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.
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’ 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.
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?
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.
In science education, chemistry is one of the disciplines that involves regular hands-on work in a laboratory. While teaching students the intricacies of chemistry presents no exceptional risk, the very real dangers posed by many chemicals demand a higher level of safety consciousness and preparedness. This general overview outlines sensible security precautions for high school and college chemistry labs.
The Importance Of Documentation
Fortunately, in a classroom setting, all of the chemicals being used will be well understood. This means information on their potential risks is widely available. This information must be used to ensure that each substance used is treated with the proper respect for the dangers it poses.
The first source of information for any chemical is the label it carries. These always describe their hazards, but labeling may be incomplete. A more authoritative source for hazard information is the material safety data sheet (usually referred to as an MSDS) for the substance. A comprehensive reference collection of MSDSs is an integral part of every laboratory, and this collection needs to be freely available to all teachers using the classroom’s chemical supply.
Equipment And Facilities
At the high school or college level, chemistry experiments demand their own dedicated laboratory spaces. These labs should meet all state and national safety requirements and cannot be used for teaching other subjects. Even the scheduling of laboratory use must be geared towards safety. Adequate free periods must be included every day for cleaning the lab and disposing of chemicals.
Chemicals need a dedicated, lockable storage room equipped to contain them safely. A prep room is also required for teachers to use. This needs equipment similar to the lab room albeit on a smaller scale. For all three of these spaces, ventilation is a critical concern. Ventilation hoods should be used in the lab itself and all of the air removed from the lab must be vented outside.
Full safety equipment needs to be available for everyone in the laboratory while chemicals are in use. This includes both permanent safety facilities (e.g. eyewash stations, first aid kits, etc.) and personal protective equipment (PPE), including goggles. Goggles for use in chemistry labs must conform to stricter standards than other forms of eye protection to ensure that they protect against both flying debris and liquid splashes.
Planning And Preparing
Every chemistry lab needs thorough safety plans for both general and specific chemical risks. While standardized materials including the safety documentation discussed above can be used to prepare safety plans, each teacher responsible for leading classes in the lab has a responsibility to set out his or her own safety measures.
Customized safety preparations should take the specifics of the facility and the coursework into consideration. Methods for calling for help, evacuating the lab, and documenting incidents will vary based on the layout of the facility and its resources. By designing their own safety plans, teachers will be better prepared to enact them in the event of an accident.
The Teacher’s Role
A chemistry teacher has many responsibilities beyond instruction and safety planning. One of the most important of these responsibilities is teaching his or her students to share a healthy respect for the hazards posed by chemicals. Teaching and testing them on basic safety precautions and lab-specific emergency procedures is just a start.
Students should learn to understand the intricacies of chemical labeling before working with hazardous chemicals. (For example, the terms danger, warning, and caution are each distinct, indicating decreasing levels of risk.) At the college level, where students may be working independently and designing their own experiments, teaching them to read the MSDS is strongly recommended. For younger students teachers can often make use of intermediate-level warning documentation (e.g. CLIPs, Chemistry Laboratory Information Profiles) to give them adequate chemical reference materials.
Keeping students safe in the laboratory is not a difficult job. It requires a heightened sense of awareness and an amount of preparation commensurate with the hazards posed by the chemicals involved. When preparedness is combined with proper facilities, equipment, and training, schools labs can be safe places to learn through direct experimentation with all but the most dangerous of chemicals.
Whether you’re building a new Lab or upgrading your existing one, you will find a remarkable selection of Casework, Workstations, Fume Hoods and related lab products at National Laboratory Sales.
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?
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.
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.