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When #chemophobia isn’t irrational: listening to the public’s real worries.

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This week, the Grand CENtral blog features a guest post by Andrew Bissette defending the public’s anxiety about chemicals. In lots of places (including here), this anxiety is labeled “chemophobia”; Bissette spells it “chemphobia”, but he’s talking about the same thing.

Bissette argues that the response those of us with chemistry backgrounds often take to the successful marketing of “chemical free” products, namely, pointing out that the world around us is made of chemicals, fails to engage with people’s real concerns. He writes:

Look at the history of our profession – from tetraethyl lead to thalidomide to Bhopal – and maintain with a straight face that chemphobia is entirely unwarranted and irrational. Much like mistrust of the medical profession, it is unfortunate and unproductive, but it is in part our own fault. Arrogance and paternalism are still all too common across the sciences, and it’s entirely understandable that sections of the public treat us as villains.

Of course it’s silly to tar every chemical and chemist with the same brush, but from the outside we must appear rather esoteric and monolithic. Chemphobia ought to provoke humility, not eye-rolling. If the public are ignorant of chemistry, it’s our job to engage with them – not to lecture or hand down the Truth, but simply to talk and educate. …

[A] common response to chemphobia is to define “chemicals” as something like “any tangible matter”. From the lab this seems natural, and perhaps it is; in daily life, however, I think it’s at best overstatement and at worst dishonest. Drawing a distinction between substances which we encounter daily and are not harmful under those conditions – obvious things like water and air, kitchen ingredients, or common metals – and the more exotic, concentrated, or synthetic compounds we often deal with is useful. The observation that both groups are made of the same stuff is metaphysically profound but practically trivial for most people. We treat them very differently, and the use of the word “chemical” to draw this distinction is common, useful, and not entirely ignorant. …

This definition is of course a little fuzzy at the edges. Not all “chemicals” are synthetic, and plenty of commonly-encountered materials are. Regardless, I think we can very broadly use ‘chemical’ to mean the kinds of matter you find in a lab but not in a kitchen, and I think this is how most people use it.

Crucially, this distinction tends to lead to the notion of chemicals as harmful: bleach is a chemical; it has warning stickers, you keep it under the sink, and you wear gloves when using it. Water isn’t! You drink it, you bathe in it, it falls from the sky. Rightly or wrongly, chemphobia emerges from the common usage of the word ‘chemical’.

There are some places here where I’m not in complete agreement with Bissette.

My kitchen includes a bunch of chemicals that aren’t kept under the sink or handled only with gloves, including sodium bicarbonate, acetic acid, potassium bitartrate, lecithin, pectin, and ascorbic acid. We use these chemicals in cooking because of the reactions they undergo (and the alternative reactions they prevent — those ascorbic acid crystals see a lot of use in our homemade white sangria preventing the fruit from discoloring when it comes in contact with oxygen). And, I reckon it’s not just people with PhDs in chemistry who recognize that chemical leaveners in their quickbreads and pancakes depend on some kind of chemical reaction to produce their desired effects. Notwithstanding that recognition of chemical reactivity, many of these same folks will happily mix sodium bicarbonate with water and gulp it down if that batch of biscuits isn’t sitting well in their tummies, with nary a worry that they are ingesting something that could require a call to poison control.

Which is to say, I think Bissette puts too much weight on the assumption that there is a clear “common usage” putting all chemicals on the “bad” side of the line, even if the edges of the line are fuzzy.

Indeed, it’s hard not to believe that people in countries like the U.S. are generally moving in the direction of greater comfort with the idea that important bits of their world — including their own bodies — are composed of chemicals. (Casual talk about moody teenagers being victims of their brain chemistry is just one example of this.) Aside from the most phobic of the chemophobic, people seem OK with the idea that their bodies use chemical (say, to digest their food) and even that our pharmacopeia relies on chemical (that can, for example, relieve our pain or reduce inflammation).

These quibbles aside, I think Bissette has identified the central concern at the center of much chemophobia: The public is bombarded with products and processes that may or may not contain various kinds of chemicals for which they have no clear information. They can’t tell from their names (if those names are even disclosed on labels) what those chemicals do. They don’t know what possible harms might come from exposure to these chemicals (or what amounts it might take for exposure to be risky). They don’t know why the chemicals are in their products — what goal they achieve, and whether that goal is one that primarily serves the consumers, the retailers, or the manufacturers. And they don’t trust the people with enough knowledge and information to answer these questions.

