The Chemical Misconception – Should we avoid chemicals?

This is an opinion piece of my opinion as a Dr in Chemistry and the opinions of the scientists’ cited.

 

Throughout my career so far I have encountered many people, either in person or through articles in magazines, blogs or other media, that are either afraid of chemicals (chemophobia = fear of chemicals) or are people who dislike interfering with nature.

Have you ever wondered, how did we go from chemistry and chemicals being considered magical and medicinal, to this negative popular belief that is spreading in our society?

Well, the story is complicated and there are many factors that likely have played a role, so let’s start from the basics.  

When it comes to science there are three camps. The scientists, the media and the public. The scientists do highly complicated work, which most of the time they cannot explain in simple terms, either because they are not very good at simplifying things or because some things are just complicated to understand without the fundamental knowledge in the matter.

In the middle we have the media. The media tries to explain science to a wider audience but often has an agenda. They choose the information they explain, the way they explain it and what they cover. Not because of a conspiracy or negative intent, but because it is their job after all to make you interested, to read their articles and watch their programmes. And the media is an undeniable power. They choose what subjects you should know about, what information you should know about and often what conclusions you should make. They provide enough information for the receiver to make a conclusion but not always a thorough debate. And it is of course, a conclusion they often choose.

Sadly, in the craze of creating interest, some scientists contribute to this as well, mostly because of how difficult it is to get research funding these days and in order for society to want to contribute money into science and technology, they have to make you interested. So in turn, they popularise science as well, but nowhere near the extent the media does.

“Science popularisation depends on sensation and controversy”.[1] Think about it. If there was a chemical poisoning, a bad drug that causes side effects, a chemical war or terrorism, it is safe to assume it would make first page right? But how much space and time does the media give on new scientific discoveries? Scientists all across the globe discover something almost every day and publish peer-reviewed scientific papers constantly. Their interesting, hard earned discoveries are nowhere covered in the media. Why? Well…not all discoveries cure cancer and therefore not all make amazing headlines.

Somewhere in this mess is the poor public, often given enough information to draw conclusions and not to think for themselves. The public receives and believes (how would you know otherwise?) whatever information they get given. Especially when the media uses psychologically powerful phrases such as “Scientists said…bla bla bla”. Even I get bored of those articles and I am a scientist.

This is partly the reason why I started this blog. I am into science, fitness and beauty and there have been so many times that reading articles, in magazines for example, has made me cringe. But beyond misinformation or clever construction and delicate serving of information there is a bigger problem. One that perhaps rose due to this mess.

The fear of chemicals. How did the public become so fearful? Why are you looking for chemical free products? Do you even know what you should or should not be afraid of? Or why?

Interestingly, there is no strict definition as to what a chemical is. For scientists, a chemical is a molecule or compound that can do chemistry, therefore everything in the world is a chemical. Including water. Over the years and thanks to a few events, the term chemicals, used outside the field of science, is now defined as synthetically made, bad substances that we should avoid at all cost. And so according to the popularised definition of a chemical (let’s put this to the test: what did you think a chemical was? Bad stuff right?) overwriting the scientific one, you can easily understand why products advertised as “0% chemicals” are promotional hooks designed to tap into chemophobia. What chemophobics fail to understand is that even natural products are made of 100% chemicals. In a way, what you are paying for is fear or lack of understanding.

This is a partially irrational fear based on lack of education in the matter and familiarity. For example, many of us are afraid of snakes or spiders even when we know that the specific ones are not poisonous and cannot harm us.[2] But we are still afraid enough to produce a powerful response. Why?

Like with any fear there is a starting point. An event that caused us to link something with negative emotions. And make no mistake. Not all fear for chemicals is unfounded. In the same way that not all fear of spiders or snakes is unfounded. Some can kill.

How did this negative behaviour start though? How did chemistry go from being considered “magical” to “evil”? In the older days chemists, or alchemists, were thought to be doctors and magicians, people with solutions. How did the public change their perspective so much? Well, there are a few occasions that I can think of that could have contributed to this.

(1) Use of chemicals in World Wars and terrorist attacks. Don’t get me wrong some chemicals are very bad and can cause severe destruction to life and the environment. The destruction caused by chemicals in World Wars (or any wars/terrorism attacks etc) is indeed frightening. Thousands of people died and of course that generates fear. And by no means is that acceptable. Chemicals can be very powerful and should not be abused.

