were the first chemophobes?
  • What is a “chemical”?
  • Why have chemists’ efforts to fight chemophobia been to no avail?
  • What’s the ultimate cure for chemophobia, and who’s willing to fund it?
  • What can you do as a chemist to combat chemophobia?

Registration is open

Click the above banner to register for the free webinar.

Chemists need to speak the same language as the public

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Chemists and the public need to be speaking the same language

Chemicals

The public uses the word ‘chemical’ to mean ‘synthetic substance’. Chemists have traditionally opposed this definition and stuck with ‘substance’ instead, responding with “everything is a chemical” in defence.

Arguing over definitions is futile and avoids the elephant in the room – that there’s been almost no public outreach to support the field of chemistry in the last few decades to counteract growing public skepticism of science (and of chemistry in particular).

Furthermore, it’s even more futile arguing over definitions when the Oxford English Dictionary provides a clear answer to this debate:

chemical (noun) – a distinct compound or substance, especially one which has been artificially prepared or purified

I ask all chemists to embrace the dictionary definition of ‘chemical’ and stop bickering with the public over definitions.

My main concern here is that if “everything is a chemical”, then it therefore follows that ‘chemophobia’ is the fear of everything, which is nonsensical. If we’re going to talk about chemophobia, we’re also going to have to accept the definition of chemical that the OED and the public have been using for a long time: that “chemical” = “artificially prepared substance”.

So what do we call non-synthetic chemicals? Try using a word with less baggage such as “molecule”, “compound”, “substance” or “element” where it’s relevant. By using these words, we avoid the natural=good/artificial=bad divide, which is the central assumption of chemophobia.

Chemophobia

‘Chemophobia’ is an irrational aversion to chemicals perceived as synthetic.

The word ‘chemophobia’ refers to a small subset of people who are not only disenfranchised by science, but who have subscribed to alternative sources of knowledge (either ancient wisdom or – sadly – Google). Many people with chemophobia are protesting against the establishment, and this is particularly evident in the anti-GMO movement. At the core of most people who oppose GMOs is a moral/political opposition to having their food supply controlled by giant corporations. No number of scientific studies concluding the safety and reliability of GMO crops will succeed in persuading them otherwise because the anti-GMO movement is founded on moral/political beliefs, not on science. By throwing science at them, we’re wasting our time.

More important than chemophobia

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s recent report on Public Perceptions of Science showed roughly a 20-60-20 range of attitudes towards chemistry.

206020.png

No matter how the RSC phrased the question, roughly 20% of the UK public who were surveyed indicated a negative attitude towards chemistry, and another 20% showed a positive attitude. The 60% in the middle felt disconnected from the subject – maybe disliked it in school – but felt neutral towards it when asked.

Chemophobia afflicts some people in the bottom 20%. They gave negative word-associations with ‘chemistry’ (e.g. ‘accidents’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘inaccessible’).That bottom 20% group is so vocal (e.g. Food Babe) that they distract chemists from the 60% in who are neutral. The ‘neutral’ crowd is a much larger audience that’s much easier to engage/persuade through outreach efforts. We should focus on talking to them.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has said in interviews that his huge TV hit show COSMOS was aimed at “people who didn’t even know they might like science”. That’s the middle 60%. Brian Cox’s amazing Wonders of the Universe was aimed at a similar audience – but chemistry has nothing similar to offer. We’re engaging those who are already interested (with academic talks and specialist journals) and we’re engaging with the bottom 20% via social media and comments on foodbabe.com… but why haven’t we started engaging the middle 60%, who gets most of their science information from TV? How many chemistry TV icons can you name? Where are the multi-channel launches of big-budget chemistry documentaries*? Chemistry is lagging far behind biology and physics in that regard.

*BBC Four’s Chemistry: A Volatile History (2010) doesn’t count – it was only three episodes long, got no further than ‘the elements’ and was presented by a PHYSICIST!

Focus on the 60% who are ‘neutral’

I ask chemists to focus on addressing the disinterested 60%. From an outreach perspective, this is much more fun and is positive rather than reactionary. By engaging those who feel neutral about chemistry, we might even empower enough of the public to fight chemophobia (online, at least) by themselves – without our direct intervention.

I urge chemists to tell the public what you do in simple terms. Describe your work to the public. Tweet about it. Participate in your university/faculty’s YouTube videos by explaining your work and its relevance. Offer advice as a science correspondent for local media outlets (many universities have ‘expert lines’ – get involved). Give your ‘talk’ at local schools – it make a HUGE difference to students’ perceptions of science. Devote 5% of your working time to doing outreach. As a teacher, I’m practically doing it full-time.

