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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.

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

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