However, that’s almost true for everything. Everything needs to be used correctly and in moderation. If you don’t use electricity correctly you can die. If you drink too much water you can die. If you eat poisonous fruit, vegetables or flowers you can die. If you have an encounter with a poisonous animal you can die. So why is chemistry the only one getting the stick here? The fault should lie with the irresponsible people.

Let’s look into a similar example. When alcoholics get sick or develop health problems people often blame their irresponsibility or lack of mental health etc, but no one brands alcohol as evil, because alcohol itself does not kill, moderation is the key. There is even some scientific research that shows that a glass of wine a day can be beneficial. It is the exact same story with chemicals.

(2) Incorrect use of chemicals by people and companies, such as pharmaceutical companies. Pharmaceutical companies definitely played a role in this. They have been involved in many scandals of drugs causing serious side effects, like for example the thalidomide scandal, a drug for morning sickness in the 1960s that ended up contributing to teratogenicity (=children born with body abnormalities etc).

The problem here is, whether it’s nice to admit or not, pharmaceutical companies are still businesses that have to make money. And I don’t mean that they release fake drugs to make money, I am not interested in conspiracy theories. If you look back into the evidence and actual science of what happened with each drug that went wrong it is clear that a big part of the problem was lack of research. Companies either didn’t research the drug fully or extensively for years before releasing it, or they didn’t fully understand the way it worked.

Additionally, the laws were probably not strict enough, as to how much and what type of evidence you need to have in order to legally release a drug. In all of this it is also possible that some companies may also have skipped a few steps in order to get the drug out quicker for other reasons such as humanitarian purposes. Again, the judgement should lie with the people not with the chemicals.

Here’s also a relevant moral problem to consider. Let’s take a more recent example for this, the Ebola vaccines. From research to vaccine it was only a very small amount of time. But there was a huge crisis and humans needed help. So what do you do? Do you release something that you have some evidence of it working, or do you let more people die for 10 years or more, until you are fully satisfied that there are no side effects? It’s a difficult problem.

Hopefully, as drug laws become stricter and scientific knowledge advances this will not be as much of a problem anymore. However, bear in mind that in the grand scheme of things, testing a drug is a very complicated procedure. This one (or mixture) of molecules can interact with so many things in our body, which contains billions and billions of molecules, and it is sometimes impossible to predict or know. Especially since some of the effects might come after prolonged usage over years. How do you test for that? Human testing is not always acceptable, the closest we have are clinical trials on human volunteers which are usually small and often short studies. There is of course animal testing which now many are trying to ban and even if we had 10 years of testing on animals they are of course a different species than humans and so the results would only be suggestive but not conclusive.

(3) The media never lets us forget. The media (media here being anything that passes on information including brand’s advertisments, not just the news channels) uses examples or situations from the above to sometimes manipulate your opinion for many reasons. Politicians for example, admit to using fear for controlling the masses. The media is king at this. Have you ever heard the expression “You win, if you win the media?”. Marketing strategies use exactly the same tricks. If they tell you something is free of chemicals or natural they almost immediately tap into your survival instincts and fear of chemicals. You immediately think that, that product is better.

Consider this though. Nature is made up of many molecules. So let’s say I want to extract a specific ingredient from a flower. I would have to go into the lab and separate that ingredient from the other thousands of molecules contained in the flower. To do this I would still need to use a laboratory and possibly some chemicals. And you can imagine that separating one molecule form a mixture (that could be up to hundreds or even thousands of compounds) is not easy. Chances are your natural ingredient will also contain a bit of something else that it was not possible to remove. And this something else, could be as little or much as the selling company sees fit.

Now let’s consider how synthetic chemicals are made. Scientists design a recipe that specifically makes that molecule. In the same way that you have a recipe to specifically make a Bolognese and not a Carbonara. Since this synthesis is targeted, chances are that your desired molecule will be more pure than your natural one. But of course there is also the chance that the synthetically made ingredient might also contain something that it was not possible to fully remove. However, there are laboratory rules for quality and the amount of the unwanted product will be very small.

Point here is, purity of an ingredient is a separate problem that can exist in both natural and synthetically made products.

But whichever route your ingredient came from, the molecule has no history (at least as far as science knows at the moment). It will not know where it came from, whether it was from nature or from the laboratory. It will still do exactly the same thing because the activity of the molecule, as in what it does and how effective it is, is solely dependant on its chemical structure, which will be identical for the natural and synthetically made one. Molecules do not know that they came from nature and therefore should act nicely or came from the lab and therefore should be evil. There is no molecule history or consciousness.

