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“Chemical” Is Not a Bad Word


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Say it out loud, “chem-i-cal”. It flows well, and it has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? What does this word mean? You’d be surprised by most definitions. They may not be considered clear to the less scientifically inclined – here’s my simple definition in progress, “Chemicals are elements, or a combination of elements, with a specific composition and structure. All matter is made of chemicals!”

Unfortunately these days, the term “chemicals” is colloquially misrepresented. They are generally considered offensive, are balked at and even feared, because they might turn you into the Hulk (why’s that so bad? Isn’t he Incredible?), not to mention that “chemicals” are the source of cancer and an incalculable number of other illnesses. Because of this chemicals are often advertised as the bane of our existence. I think everyone, even those of us who are irked by this popular misuse of the term “chemical”, must be reminded that absolutely everything is a chemical (see aforementioned definition)! News flash:

- We are chemicals.
- Our friends are chemicals.
- Our babies are chemicals.
- The air we breathe is chemicals.
- The food we consume is chemicals that are digested by chemicals that turn them into more chemicals.

You probably get the point here, but not everyone does! It’s time we start opening more minds to the idea that “chemical” is not a bad word, chemicals are actually fascinating, and we can’t exist without them. Chemicals Are Your Friends (CAYF) is an ambitious project to try and do just that. The primary goal of CAYF is to spread chemical awareness in an accessible way to everyone by any reasonable means – like blog posts, photos, videos and songs (yes, I have every intention of writing songs about chemicals!).

The creation of CAYF, less than a month ago, was triggered by two things. In early February I had the pleasure of attending a talk, given by Dr. Effie Sauer, titled “Teaching chemistry for the future: what do we want our students to remember five years down the road?”. Her entire seminar resounded with me, but what was particularly noteworthy were her primary goals which include stimulating enthusiasm for chemistry and purging the negative connation associated with chemicals.

Dr. Sauer’s seminar restarted the wheels in my head that had begun sometime in undergrad and must have veered off track early on in grad school. Then I had an experience which 100% catalyzed CAYF. I am a vegan, and I like to think I am conscientious regarding my food and lifestyle choices. I had discovered a new term, “veganic”, and was naturally curious. The first site I looked at defines veganic as “[the growth of] crops without the use of chemicals, compounds or animal inputs of any kind.” There is a lot that is wrong with this definition, but let’s stick to the point of this post. Let’s make a short and obvious list of questions regarding this definition:

- Are crops a complex mixture of chemicals?
- Can crops be grown without the use of chemicals?
- Do soil and fertilizer contain an abundance of chemicals?
- Is water a chemical?

I hope that most people would answer “YES” to all of the above questions! Some may even go a step further and mention the fascinating chemicals involved, such as the organic (containing primarily carbon and hydrogen atoms) chemicals, photoactive (responsible for harvesting light) chemicals, the nitrogen-containing chemicals, and perhaps the most essential chemical of all, water (two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom). As you might be able to tell, I found this definition of “veganic” a bit irritating. I should mention that there are more accurate definitions of veganic out there. However, the first I stumbled upon is an excellent example of the motivation behind “Chemicals are your friends”.

We’ve all seen countless products that are marketed as “chemical free”. Here is my favorite example, where the interested reader will find that under the heading “No chemicals” it says, “Well this one just makes sense; How can our beer be as crisp and clean as ocean air if we put chemicals in it?” Does it make sense? I don’t know about you, but I certainly wouldn’t enjoy beer as much if it didn’t contain ethanol. As Dave Barry said, “Not all chemicals are bad. Without chemicals such as hydrogen and oxygen, for example, there would be no way to make water, a vital ingredient in beer.”

Describing toxic and harmful chemicals as just plain “chemicals” comes from a good place. It is true that not all chemicals are good for us, and even those that are (like water or fluoride) can be harmful if we are exposed to too much or in the wrong way. However, all matter is made of chemicals, so it’s important to be more explicit.

It’s also important to mention the popular and misleading idea that natural chemicals are better for us than synthetic chemicals. First, some of the most toxic chemicals on Earth are natural. Second, sometimes synthetic is safer for your health, such as synthetic melatonin supplements since those naturally derived may contain viral material. Third, some synthetic chemicals are better for the environment, for example natural sources of vanilla (the vanilla bean) are being depleted.

Remember, most chemicals are pretty amazing, they are all around us and they are us. Take a minute to look around you. The objects you are able to see are due to chemicals absorbing light, the things you smell are chemicals binding to your olfactory receptors, and chemical signals in your body are responsible for your ability to sense these things. Chemicals deserve respect and appreciation because whether or not you want to admit it your friends are chemicals!

Images: The Earth seen from Apollo 17 modified from Wikipedia Commons; others: screenshots from sites linked in the text.

Dorea Reeser About the Author: Dorea Reeser is a Ph.D. candidate in environmental chemistry at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on studying chemical reactions at water surfaces, and how the chemical and physical properties at the air-water interface influence these reactions and the release of important trace gases into the troposphere. She combines her creative and scientific sides with her passion for presenting science, whether it’s at a scientific conference, in the classroom, at an outreach event, at a social outing, on paper or in a video. She is the founder of a new outreach project called Chemicals Are Your Friends, and a team member of Story Science, the winners of the Scientific American Iron Egghead Video Contest. Follow on Twitter @ChemicalFriends.