Plus, we urgently need a chemistry TV hero. Could someone do that, too, please?

Registration is open!

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About the webinar

James Kennedy will explore the rise of chemophobia, an irrational fear of compounds perceived as ‘synthetic’, and the damage it can cause in this interactive webinar. We’ll examine its evolutionary roots, the factors keeping it alive today and how to fight chemophobia successfully.

What You Will Learn

  • Origins of chemophobia as an irrational psychological quirk
  • Chemistry teachers, Walter White, materialism and advertisements are all fuelling chemophobia today
  • Fighting chemophobia needs to be positive, respectful, multifaceted, and good for consumers

Webinar Details

  • Date: Thursday, August 11, 2016 @ 2-3pm ET
  • Fee: Free to Attend
  • Download Slides: Available Day of Broadcast

Register your attendance here.

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Slide from the lecture. Click to register to attend.

ASAP Science Video: This is NOT NATURAL

this is not natural
Click to watch AsapSCIENCE’s video on YouTube

AsapSCIENCE has made an awesome video called This is NOT NATURAL based on the work I’ve been doing on this site. Watch the video and read the comments thread for some insight into the discussion (and misinformation) that spreads online regarding ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ products.

One of the most upvoted comments is actually a thinly-veiled advertisement for a book called “The Coconut Oil Secret: Why this tropical treasure is nature’s #1 healing superfood”. Click through to their product page and you’ll see why the natural/organic sector needs more regulation, and why consumers need to be better-informed.

Check out the video below, or click here to visit the comments thread on YouTube.

Personal Care Product Ingredients: Are Natural, Chemical Free, and Organic Always Best?

Personal Care Product Ingredients: Are Natural, Chemical Free, and Organic Always Best? Reserach Review Thumbnails
Click to download full article via Research Review NZ/The Parent Centre, NZ
Shaun Holt and I recently co-wrote a paper for Research Review on the ingredients found in personal care products (e.g. shampoos, lotions and cosmetics). We analyse the recent surge in demand for ‘natural’ products and the beliefs that have been driving it.

We’re not saying that natural products don’t work – in fact, quite the opposite. We’re saying that natural products, just like synthetic ones, can be harmful, beneficial or neutral depending on the dose and upon how they’re used. 

Article preview

The terms “natural”, “chemical free” and “organic” are used frequently to market personal care products. However, the exact meaning of these terms is still unclear for consumers, and the use of these terms on labels is still unregulated in some markets. The purpose of this review is to provide clarity on the meanings of these terms and the implications of their application in the marketing of personal care products. The importance of applying a science-based approach to the assessment and recommendation of personal care products is also emphasised. This review is intended as an educational resource for healthcare professionals (HCPs), including nurses, midwives, pharmacists, and pharmacy assistants.

Read the rest of the article here.

‘Chemophobia’ podcast with Sam Howarth

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Click to listen to the podcast via Soundcloud

In a debut podcast, Sam Howarth discusses with chemophobia research-enthusiast and chemistry teacher, James Kennedy, the evolution of fearing chemicals and the people who are driving it behind the scenes.

Sam Howarth is a self-taught nutrition and fitness enthusiast – a fanatic learned through trial and error over 3 years of research and over 10 years of personal struggles with food and body image.

In the podcast, we talk about chemophobia, its origins and the money that keeps it alive.

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My iOS app is free until the end of June 2016

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Screenshot from my free iOS app

I quietly released a simple iOS app back in March 2016. It’s free to download and works on iPhone and iPads running iOS 7.0 or later.

It’s called VCE Study Tools (Chemistry) and it’s the fastest way to browse this website on a mobile device.

Get it from the App Store here.

I’m removing it from the App Store at the end of June 2016 so I can release something a little better later on. If you want the app, go ahead and download it before it’s gone!

James Kennedy's iOS app called VCE Study Tools (Chemistry) is available on the App Store

‘Chemophobia’ is irrational, harmful – and hard to break

Chemophobia lab.jpg
Kiran Foster/Flickr

We all feel a profound connection with the natural world. E O Wilson called this sensation biophilia: ‘the urge to affiliate with other forms of life’. That sense of connection brings great emotional satisfaction. It can decrease levels of anger, anxiety and pain. It has undoubtedly helped our species to survive, since we are fundamentally dependent on our surrounding environment and ecosystem. But lately, biophilia has spawned an extreme variant: chemophobia, a reflexive rejection of modern synthetic chemicals.

Continue reading this article on AEON IDEAS…

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.

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/.