Tag Archives: chemophobia

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/.

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?

The Ingredients in Food Phenomenon Continues…

Ingredients of an All-Natural Banana went viral back in January 2014 and attracted over 2 million views on various websites worldwide. The posters and t-shirts are now available in 7 different languages.

Image

Since January 2014, I’ve sold almost $8,000 worth of merchandise online, including t-shirts, posters and coffee mugs, and next month, Banana T-shirts will be available in two physical stores in the US and the Netherlands. Other successful bloggers are picking up on the trend as well: here’s a great contribution to the ‘Ingredients’ phenomenon from Compound Chem:

My favourite contribution overall has to be this one (below). it’s simple and artistic and states a very strong message. It’s part of an educational series by Sense About Science, and you can download their groundbreaking report from their website here.

The reality boils down to six points:

  1. You can’t lead a chemical-free life.
  2. Natural isn’t always good for you and man-made chemicals are not inherently dangerous.
  3. Synthetic chemicals are not causing many cancers and other diseases.
  4. ‘Detox’ is a marketing myth.
  5. We need man-made chemicals.
  6. We are not just subjects in an unregulated, uncontrolled environment, there are checks in place.

In the meantime, I’ve been producing educational Chemistry and Physics booklets for VCEasy, which are being released for free to high-school students via the internet. (VCE is the name of our high-school syllabus in Victoria, Australia.)

The VCEasy Visual VCE booklets are designed to give students a concise, visual summary of all the essential knowledge for their VCE course—with nothing superfluous added, and nothing taken away. Just 100% VCE notes.

The design is highly visual, and each page corresponds to one Key Knowledge Point taken directly from the VCAA Study Design. More information (including free downloads) are available here.

Poster Prints Now Available

jameskennedymonash poster selection

I’m obsessed with print. I love typefaces, I care about using the right quality paper and inks, and I’m fussy about alignment, kerning and line spacing. And that’s why I decided to sell “Ingredients” poster prints.

I’ve got one of each of these prints, and—Wow!—they look so much more gorgeous in real life than on-screen.

Ordering prints is a less formal affair than the T-Shirt Store—just cover my costs via PayPal and I’ll get the prints on the way to your address within 24 hours. Click the Order Prints tab in the website’s ribbon to get your hands on some of these “Ingredients” prints.

Oh—and they’re cheap. Just $10 each and worldwide shipping is available :)

Order one to help spread the word. I’ll even sign them if you like ;) James

My T-Shirt Store is Now Open!

Love Science? Show off your love of “organic” chemistry with an Ingredients T-Shirt from James Kennedy Clothing. All our T-shirts are made in Australia. Priced from just $15.95 each.

Visit our store here: http://jameskennedymonash.secure-decoration.com/shop

James Kennedy Clothing T-Shirt Store
Click the image to visit the official “All-Natural Ingredients” Store

Just 10 days after it was created, the Ingredients of an All-Natural Banana was already the third most Reddited post of all time on Reddit Chemistry.

They were downloaded 7,000 times last week from this website alone.

I didn’t intend to make any more of these images. Three was enough. But I decided to take this Ingredients theme a bit further after I saw how widely they’d been circulated on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and various other social media sites—many of which are in foreign languages—and none of which, I use.

So welcome to the Store. There’ll be more products coming soon if people like what’s already up there. I welcome your feedback as always. James :)

Banana/Blueberry/Egg Ingredients Poster PDFs

Here are high-resolution PDFs of all three posters. Free to use. Feedback welcome.

Click each image to download the PDF poster.

Ingredients of an All-Natural Egg Ingredients of an All-Natural Banana Ingredients of All-Natural Blueberries

About these posters: As a Chemistry teacher, I want to erode the fear that many people have of “chemicals”, and demonstrate that nature evolves compounds, mechanisms and structures far more complicated and unpredictable than anything we can produce in the lab.

Ingredients of All-Natural Blueberries

There are now 20 graphics on my to-do list. I’ll probably make about 5 of them, and only one or two of those will be any good. :P (Making graphics is a bit like taking photographs—you take 1000 photos on holiday, delete 500 and put no more than 6 on your wall.)

The Table of Esters and Their Smells did surprisingly well. It got over 2,000 downloads on its first day. :)

The graphic below is a follow-up to Ingredients of an All-Natural Banana. To make these graphics, I calculated the percentage composition of all the interesting ingredients and wrote an “ingredients” label for each fruit using E-numbers where they exist. Anthocynanins, which are said to give blueberries their “superfood” status, are also known as E163, for example.

As a Chemistry teacher, I want to erode the fear that many people have of “chemicals”, and demonstrate that nature evolves compounds, mechanisms and structures far more complicated and unpredictable than anything we can produce in the lab. Enjoy!

Ingredients of All-Natural Blueberries POSTER
Click to view large JPEG

I like the “fresh air” at the end. Nitrogen is E941, Oxygen is E948 and Carbon Dioxide is E290. (Argon, which comprises about 1% of the air we breathe, also has its own E-number: E938.) Thousands of minority ingredients including DNA have been omitted for brevity’s sake.

Sources

Ingredients of an All-Natural Banana

This visualisation has a short story behind it.

Ingredients of an All-Natural Banana
Click to view large JPEG

I usually care too much about food labels. If something has monosodium glutamate (E621) or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in it, I’m probably not going to buy it no matter how healthy or delicious the food looks as a whole. (Strangely, I’d be willing to eat it, though.)

Some people care about different ingredients such as “E-numbers”. I made this graphic to demonstrate how “natural” products (such as a banana) contain scary-looking ingredients as well. All the ingredients on this list are 100% natural in a non-GM banana. None of them are pesticides, fertilisers, insecticides or other contaminants.

There’s a tendency for advertisers to use the words “pure” and “simple” to describe “natural” products when they couldn’t be more wrong. With this diagram, I want to demonstrate that “natural” products are usually more complicated than anything we can create in the lab. For brevity’s sake, I omitted the thousands of minority ingredients found in a banana, including DNA ;-)

Enjoy!