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DDT and Sucralose: A Case Study in Chemophobia

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

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Recently I met with several chemists to discuss chemophobia. The discussion was light-hearted for the most part, but the topic was something important to each of us. It’s a topic that just about every blogger within the chemistry community has written about at one point or another. During the discussion an article by Dr. Joseph Mercola was brought up. In that article he states that:

“Splenda is actually more similar to DDT than sugar.”

A fairly strong accusation, given the carcinogenic nature of DDT. The thing is, DDT isn’t really similar to sucralose at all. Within 24 hours of our discussion the subject was covered by several chemistry bloggers, all of them coming to the same conclusion – Dr. Mercola pulled that claim right out of his…well, let’s just say that it seems he made it up. In any case, I don’t necessarily want to point out why his claim is wrong; that’s been done. I’d like to use his claim as a case study for chemophobia. Let’s see if we can deconstruct his argument and learn something about chemophobia and the way it’s sold to the public.

An extensive audience base

Dr. Mercola speaks to a fairly large audience. His website claims to be a ”reliable source of health articles, optimal wellness products, medical news, and free natural newsletter from natural health expert Dr. Joseph Mercola”. And, unfortunately, people are listening. The sucralose/DDT article has nearly 350,000 pageviews. Chemophobia is often sold to the public by powerful, influential people. Chemists, on the other hand, are excruciatingly bad at PR. We don’t have the influence and, frankly, we’re not presenting our message in a very appealing way. We (chemists) need to start devoting more time to science outreach if we want to keep up with chemophobia. In saying this I don’t mean to discount the work that many chemists are already doing. I appreciate the hard work that’s already being done. We are aware of the problem, and I’m not the first to sound a cry for action. But we need to (and we can) do more.

Fraudulent health claims

You’ll find that most chemophobic claims are aimed at our health, and this really shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’re an easy target for fraudulent health claims because our health is important to us. Nobody wants illness and death in their family, so we’re easily frightened by a claim that common chemicals can hurt or even kill us. This gives an unfair advantage to “team chemophobia” – the general public is very impressionable when it comes to health claims. This means that “team chemistry” has to be extra vigilant of fraudulent health claims.

Shifting the responsibility to research the claim

One of the first things I noticed in the Mercola sucralose article was the complete lack of references. In total I only found three outside sources. One of those leads to a dead ScienceDirect link and another is hidden at the bottom. That leaves only one reference. One. Every other claim (and he makes many) is either assumed to be true or backed up by a reference to himself. In total he links to his own website 14 times.

This is a common tactic. When speaking to the public it’s easy to slip in an unsubstantiated claim – especially if you’re in a position of authority. Not only are most of Mercola’s claims poorly sourced, but his primary claim, that sucraolse is more similar to DDT than sugar, is completely unsourced. In fact, the entire section wherein he makes the claim doesn’t link to a single source. The reader is left with only an authoritative “That’s right“, as if the comparison of DDT to sucralose was so common that everyone knows it. By leaving out sources he shifts the responsibility to properly research the subject from himself to his readers. In most cases his readers won’t research any further, and his claim is simply assumed to be true.

Fallacious comparisons

Mercola claims in this article that sucralose is more similar to DDT than to sugar. I think Dorea, from makes it very clear that this claim isn’t true. It doesn’t take a chemist to notice that sucralose is much more similar to sucrose than to DDT. However, Dr. Mercola may have meant that sucralose is functionally or metabolically similar to DDT instead of structurally similar. Unfortunately he doesn’t really explain what he means by “more similar” very well, and he gives no source to clarify what he meant. It’s another example of shifting the responsibility to research his claims, and I’ve never seen a reliable source that compare sucralose (a non-toxic sweetener) to DDT (a known carcinogen).

It’s interesting to note that this isn’t the only time that Mercola has incorrectly compared a chemical to DDT. He also claims that glyphosate, a common herbicide, is similar to DDT. He interviews a Dr. Huber, who claims that glyphosate is toxic (it’s not) and that it bio-accumulates (it doesn’t). Even more surprising, Dr. Huber says he would prefer exposure to DDT over exposure to glyphosate. This in spite of the fact that DDT is a known carcinogen and glyphosate is not considered to be dangerous.
Anecdotal evidence

As part of Mercola’s evidence he links to a set of testimonials about “The Potential Dangers of Sucralose”. Experienced science advocates will know immediately that anecdotes do not provide evidence on par with controlled studies of sucralose. However, anecdotes are very effective for the type of argument he is trying to present. Personal stories play well with the general public. They’re emotional, frightening, and seem trustworthy (they’re not). Anecdotes are compelling because, frankly, we believe ourselves. We trust our own senses (even though there are plenty of reasons we shouldn’t). If we’re interested in “fighting” chemophobia, though, we need to be aware of how convincing anecdotes can be, and be prepared to respond to them.

