Monday, 25 March 2013

In defense of chemphobia

#chemphobia is a pretty popular topic at the moment, and for good reason. We're often confronted with examples of people selling 'chemical-free' products, or articles scare-mongering about the terrible 'chemicals' lurking in everyday life. The anti-vaccine movement often takes this angle, blaming traces of chemicals such as mercury for all kinds of horrible effects they attribute to vaccines.

One typical response to this is the claim that all matter is chemical! or something to that effect, accompanied by much eye-rolling. I see the appeal of this response: in the lab, we don't typically discriminate between different materials. They're all chemicals to us. I regularly use water as a solvent and SDS as a catalyst - effectively, I do my reactions in shampoo! In the fume hood next to me, exotic Zr complexes and whiffy ethers are routine. Both of us are chemists, both of us are studying chemical reactions. It seems contrived to declare that, say, gold is not a chemical merely because it is familiar to non-chemists.

Naturally, I'm sympathetic to this response, and I find chemphobia as frustrating as anyone - but I think caution is warranted. However, I think this reaction is too strong and unhelpful. Of course, I am not including in this criticism some of the excellent responses to chemphobia out there - such as this by Michelle Francl. I am aiming specifically at the dismissive "all matter is chemical" response, for two reasons:

Chemphobia is reactive
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. Given that the audience of this blog is largely composed of people who actively engage with the public, I suspect I'm preaching to the converted here. Regardless: I feel like the "water is a chemical!" response risks falling into condescension.

Material does not equal chemical
As I noted above, 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. Even Wiktionary agrees.

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'.

Dismissing critics of our profession as ignorant, as fear-mongering, or as having an agenda is essentially a grand ad hominem. It's a sure way to alienate non-chemists, come across as smug and condescending, and to lose the argument. Defining "chemical" as "all stable matter" is begging the question: of course chemphobia is silly under this definition, but nobody actually uses it! Peddlers of chemphobia rightly reject this.

What about responses along these lines that avoid these traps? I think SeeArrOh's recent post about dyes is exemplary. Confronted with a case-study in chemphobia, SeeArrOh doesn't facepalm and groan "idiots". Instead, he engages directly with the authors. He finds common ground and understands their perspective, attacks the weak logic of the petition, and points out the lack of evidence for toxicity. He doesn't chastise them for being averse to lab-made chemicals, but simply points out the inconsistency of that position, and the poor analogy between these dyes and gasoline.

Anyway. My two cents. Let the rebuttals commence.

Updates: Marc has shared a thoughtful post of his own along similar lines. It and the ChemBark post linked therein are worth reading if (like me) you've missed them.

This post has been featured over at Grand CENtral, which is hugely flattering. If you've found your way here from there, hello!

At Scientific American, Janet D. Stemwedel has responded with some criticisms and further thoughts.


  1. Those who study science communication have looked quite a bit into understanding of risk. Apparently much scicomm became a bit obsessed with trying to communicate risk, but without actually making much impact on public perception. I feel chemophobia falls into the same category and you are right to point out that simply saying "water is a chemical" is not much help (however tempting).

    I think we have to consider who is using the language of chemophobia when we respond. It might be wholly inappropriate and patronising to lambast someone at a dinner party for being scientifically illiterate just because they've painted their baby's nursery in "chemical-free paints". However, we may expect higher standards from a newspaper article promoting such a product or a company peddling chemophobia as its marketing strategy.

    I'm not quite sure if I understand your kitchen/lab distinction. I'd imagine that a lot of chemophobia is in response to everyday household products (see the press response to the WHO report on endocrine disruptors), or explains in part antagonism to industrial processes like fracking. Does public chemophobia spread to what we chemists get up to in the lab?

    1. Yeah, that seems pretty fair to me. Case in point: Nessa was recently contacted by a group asking her to promote some "chemical-free" products using her platform in a local society, and she turned them down. That seems fair: refraining from "lambasting" someone for their ignorance does not entail that we provide a platform for that ignorance.

      My kitchen/lab distinction is a little fuzzy, sure. I tried to allude to this when I mentioned bleach: plenty of household products are "chemicals" in common parlance, and provoke chemphobia, but my point is that not all are (is my cup of tea a chemical cocktail?).

      Your final question is a good one and I don't have a definite answer. My own experience is that it doesn't so much: most of my non-chemist friends, intelligent though they are, basically don't have a clue what I do. They don't seem to assume it's evil, though. It'd be interesting to see if my first point - that we're a bit monolithic from the outside - is actually overstating it.

  2. You make some great points. I agree - we shouldn't be so knee-jerk in proclaiming any scare-mongering as mere chemophobia. It is best to approach a "chemophobic" comment or article with data and information. I think See Arr Oh's response to the food dye petition was brilliant for that very reason.

    To a point, people deserve the benefit of the doubt, particularly parents who only want what's best for their children. But it is frustrating to see advertising and media that plays on people's fears. Selling a "chemical-free" cleaner annoys me because something has to be used to get the stain out, unless it is by simple friction. One side effect of the "chemical-free" phenomenon is that it often presents water as something safe and harmless - I've seen cleaners advertised as "chemical-free - there's only water added". Water, when misused on some surfaces, can also be harmful.

    Last month, I blogged about the role of education in addressing chemophobia - I invite you to read it.

    1. Sorry, it is not obvious that you have to click on the words "read it" to see the post. Here is the address:

    2. Firstly: thanks for pointing out the poor choice of colour for visited links. I've now changed it.

      I really do sympathise with the frustration and even amusement that prompts the #chemphobia hashtag. I remember explaining to a group of school kids years ago that yes, water is a chemical in one sense. Their shocked reaction tickled me greatly. Similarly, seeing particularly pernicious examples of chemphobia - whether to sell a product or slam vaccines - does rile me, as ignorance is wont to do.

      Thanks for the link. I think you're dead on with several points, particularly that "more education will solve everything" is probably not true. Smart people can hold tenaciously to dumb beliefs for very good reasons, and simply teaching them the truth isn't necessarily going to be persuasive. Tough problem, and far more general than our own case.

      ChemBark's suggestions are all great outreach ideas but might not solve this problem. Many of them seem aimed at people who are already actively interested in science, and hence presumably less prone to chemphobia.

      I'll have to pin down one of my psychology/sociology buddies sometime and ask them for tips!

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment and links- I've added them to the article and put you on our 'blogroll'.

  3. i agree with your sentiments. the real problem is scientific ignorance, not semantics. when you call someone out for chemophobia because "sugar is a chemical too and you eat that" you are only going to come across as pedantic and obnoxious. advances in chemistry have introduced our population to all sorts of toxins, carcinogens, pollutants etc. that did real harm before we learned more about them. it's up to us to explain why there isn't a thalidomide lurking in some product sold in grocery stores

    1. Spot on! Thanks for your comment. This is why I really liked the two posts on chemphobia I linked to.