Maybe some of this is the public’s distrust for scientists. People imagine scientists off in their supervillain labs, making plans to conquer non-scientists, rather than recognizing that scientists walk among them (and maybe even coach their kids’ soccer teams). This kind of distrust can be addressed by scientists actually being visible as members of their communities — and listening to concerns voiced by people in those communities.

A large part of this distrust, though, is likely distrust of corporations, claiming chemistry will bring us better living but then prioritizing the better living of CEOs and shareholders while cutting corners on safety testing, informative labeling, and avoiding environmental harms in the manufacture and use of the goodies they offer. I’m not chemophobic, but I think there’s good reason for presumptive distrust of corporations that see consumers as walking wallets rather than as folks deserving information to make their own sensible choices.

Scientists need start addressing that element of chemophobia — and join in putting pressure on the private sector to do a better job earning the public’s trust.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. dusheck 2:48 pm 04/26/2013

    You don’t have to be chemophobic to recognize that many chemicals that have been pumped into the environment are bad for people or other organisms. It’s experience, not only a fear of the unknown that makes us suspicious. As far as what to call “bad” chemicals versus “good” chemicals, there’s no natural vocabulary for distinguishing toxins cyanide that kill immediately from things like baking soda–useful and harmless in small doses, but not in large–or from others that silently cause Parkinson’s Disease over a period of years, thin the shells of bird eggs, or, in the minuscule doses in rain water, emasculate wild frogs. I don’t think it’s the public’s fault that we don’t have a vocabulary for making those distinctions.

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  2. 2. dusheck 2:49 pm 04/26/2013

    “toxins such as cyanide”

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  3. 3. M Tucker 3:25 pm 04/26/2013

    How widespread is this “anxiety about chemicals?” Does it affect a large segment of the population? Which products are labeled “chemical free?” Are the folks who display this anxiety simply worried about food? It would have been very helpful for this discussion if Andrew Bissette had named some of those “exotic, concentrated or synthetic compounds.” If we don’t know what you are afraid of it is hard to help. It is wise, I think, to want to know what might be in your drinking water or food. A vaguely defined chemophobia is not clear and I am unaware of some kind of “common usage” to help he understand it.

    That said I do agree with this: “They don’t know what possible harms might come from exposure to these chemicals (or what amounts it might take for exposure to be risky). They don’t know why the chemicals are in their products — what goal they achieve, and whether that goal is one that primarily serves the consumers, the retailers, or the manufacturers.” For me the biggest problem is with introducing substances into our environment and food without testing. The next biggest problem would be to distrust a non-biased authority. The third problem comes with any disagreements between authorities concerning what levels are safe. When a new chemical threat comes into the news we always hear authorities arguing about what concentrations are dangerous.

    We are bombarded daily with alarming reports about threats to our safety and health and we need to get a realistic grasp of how likely we are to suffer harm.

    Finally, I would just like to mention that there are many dangers in the home. Things that we have in the home and used on a daily or weekly basis can present a real threat to safety and health if not used wisely. Not just new compounds introduced into our food or cleaners or pesticides, but compounds that have been around for years, things we have seen out grandparents use. Don’t be like my friend who wanted to clean his kitchen floor that had become badly stained and mixed ammonia cleaner with laundry bleach to really get the job done right. We sometimes need to seek out and trust the knowledge of educated authorities.

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  4. 4. curiouswavefunction 3:45 pm 04/26/2013

    Nice post Janet. I came to appreciate the public’s skepticism regarding chemicals especially after reading two books; one was the classic “A Civil Action” and the other one’s the recent “Toms River”. In both cases chemical companies undoubtedly engaged in unethical practices and dumped chemical waste in the surrounding water and soil. In both cases the connection between the waste and cases of cancer stayed tenuous until the very end. The real culprits are the companies and not their products. I buy this argument, but I also realize it sounds uncomfortably similar to the “Guns don’t kill people, people do” argument. How do you get around this?

