“Did you just hit yourself in the face with the newspaper?” my husband asked me.
We were sharing a quiet moment (teenage sons yet asleep) with coffee, a dozing labrador, and the Sunday New York Times. Quiet, anyway, until the thwacking sound.
I was idly browsing a story about a trendy cosmetics company when – in the very first paragraph – I read this phrase: “a line of chemical-free mineral powders.” Whereupon, I smacked myself in the face with the Style section.
“Can you believe this?” I demanded. “How can anyone use chemical-free and mineral in the same sentence? Can you believe…”
I don’t know why it is but he suddenly felt the need to leave the room for another cup of coffee. Of course, everyone in my family has heard me out before (okay, maybe, many times) on the complete wrongness of the term chemical-free.
Why do I harangue my family, and just about anyone else who will listen, on this subject? Well – just in case you haven’t heard me say this before – I do understand that the phrase is just an advertising gimmick, implying a product’s freedom from mysterious but toxic industrial chemicals. I also understand that it’s basically ridiculous since everything, and I do mean everything including ourselves, is, in fact, composed of chemical compounds.
From that perspective, consider also this picture of a sign in Princeton, N.J. kindly shared with me by Carmen Drahl, an associate editor at Chemical & Engineering News. One would think “chemical-free” bug spray couldn’t be written with a straight face, especially in a highly-educated community. But, this is after all a world, in which I get 44 million hits on Google when I type in the phrase, concerning everything from chemical-free mattresses to chemical free chicken. Not to mention the fact that one of our country’s leading newspapers just happily printed the rather hilarious phrase”chemical free minerals” in a straight-faced kind of manner.
But to finish answering my earlier question – why do I think this is an issue worth repeating to the point that my family flees the room. Because, unfortunately, our careless promotion of “chemical-free” contributes to public misunderstanding of the chemical-everything nature of our world. It plays to overwrought fears, making “chemical” synonymous with “evil.” And by doing so, it cheats people of a real appreciation of the wonderfully complex, beautiful and fundamental chemical design by which our universe exists.
Just can’t say that often enough, actually. And so that, folks, is why I smacked myself in the face with a newspaper this morning. And why I decided that exchanging the Style section for the comics would be a less painful way to finish off the day. In more ways than one.
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