Bringing it all together

Once again, the purpose of this post isn’t to show how Dr. Mercola is wrong. Chemists are becoming more and more vocal against chemophobia. As we speak out let’s make sure we’re not dismissive of the opposing arguments. It may be easy to point out how silly an argument sounds, but that may not always be the best approach. Remember, chemophobia may be an irrational fear of chemicals, but it’s also a compelling fear of chemicals, as evidenced by its increasing popularity. We need to be careful not to alienate the very people we’re trying to convince.

Chad Jones About the Author: Chad Jones received a BS in Chemistry from Weber State University. He is currently a graduate student studying physical chemistry at Brigham Young University. When he's not struggling to earn a PhD he maintains The Collapsed Wavefunction and hosts a science discussion series on YouTube. Chad is a member of the American Chemical Society and the American Society for Mass Spectrometry. Follow on Twitter @TheCollapsedPsi.

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

Comments 9 Comments

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  1. 1. mskawanami 10:51 am 05/10/2013

    Maybe the presence o Cl on DDT axplains why I am so alergic to this element: Cl.

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  2. 2. mcasse 11:20 am 05/10/2013

    Ok, there’s chemophobia out there, no doubt. But I do think that a lot of chemists gloss over the concerns over molecules, particularly in complex systems and a high dilution. Biology interacts with chemicals on millimolar all the way down to attomolar levels and the effects are often subtle (i.e. not killing the rat or inducing a tumor). When in doubt, why ingest and expose onself to something that your body and its accompanying microbiota have never encountered? Even chemicals our bodies are accustomed to our microbiota may do nefarious things with (e.g. the recent study showing carnitine conversion to TMAO by gut bacteria), what they do with the synthetic chemical milieu, who knows, the number of variables is staggering.

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  3. 3. mistafisha 1:23 pm 05/10/2013

    Sucralose is more similar to DDT than sucrose in that sucralose contains Cl and sucrose does not. How come you don’t mention that he could be making that comparison?

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  4. 4. Perfesser Tom 5:18 pm 05/10/2013

    #3, Because Chlorine content as a sole gauge of structural similarity is pretty stupid measurement. You get the opposite answer if you compare presence of oxygen atoms, number of aromatic rings, number of carbon atoms, number of sp3 centers, overall 3D shape, oxidation potential, reduction potential, overall compound polarity, water solubility, lipid solubility, and that’s off the top of my head. Need I go on?

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  5. 5. Quantumburrito 6:06 pm 05/10/2013

    #3: Common salt also has chlorine in it. Does that mean it’s as poisonous as DDT (whatever its other health benefits and drawbacks)? You cannot just compare individual elements in two molecules and say they are similar, that’s a most elementary scientific error. By that token both lipitor (a heart drug) and CFC (a dangerous ozone layer destroying molecule) have fluorines in them, so they must be similar…

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  6. 6. TheCollapsedPsi 6:20 pm 05/10/2013

    #3 – Yes, DDT is more similar in that way. However that’s a pretty useless comparison. As was already pointed out, table salt is just as similar to DDT.

    I did think of that comparison, but didn’t include it because my point in this post wasn’t to show that Dr. Mercola was wrong. Instead I wanted to show what techniques he used to convince people of something even though it was wrong. As the title says, this is a “Case study in chemophobia”. In other words, what arguments are used so that we can be prepared when they are made again.

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  7. 7. stupidsignuppolicy 11:36 pm 05/10/2013

    Ridiculous the rigamarole I had to go through to sign up for this blog but just wanted to say good job “CHAD” (sorry that name) Now you just gave Dr. Mercola tons more attention. Way to go. NOT.

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  8. 8. TheChocoholic 2:01 pm 05/11/2013

    The bilge this Mercola fellow comes out with is just astounding. This is not the first time I have heard about him making unsubstantiated claims. A friend posted an article by him some months ago, and as I like to know sources, I clicked on every link provided. As stated above, one went to a link trap (click this, click this, now click this, end up back on the original page), two went to other articles by Mercola, and the remaining link triggered my antivirus and anti-malware software programs.

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  9. 9. curiouswavefunction 9:20 am 05/13/2013

    #7: So in your opinion, the way to make sure quacks don’t succeed in their agenda is to ignore them and hope they will go away?

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