(4) Humans can be ungrateful species with selective memory. Think about all the good things that chemicals do. They give us sustained food, medicinal drugs, clean water, kill germs etc. They are a big part of the reason why we live longer than we used to. But we have quietly accepted the major benefits as if they are given and we are unable to distinguish the actual problems from the technical ones. Like for example, the lack of human responsibility in using chemicals correctly.

Think about this practically. If you want to go all natural and 0% chemicals then are you avoiding taking any drugs? Including paracetamol and ibuprofen when you have a headache? Are you going to stop buying food and live in a farm? Or do you also selectively accept that those chemicals are fine and therefore do not count? Will you stop using plastic containers to store your food?

Chemophobics argue that the reason why more people are dying from cancer these days is because of our extensive contact with chemicals. What they fail to take into consideration in their calculations is the fact that this could simply be because of the reduction in deaths from other reasons. Due to our drugs and vaccinations deaths from what used to kill us and reduce our life span, viral or bacterial infections for example, are very rare. Additionally, people live longer now, because we can cure so many diseases, and that’s majorly because of the drugs and the easier lifestyle we developed. And for that we have science and technology to thank.

It is highly possible that living longer is what increases a lot of the diseases we encounter these days, like for example more cases of cancer, Alzheimer’s etc. Let’s not forget that cancer and other diseases have been detected as far back as in mummies and are therefore, not diseases that have just affected humans recently. Cancer for example, also affects animals which have a much different diet and lifestyle than humans.

(5) Some people just want to believe what they want to believe. This is actually a very interesting psychological problem and I’m sure you have encountered people like that at least once in your life. There are some people that despite the evidence given to them (on whatever subject), they selectively choose which they want to believe, and discredit the rest as fake or wrong with no qualification to say so or actual proof. Those people are convinced that their opinion is correct and will never change their view no matter what evidence is brought to them. Their beliefs serve them a certain purpose and you cannot prove them wrong in their eyes.

(6) Current movement of mistrust of science in general. There is an increasing amount of people from the public stating that they are “sick of experts”. There are also those who are in “denial of science”, not believing in what science presents and showing general mistrust. As Julie Beck said, in her interesting article “The Challenge of Fighting Mistrust in Science”, a lot of this is due to triabalism, where people prefer to believe what their group believes, as their acceptance by their own group is more important to them. [6] I believe that there are many reasons at play for this and it is a complicated issue that comes from many different sources.

 

There are enough people, articles and adverts out there on the negatives of chemicals. I wish to remind you of the positives and I wanted this information to come from a scientist, as there is a general lack of scientists communicating with the public directly. Some chemicals are good and some are bad or suspected to be bad. If you read my articles you will find such “judgments” in the ingredient sections of beauty and fitness product reviews.

If you take one thing from this: educate yourself to be able to form your own opinion if you can however, some subjects can be very technical. Ask the experts in the matter to give you the facts and then you can decide, for example, whether you choose to avoid a specific ingredient or not. And keep in mind that the source of where the information comes from is very important. You wouldn’t ask a farmer to explain to you how to do your make up correctly. Ask the appropriate people, find the correct sources. Weigh the positives, negatives and risks. Do not follow the masses or take information for granted. Think. Ask. Research.

 

Nice reads on the matter:

  1. H. D. Crone, Chemicals and Society: A guide to the New Chemical Age, Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  2. Fear of all sneaks, spiders and chemicals –  https://doi.org/10.1515/ci.2006.28.4.12
  3. Can chemicals be loved – A problem for 2000 https://doi.org/10.1016/0378-4274(95)03516-8
  4. Exaggerated risks of chemicals https://doi.org/10.1016/0895-4356(94)00116-8
  5. Science and the nonscience major: Addressing the fear factor in the chemical arena using forensic science https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ779361
  6. Julie Beck, The Challenge of Fighting Mistrust in Science – https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/06/the-challenge-of-fighting-mistrust-in-science/531531/

 

I am not affiliated with any company or brand. These are my views and experiences.

 

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2 responses to The Chemical Misconception – Should we avoid chemicals?

  1. zakeeyak says:

    An excellent, well thought out and fair piece! I enjoyed reading it and agree 100%.

    I would like to add one thing – the fact that anyone is able to read this is a result of hundreds of chemicals undergoing dozens of reactions to turn light into thought. It’s a truly miraculous process – and most people can thank fake, synthetic chemicals for even having the opportunity to read it. It’s remarkable how vulnerable people are to misinformation about chemicals and what they do.

    Thank you for a great read!

    Liked by 1 person

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