There are few things as misunderstood as the chemical industry.
Despite the Internet providing people with more information than ever before, the amount of disinformation available means that the public is as ill-advised as ever.
This means that debate about the quality or benefits of any product is full of phrases such as, “It’s full of chemicals”, or “It’s chemical soup”, or there is even the advertisers’ favourite “Chemical-Free”.
Meanwhile an online search for images connected to the chemical industry leads to pictures such as these:
But what are the greatest misconceptions about chemicals and the chemical industry?
1. The chemical industry is evil
One of the most blatant misconceptions is the common belief that the chemical industry is fueled only by greed with a complete disregard for life and the environment.
While it is true that chemical companies operate for profit, the same can be said of all other industries. Retail, agriculture, fashion, hospitality, transport, and banking all function on capitalist principles.
Yet while people blame the chemical industry for some of society’s greatest ills, such as plastic waste, lead paint, neonicotinoids, and mustard gas, they barely acknowledge the benefits all the other chemical products provide.
For example, famine was a common occurrence everywhere until the development of modern fertilizers by the chemist Fritz Haber. While in the field of medicine, products as ordinary as aspirin, or as complex as advanced cancer treatments, or as important as pencillin, are all part of the chemical industry’s work.
Today, thanks to the work of chemical companies, water is cleaner, homes are warmer, transportation is greener, and people live longer.
2. Chemicals are bad
Everyone knows that chemicals are bad for you. It is a heartfelt belief that stems from the public’s general lack of knowledge about chemistry. It is an information gap that creates fear.
“Ultimately, it is a problem of psychology,” writes the popular blogger chemjobber. “In the age of high-investment parenting, threats to our children can overrun any rational defence a parent might be able to construct. For whatever reason, chemical risk seems to appear much more threatening to some parents. As a chemist, I find chemophobia pretty ridiculous. As a parent, I'm in sympathy - we all fear unknown threats to our kids.”
Yet go back 400 years, when even witchcraft was believable, and people were already understanding the true risk that chemicals posed for health.
It can be founded in the writings of the 16th century chemist Paracelsus, the father of toxicology, who observed that, “Everything is poison. There is poison in everything. Only the dose makes a thing not a poison.”
Today, this is scientific fact. A point that makes the banning or permitting of BPA plastic, Teflon, or glyphosate so difficult. Faced with a complicated and highly scientific debate about the benefits and risks of each chemical product, much of the population retreats to the oversimplified arguments laid out on social media. A debate held in a conspiracy-bubble claiming that ‘natural is good and manmade is bad’.
Of course, this is a clear misconception. As James Kennedy, a chemistry teacher from Australia, chemophobia combatant, and author of the famous ‘chemical banana’, explains, “The distinction between natural and synthetic chemicals is not merely ambiguous, it is non-existent. The fact that an ingredient is synthetic does not automatically make it dangerous, and the fact that it is natural doesn’t make it safe. Botulinum, produced by bacteria that grow in honey, is more than 1.3 billion times as toxic as lead and is the reason why infants should never eat honey. A cup of apple seeds contains enough natural cyanide to kill an adult human.”
“But pedantry and definition aren’t really the point,” argues Mark Lorch, a senior lecturer in chemistry at the University of Hull in England, “The point is that every time anti-chemical slogans are used people are being misinformed. The implication is always that the terms ‘chemical’ and ‘poison’ are interchangeable. This is a perception that permeates our subconscious to the extent that chemists themselves have been guilty of exactly the same lazy language.”
3. ‘There is no acceptable level of chemicals’
This internet famous quote is from the healthy living and detoxifying guru Vani Hari. Also known as Foodbabe, she is a computer science graduate who has successfully promoted the idea that all chemicals are bad.
Her campaigns have focused on specific ‘bad chemistry’ such as the air quality inside passenger aircraft, where she once claimed that “The air that is pumped in isn’t pure oxygen either; it’s mixed with nitrogen, sometimes almost at 50%.”
Or when discussing food additives, she famously said, ‘If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it’.
These could be wise words, but really only show a lack of knowledge. As a pop-science reviewer on the website ‘Whatculture’ cleverly suggests, “Perhaps a better tagline would be ‘If you can't pronounce it, and you think it is cause for concern, learn to pronounce it and educate yourself on its effects in order to make an informed decision.”
Of course, you already know about these misconceptions. No doubt you work in the chemical industry, are well-read, or educated in chemistry. The challenge for people like us is to change people’s perception of chemicals. To make them see that the modern world is nothing without them.
Certainly, there are risks in having products such as paint, food additives, plastics, or fertilizer. But the benefits far outweigh any disadvantages.
Unfortunately, in a world where Scientology, the Flat Earth Society, and the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists are all in existence, making this fact heard will not be easy.