A Chemical-Free Note

During the past year, readers of this blog have, I hope, become accustomed to the occasional rant on the subject of the ridiculous phrase “chemical-free.” In fact, my first post of last year was a resolution that we give up the term entirely in favor of, um, reality.

Unfortunately, we haven’t quite accomplished that yet. But there are signs that people are listening. For instance, this year I was invited by the Los Angeles Times to write an opinion piece on the subject. It ran Sunday under the title Chemical Free Nonsense.

Which is, of course, exactly what it is. Off to a good start, readers. But expect to hear from me again on this topic because it matters. As I wrote in the Times piece:

“Let’s not fool ourselves either into thinking it’s just a harmless little slogan, this simple-minded equating of  “chemical” with “evil”, this invitation to chemophobia.  We read it a lot more often than we read up on the actual ingredients. It leaps off of bottles and jars and bakery windows. It’s a daily exposure, one  that can muddy our understanding of legitimate risks.”

Definitely worth a few more rants, don’t you think?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
This entry was posted in chemical-free, Speakeasy Science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to A Chemical-Free Note

  1. Jenny Syl says:

    I came by your article as a shared link by ACS in Facebook and as an advocate of the same conviction, I instantly shared the link to my friends, especially my colleagues and fellow chemists. Thank you for making such a convincing article in a very easy and understandable manner especially for laymen and kids (and adults like) who basically rank chemistry as next-to-math in difficulty.

    I’d like to share a particularly brow-raising “chemical-free” cough medicine advertisement here in the Philippines. It’s an endorsement of a pharmaceutical company of their herbal medicine while explicitly expressing their opposition over another’s synthetic cough cure formulation. This advertisement Filipinos see on national TV everyday says that their product is “natural” whilst that of the other is “chemical” and thus the former must be preferred as there would be no side effects. Oh well, the power of mass media!

  2. Deborah Blum says:

    As you can tell, this is an issue – the problem of “chemical-free” thinking and the bigger problem of science education that lies behind it – that is very important to me. So I really appreciate the kind words and I’m so glad to know that the article is being shared. Amazing example too of how marketing influences the discussion. Thanks for all.

  3. BillC says:

    The science education that leaves us with the perception that the chemistry in the body and the chemistry in the laboratory is the same chemistry is education that is superficial and incomplete. Those who have not been indoctrinated are justified in their wariness of being exposed to industrial chemicals in food, water, air, and so on. Your objection to the use of the phrase “chemical-free” is more about semantics or grammar than it is about chemistry. The fact is, you know what they mean when the say “chemical-free” but you can’t pass up the opportunity to show people how smart and educated you are. We all do it.

  4. Deborah Blum says:

    Oh, sure. Most of us know what chemical-free means. Agreed. But I think you’re missing the point, which is not about showing off knowledge but about the basic message implied in that kind of labeling – that chemical-free is good, that chemical-included is bad. So I object to the phrase because it’s part of a kind of chemophobia that leads us to misunderstand materials in general and the world around us in a larger sense. I have no problem, as I said, with “additive-free” or something that gets the same point across. The bigger problem, of course, is the way we teach non-science majors about science. But that’s another story.

  5. John Lowe says:

    “Chemical-free” is attractive by being free of ambiguity and uncertainty. And, understanding risks associated with chemical exposure at the low-dose end of the curve is nothing but an exercise in uncertainty. Most of us don’t deal well with uncertainty. I wonder if the desire for chemical-free is more of an issue of trust and equity rather than a failure of education. One speculation to explain “chemical-free” is that someone who embraces chemophobic ideas is showing their independence of the scientific/managerial/governmental elite that reflects the paradigm of risk assessment/risk management; if you don’t trust the results from the risk assessment/risk management paradigm then it may lead to the tendency to embrace chemophobia. And, most of us have to trust in risk assessment/risk management because it’s become too bleeding complicated to understand without devoting a sizable proportion of your life to it.

  6. BillC says:

    “Risk assessment/risk management” has become “too bleeding complicated to understand” because we have erased the boundary between natural biological chemistry and the artificial chemistry that drives industry. Whatever happened to the “precautionary principle”? How is it that the chemical industry can say with a straight face that BPA has not been proven harmful? How do they get away with that?

  7. John Lowe says:

    The idea that there is a “boundary between natural biological chemistry and artificial chemistry that drives industry” dramatically oversimplifies matters and doesn’t provide any real explanatory power. There are naturally-occurring endocrine disruptors. TCDD has its origins in the chemistry of fire. Our bodies metabolize carcinogenic PAHs the same whether or not they come from industrial coal tar or a piece of broiled meat.

    What’s happened to the precautionary principle is a better question. The precautionary principle is very straightforward but you start seeing the problems emerge when you put it into practice. Should we ban use of BPA in baby bottles and food containers? No-brainer there, and it’s starting to happen. What about auto parts, sunglasses and thousands of other plastics uses, though? Will BPA leach out during use (unlikely)? Can we protect workers making these things from exposure (yes, if we care enough)? Can we throw them in landfills without creating environmental contamination (maybe, putting aside for another day the discussion about whether landfills are a good idea or not)? The direct use of the precautionary principle doesn’t get at these questions without some help from risk assessment/risk management.

    With regard to how it is that the chemical industry can “get away with it” about BPA risk communication is that we have failed to absorb what information we know about BPA, have ceded control of the narrative about what’s defined as “harmful” (it’s actually pretty simple: all of us have a body burden of it; there might be biological effects at very low levels of exposure; the effects – prostate and breast cancer, and neurobehavioral effects – might only show up in succeeding generations, too late to do anything to prevent them) and have failed to engage in the debate.

    While this would seem to stray a bit from why many indulge in “chemical-free”, it is one example of how complex and scary chemical risk issues can become – “chemical-free” seems simpler and safer by comparison, even if it is just an illusion.

  8. Pingback: Your Questions About Chemistry | Signs You Met the Right One