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  5. 5. rwerkh 6:27 pm 04/26/2013

    Yes and same should go for the growing use of “radiophobia” which gets answered with ‘radiation is natural and everywhere’ which is also misleading and useless.

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  6. 6. andrewbissette 9:02 am 04/27/2013

    Hi Janet – firstly, thanks for responding to my piece. I’m glad to be part of this conversation. Your criticism is fair and well-taken.

    In defense of my crude ‘folk’ definition: that the chemicals we handle every day, like the ones you list, are not typically thought of as ‘chemicals’ by the general public in my experience. Even if people recognise that these are reactive and indeed biologically-active compounds, I just don’t think sodium bicarbonate is what the word ‘chemical’ connotes to the man on the Clapham bus. On the other hand, bleach might well be, and chloroform certainly is.

    This definition isn’t thorough or even consistent. It’s trivial to find exceptions to the trend or cases which simply cannot be classified. I simply think it’s how the word is commonly used.

    Anyway, I’ll stop quibbling with your quibble! Your points about trust and authority are spot on and your solutions are promising. There is a huge amount of great writing and journalism about chemistry, but often it’s limited to people who are already into science – we’re preaching to the choir. As you rightly suggest, one remedy to this is for chemists to become socially active *as chemists* and put a human face on the field, to counter the prevalence of corporations that again you rightly pointed out.

    I wonder if another solution is to push for more chemistry in the media: to do for chemistry what Brian Cox does for physics. It seems like all too often, the only exposure we get is in the context of explosions and poisons (I loved The Poisoner’s Handbook, don’t get me wrong!). What are your thoughts on this? Too gimmicky?

    M Tucker – the reason I didn’t define chemphobia or give a list of offending compounds is because my original post was pretty much a short response to others, taking aim at this one, specific argument – that ‘everything is a chemical’. Have a look on twitter for the hashtag #chemophobia or #chemphobia for examples of both chemophobia and this response; there are also examples on the chemistry blogs.

    I can’t quantify how widespread chemophobia is, but very common things I’d class as potential ‘chemophobia’ would include an automatic aversion to artificial colours/flavours (on the grounds they are artificial), anti-vaccine campaigns, and much alternative medicine. ‘Chemical-free’ products are the classic example.

    I agree with you that people are right to want to know what they’re consuming. The problems you highlight are, I think, more general: we live in a somewhat overwhelming world, in which we have to assess a great deal of often subtle risks. It seems inevitable that we will have to rely on others’ expertise to do so, and the task for the chemistry community is to establish ourselves as trustworthy, transparent, and approachable.

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  7. 7. SuperScienceGrl 11:54 am 04/27/2013

    There’s a difference though, between a company claiming to make ‘chemical-free’ food or cosmetics, and a consumer wanting to buy them. It’s the former that’s being willfully immoral most of the time, and the latter has probably never had a need to be as informed on the risk levels as someone who works in the industry.
    IMO any sort of social change here needs to be tackled at the source, ie: the companies making false claims. And so much the better for everybody, especially the consumer.

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  8. 8. LionessLover 10:43 am 04/30/2013

    I am amazed why those defending chemicals suspected to be poisonous (independent of whether the statements they react to are indeed somewhat, well, stupid) never seem to know a VERY basic piece of toxicity science: The combination of (even just two) toxins can be several orders of magnitude more dangerous than the individual chemicals! However, ALL statements in defense of one or the other chemical ALWAYS point out that the detected levels “are below official limits”, which in the real world is meaningless – who is exposed to just ONE chemical?

    Not to mention that those “official limits” pretty often are more guesses than “truth”, especially for chemicals less than a few decades old (which many of them are).

    The only thing known is the amount of ONLY the substance in question where a certain percentage of a population (of rats, mostly) shows definite symptoms (incl. death). Almost NOTHING is known about long-term effects of exposure of HUMANS to low amounts of multiple chemicals. Just because any damages are hard to prove with todays science seems to be “scientific proof” that there is no danger. Now THAT is what I call the opposite of science. It seems to me that while often the irrational fear mongers may indeed be missing quite a bit of scientific education, but they may have a more sound feeling for common sense and risk assessment.

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