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






Comments 14 Comments

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  1. 1. GhostDrink 9:28 am 03/8/2013

    two perennial observations from life in the health-food/supplement trade:
    people who say “if i can’t pronounce it, i’m not going to eat it.”
    pity the mute.
    people who say “it comes from a plant so it must be safe.”
    like nicotine, morphine, strichnine, cyanide…

    Link to this
  2. 2. zanemvula 3:06 pm 03/8/2013

    Dear $deity, not this pathetic argument again. Yes, pretty much everything’s a chemical. Duh. But going from that simple definition to “CAYF” (which could do with some help in the web design department, just sayin’) is not good logic, sound science, or even true. I’m on mixed terms with ethanol, but arsenic and I aren’t as friendly.

    Further, this misses the more important questions of:
    1. How do we *know* whether a particular chemical is “our friend” or not?
    2. How have we managed to get this question so badly wrong before (the list of cases is long, which I suspect you are aware of, but did not mention).
    3. What about the “other team” – are there cases worthy of analysis where the anti-synthetics lobby has got it wrong, or particularly right?
    4. Are there good health treatments on both sides of this debate, as well as bad ones? How can we tell which are which? Why is homeopathy hokum, but some herbal remedies quite effective?

    Instead you offer this poor work; a simplistic protest against a common marketing and communications strategy that argues for “natural” solutions against “chemical” ones. (For bonus points, question 5: why is this strategy increasingly effective in the minds of the non-science focused public, and what is science doing about it other than whining?)

    Incidentally, the answer to the second of your questions above, using your semantics, is no, not yes. Ironic that in decrying a language strategy, you fall prey to it yourself.

    If this is what passes for science in the hallowed halls of SciAm, they ain’t as hallowed as I once remember them.

    Link to this
  3. 3. hanmeng 9:30 pm 03/8/2013

    Good luck with that.

    Link to this
  4. 4. zanemvula 10:29 pm 03/8/2013

    hanmeng, are you a bot?

    Link to this
  5. 5. bluefish 4:00 pm 03/9/2013

    Are there really people that think all “chemicals” are bad for you? I’ve always read things that say “without chemicals” to mean without the use of pesticides/fungicides/fertilizer (of the non poopy type). That’s what it seems to mean within context anyway.

    Then again there are plenty of people that think calories are bad for ones health even though the calorie is just a measure of energy…Which is yes, a little vexing to me.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Dorea Reeser 10:17 pm 03/9/2013

    Bluefish,

    *note* This is a long response, so I just want to say right off the bat, that yes there are definitely folks out there that think all “chemicals”are bad. I encounter more and more every day. It’s quite alarming!

    Yes, many of these products that are labelled as “without chemicals” mean that they’re free of chemicals that they deem unhealthy for us or bad for the environment. Many of us consumers know what they mean given the context (as you said), however, I am amazed by the number of individuals that do think all chemicals are bad! I am an environmental chemist, a vegan, and I live a very active lifestyle- so I am acquainted with a number of other “health nuts”, and I have been to many eco home and healthy living type shows. I almost always encounter someone discussing how all “chemicals” are bad without even realizing what they are actually saying. I’ve even had debates with some of these individuals, and sometimes I have been unable to sway their convictions.

    Another example- after, I started CAYF I ran into a neighbor of mine, and we ended up talking about it. He told me that he had to “honestly admit that he is afraid of “chemicals”.” It was really interesting to pick his brain and try to understand why he is so afraid of them. Of course, he is actually afraid of harmful or potentially harmful chemicals that can be found in the things we consume, the air we breathe, etc. It’s understandable that we be cautious and conscientious of the chemicals we are exposed to. It’s also important to be made aware of what chemicals truly are, and the resources that can be used to understand them better so that we can better judge what is good and bad for us, and what we are uncertain about. Unfortunately, as we all know, there is often a big gap between the scientists that do the research, and the media that does the sharing. There is also a great deal of made up information. A lot of people just have no idea where to go to learn, or they aren’t even aware that there is a need, and so they simply believe whatever is written, said or shown right in front of them. It’s all about exposure- and I mean exposure to knowledge, critical thinking and understanding- not exposure to chemicals! We need to be doing a better job of sharing what we know! Sorry that I started to babble there. This topic could have an endless amount of discourse!

    Long story short- yes, there are definitely people who believe that all “chemicals” are bad!

    I really like your comparison to calories, which is a unit of energy! In a way it’s also like glucose. Glucose is our primary source of energy, yet so many hate on it!

    Link to this
  7. 7. zanemvula 5:00 am 03/11/2013

    So, given there are dumb people who think all chemicals are bad, how is countering that with something like “Chemicals are your friends” even remotely valid? It’s the same dumb lack of logic, just with the opposite perspective – and it’s just as anti-scientific.

