A Scientist Explains Why We Should Stop Being Afraid of Chemicals

Chemistry gets an unfair bad reputation as the world embraces products labeled "natural." But that fear is wholly misplaced, a chemist argues.

july aug 2015 WOLIRuss and Reyn for Reader's DigestI really enjoy my job. I get to wallow in the fascinating world of research science and then pass on my passions to eager young minds. And I pull out all the stops—liquid nitrogen gets sloshed around in abundance, hydrogen balloons are ignited like mini Hindenburgs, and ethanol-fueled rockets zip around the playgrounds. Chemistry is fun.

So why is it the bogeyman of the sciences? Why is everybody scared of chemicals?

The very word chemical is often used as a synonym for toxin or poison. We say something is “chock-full of chemicals” to imply it’s artificial and bad for you. Meaningless slogans like “chemical-free” pop up on products in health food stores and billboards. And nobody seems to mind, least of all the United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority. I know—I’ve complained to them, and they told me that consumers clearly understand that chemical-free really means “free of synthetic chemicals.”

I don’t get the distinction. Why are synthetic chemicals worse than natural ones? Why is the synthetic food additive E300 bad, while the vitamin C in your freshly squeezed orange juice is good, even though they are the same thing?

Biology doesn’t get a bad rap—quite the opposite. Biology has amazing animals and plants, the Human Genome Project, and David Attenborough. It’s natural and good.

What about physics? Well, physics is just really cool. It’s got stars, lasers, and the most impressive machine ever built—the Large Hadron Collider—all fronted by physicist Brian Cox beautifully explaining the wonders of the universe. It doesn’t get any cooler than that.

And then there’s chemistry, which, by reputation, has pollution, toxins, and weapons so bad that they warrant a Nobel Peace Prize–winning organization to control them. The closest thing we’ve got to a celebrity chemist comes from the AMC drama Breaking Bad, in which Walter White, a chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin, uses his encyclopedic chemistry knowledge to synthesize hard drugs, poison his enemies, and dissolve the bodies of his victims. He doesn’t really do much to combat chemophobia.

Chemistry is fascinating because of the way it can be used to synthesize new stuff—it’s like molecular Legos. The fact that everything is made from 100-odd building blocks is remarkable. Throw chemicals in a pot in the right way, and you can build the world around us.

To me, chemistry’s bad reputation seems very odd. Consider the estimated 1,300 deaths in Syria as the result of sarin gas. They were, of course, absolutely horrific. But why were they worse than the 200,000 deaths caused by conventional physical weapons?

Closer to home: What’s the most likely cause of injury or illness? I’m willing to bet my house that if you’ve been laid up in bed lately, it’s due to some biological bug or physical injury, not any sort of chemical-related poisoning. And what do you take to ease the symptoms of that dreadful common cold, sprained ankle, or pounding headache? A chemical analgesic, of course.

It is true that chemicals can be dangerous. My horticulturist grandfather taught me that. He had a small farm with a large brick outbuilding that housed his lab, the contents of which he had assembled over years of amateur experimentation with plants and soils. To a ten-year-old fledgling chemistry geek, it was an Aladdin’s cave of strange instruments, bottles, and weird muddy mixtures.

If we were really good, my grandfather would get out his sodium metal, mysteriously sitting in its jar of oil (he’d acquired it sometime in the distant past when health and safety weren’t quite what we know and love now). Then he’d gingerly take it to a quiet corner of his plot and, with a long pair of forceps, carefully extract a lump of the soft, glistening metal before hurling it into a bucket of water. FIZZZZZ, BANG! Maybe you had a chemistry teacher who was fond of that demonstration, but trust me, my grandfather did it bigger and better. He taught me that chemicals can be dangerous, and if something dreadful had gone wrong in his makeshift lab, then no doubt the papers would have reported on the role of chemistry.

But what if Grandpa had been negligent with the upkeep of the railings around his balcony? What if he had fallen off, gravity accelerating him at 32 feet per second squared, until he hit the hard ground below? Would anyone have described it as an awful physics accident? Why does chemistry’s role in accidents get highlighted, and whose fault is it that people are so scared of chemicals?

Simple: mine.

It’s my fault and my grandfather’s. We are responsible for chemophobia. Why? Well, my grandfather’s sodium demo certainly fueled my enthusiasm for chemistry. But it didn’t spark it—that happened somewhere else. And sparking an interest is what he should have done and what I should be doing.

Pouring fuel onto the flames of enthusiasm is easy, especially with chemistry. The theater is easy too—the bangs, the flames, the explosions, the pops, the whizzes, the smoke, and the rockets are all fabulously entertaining. I love it, and I love the whoops and cries and applause from the audience.

But at the end of the day, what does the audience remember? Just those bangs and not a jot of chemistry. Explosive, flaming chemistry demos do nothing to show what chemistry can build and everything to highlight what it can destroy. And in the process, they blow out any flickering interest in chemistry and replace it with fear.

Instead of listening to the boys asking for more explosions, I should have paid attention to the girl at the back with her hands over her ears. I should have shown her how easy it is to do fascinating chemistry safely. Soak a bit of red cabbage in water, and you have a powerful pH indicator that miraculously changes color when you add vinegar. Or get some sodium bicarbonate and mix it with some aluminum foil, and you can chemically clean your silver spoons.

I should also have told the class about the fascinating stories tucked away in the history of chemistry, like Hungarian chemist George de Hevesy concealing his friends’ solid-gold Nobel Prize medals from Nazis on the hunt for precious metals. He didn’t want to risk burying them or simply hiding them somewhere, so he dissolved the medals in a mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acids, then stored the bottles on the shelves of his laboratory, hiding them in plain sight. The Nazi troopers marched straight past them. In 1945, de Hevesy used another simple bit of chemistry to recover the gold and returned the metal to the Nobel Prize committee, who had those medals recast and returned to their rightful owners.

Those are the demonstrations that fire imaginations and fuel a love of chemistry. Those are the stories that kill chemophobia.

Some hypochondriac worries are warranted–these facts make a good case against keeping your reusable bags on the kitchen counter. 

Mark Lorch is a chemist and a senior lecturer at the University of Hull. He has written for Scientific American, the Guardian, and Ars Technica.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Lorch. BBC News Magazine (November 26, 2013), bbc.com.

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Mark Lorch
Mark Lorch is a chemist and a senior lecturer at the University of Hull. He has written for Scientific American, the Guardian, and Ars Technica.