In honor of the International Year of Chemistry, I would like to propose a simple resolution.: Let’s resolve to give up the ridiculous, the misleading, the this-is-simply-not-possible-so-just-let-it-go phrase “chemical-free”.
Why, oh why, in the first week of this celebratory chemical year do I find myself reading on Natural News that “We go to great pains to drink only pure, chemical free water.” Maybe in an alternate universe but in this one pure water is a chemical compound. It even has a chemical formula, H2O, which is just another way of saying that it’s composed of the chemical elements hydrogen and oxygen.
In fact, H2O is an essential part of our own body chemistry. Actually, we’re a walking soup of chemical compounds; scientists have tallied up some 60 elements in the human body, with oxygen being the most abundant and tungsten being barely there. I’ve always especially liked knowing that the primary elements that make up our bodies were created long ago in the blaze of stars around us, that we are basically what the astronomer Carl Sagan liked to call “star stuff.”
In other words, in a chemical-free world we wouldn’t exist.
Yes, I realize that particular phrase was coined by an advertising genius to market products that are meant to be free of industrial or synthetic chemical compounds. And that it’s become synonymous with “evil” chemical free. That’s why we see headlines like this recent one in the Anchorage, Alaska paper: “Gardeners: Go Chemical-Free in 2011“, which, of course, would be during the International Year of Chemistry.
“My wish is that each and every one of us will resolve to turn our backs on the use of chemicals,” writes the author of the Anchorage piece. He’s not alone in this perspective. If I google the term “chemical free” I get more than 60 million hits in .15 seconds. The number one hit, the website “Go Chemical Free“, assures me that a chemical-free diet could help eliminate autism.
Folks, let’s be literal for a moment. If we don’t use chemicals on our gardens, we won’t even be able to use H20 on the plants. And if we restrict ourselves to only chemical-free food we’ll be, um, dead. Starvation tends to do that, you know.
This doesn’t mean that I am dismissing the risks posed by many industrial use of chemicals. I spend a depressing amount of time on this blog writing cautionary posts about compounds such as carbon monoxide, which kills hundreds of people in this country every year and sickens thousands. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that “industrial chemical free” means “toxic chemical free”. Let’s not forget such well known natural elements as arsenic (As) or lead (Pb).
And all this pseudo-protective chemical-free propaganda does nothing to make us really safer. Instead, it muddies our understanding of the legitimate risks out there. And it muddles our appreciation of ourselves and our own wonderfully complex chemistry. If we all learned this in school, then the distinction wouldn’t matter so much. But because we don’t, because we’re still trying to figure out how to teach science well, chemical-free marketing can act as a weird – and weirdly wrong – kind of post-secondary instruction.
So it’s worth pushing back. My favorite scientific response is from the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK, which last year offered £1 million to the first person to create a genuinely chemical free product. That was almost a year ago and they’re still waiting for a winner – which, of course, means that those chemical-free water people over at Natural News still have a chance.
But back to the IYC 2011 and its upbeat motto: “Chemistry—our life, our future“. Myself, I prefer the direct approach: “It’s a chemical world. Learn to live with it.” But just in case that’s just a sign of crankiness, I’ll go go treat my frustrations with a large glass of C2H5OH. Preferably of the Pinot Noir variety. Of course, Pinot Grigio will do.