    Is nicotine my friend? How about strychnine? Cyanide? Heroin? Batrachotoxin? What about the more nuanced cases like statins, or Prozac, or, I dunno, ammonia, symphytine, penicillin, bromomethane, fluoroquinolone, CO2, fructose?

    Aren’t there more interesting questions to ask, and stories to tell, about chemistry?

    Link to this
  8. 8. Dorea Reeser 11:34 am 03/11/2013

    Just because there are people out there that haven’t been exposed to a topic/educated/made aware does not mean they’re “dumb.

    Many of those chemicals are both your friend and not your friend. We will definitely be sharing stories and discussing a number of them.

    There are many interesting questions to ask and stories to share about chemistry. That is the whole point. This is simply an introduction to the project. You have to start somewhere, and it’s best to start simply.

    This is the last and only time I will respond to you zanemvula. There is no need to be rude and impolite.

    Link to this
  9. 9. xxPaulCPxx 12:57 pm 03/11/2013

    I can assure you that when people are thinking “Bad Chemicals”, they aren’t thinking of water. The are thinking of hexavalent chromium, they are thinking of perchlorate, they are thinking of benzene, they are thinking of polychlorinated biphenyls. They are thinking of all the mystery fluid that is running through the pipeline in their backyard. All this is a backlash from earlier years where chemistry made everything better… and it did make things better, but not when those same wonder chemicals were treated and disposed of improperly. Only to wind up forever trapped in the food chain.

    When people are concerned with “chemicals”, its not H2O molecules- it’s the C12H10 molecules that are along for the ride because the factory down the street didn’t find it profitable to treat and dispose of them properly.

    Link to this
  10. 10. HasanAK 3:24 pm 03/11/2013

    Zanemvula,

    The purpose of this article isn’t to assert that every chemical is good. It’s to counter the kneejerk negative reaction people have to the word “chemical.” It’s also to, in a very kind and supportive way, show how silly people can be when they say “Oh I’d never eat anything with chemicals on it.” It’s an introductory piece meant to set up follow-up posts discussing those same questions you asked.

    “Aren’t there more interesting questions to ask, and stories to tell, about chemistry?”

    Yes. Of course. Wait for subsequent posts. Addressing all of the questions in your first post would require a much longer article, heck, maybe an entire issue or two of SciAm. Maybe we could propose that to SciAm and Dorea can write a more elaborated piece on the issue.

    Link to this
  11. 11. pdjmoo 1:24 am 03/12/2013

    A chemical cocktail for breakfast eh? It is the aggregate of the tens of thousands of chemicals in our environment that we ingest that is the problem. How anyone can say that chemicals do no harm must be living in Disneyland
    Chemical “Soup” Connection between Toxins and Poor Health: Scientific American http://sco.lt/4srC4n
    New Charges against Monsanto’s Roundup – The Ultimate Killing Machine http://sco.lt/8iHda5
    UN, WHO panel calls hormone-disrupting chemicals a ‘global threat’ http://sco.lt/4sFHST
    Insecticide ‘unacceptable’ danger to bees and food, report finds http://sco.lt/7X1YrB
    Europe ignoring warning signs of bee deaths, GM food, nanotechnology dangers and industry collusion http://sco.lt/68zdwH

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  12. 12. zanemvula 6:34 am 03/12/2013

    Dorea, sorry you’ve taken offence from my comments; perhaps I am simply used to more robust debate. I certainly didn’t intend to be rude. However I do find your approach to this issue to be entirely frustrating. Perhaps that’s coming through a bit too loud.
    Yes, I would say people who think that all chemicals are bad, like those who think all chemicals are good, are dumb. But since this whole article has actually been about the use of words, if you find that word difficult, please feel free to pick another (as long as it communicates something like “illogical and uninformed”).
    HasanAK, I’ve seen the “everything’s a chemical” gambit before (all too often), but never yet seen it followed up by anything resembling a decent discussion about the substance of the issue, either in subsequent articles or in the comments. This is an issue mired in ideology, not reason, in most cases, and I see no evidence that this “introductory piece” is heading in anything resembling a direction that will add positively to the debate. TBH it looks an awful lot like all the other polar ideological noise I’ve seen on the topic (which irritates me more than chemical-free beer irritates Dorea). That’s why I called it as the fundamentally anti-scientific nonsense it is.
    However you’re right about one thing: this is a big issue, over which most people are deeply, irrationally divided. Ask yourself honestly though: is “CAYF” really the response that best serves science here? Can we as scientists not do better in the way we approach this – perhaps a bit less “don’t be _silly_, chemicals are your /friend/” and a bit more honesty, humility, and logical integrity?

    I’d be happy to be proven wrong by future posts – but from what I’ve seen, I’m not holding my breath.

    Link to this
  13. 13. sakshichemsciences 5:26 am 07/12/2013

    Real “chemicals” is not a bad word . its element.

    Link to this
  14. 14. lasalabs 6:27 am 11/22/2013

    Thank for sharing lots of information about Chemicals….
    chemical is not a bad word beacause it very important in our life …. http://www.lasalabs.com

    Link to this

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