A Chemical-Free Resolution

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.

Model courtesy of 3Dchem.com

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.

Carbon atom (black) bonds with oxygen (red) to form CO

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.

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47 Responses to A Chemical-Free Resolution

  1. Matt says:

    Huzzah!!!! Well said!

  2. Stuart says:

    Hear hear!

    Although I think for your first link, you don’t mean NatureNews, but something called ‘NaturalNews’…

  3. Stuart says:

    Sorry – I mean second link, not first…

  4. Deborah Blum says:

    Oops, you’re right. I’ll fix it now. Thanks so much for the fix – and the kind words!

  5. As an environmental chemist and scientist, I sympathize with your need to be literally correct about H2O being a chemical. As an environmental activist who is dismayed by the sway big “chemistry” (including pesticide, fertilizer, oil, gas) companies hold on our governments and media, and how difficult it is to get information on what is in various products, I half heartedly endorse this simplification.

    While you are concerned about being correct at all times, other, less ethical businesses run roughshod over our water, air and soil. Millions of dollars are spent misinforming the public and influencing the media and politicians. Just look at the state of US legislation on climate change, or on right to know issues regarding industrial chemicals.

    So, I support going “chemical free” if it means increasing awareness of the lack of power citizens have to know what they do and don’t ingest, or what alternatives they have. I can live with the little bit of simplification this engenders.

  6. Of course, goes without saying that the cynical use of “chemical free” for greenwashing and marketing purposes is about as evil as all the other propaganda we will get.

  7. Deborah Blum says:

    Well, I think you have a fair point that in that “chemical-free” does at least call attention to the idea of chemical exposure. And, with any luck, encourages people to actually read labels. I think mostly the label gives them so sense of control as it goes almost without saying that we see far too much corporate and far too often government indifference to really risky chemical exposure.

    But it’s a misleading sense of control. So I do want to draw some kind of line in the sand regarding regarding the dumbing down of scientific information. And I do genuinely worry that because of misinformation campaigns – some cynical, some well-intentioned, too many people have a difficult time telling a legitimate risk from a marginal one. Thanks for your very thoughtful comments!

  8. David Ropeik says:


    As I wrote in a blog for Psychology Today, “Sticks and Stones and Words Can Hurt You” http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/how-risky-is-it-really/201005/sticks-and-stones-and-words-can-hurt-you, the fear of anything associated with the word chemicals is well-explained by the sciences that study risk perception. I encourage you to incorporate those insights into your wise and mature campaign. It also might help with your obvious frustration.


  9. You’re very welcome. It is a hard balance between messaging and organizing, which require simplification, and sloganeering and fear mongering. While we get the good, focus on the excesses of industrial chemistry and pollution, we also end up getting the bad, the anti-vaccine wackos, etc.

  10. Gaythia says:

    I strongly support Deborah Blum in her efforts to banish the phrase “chemical free”. Our science communications need to be clear, and we need to provide the public with the tools necessary to access the knowledge needed so that they can make well reasoned decisions. There can be severe health impacts if people do not grasp that natural products may be toxic, and conversely, that just because a compound has a complex chemical name,that isn’t by itself grounds to assume it is bad for you. Part of getting the public comfortable with chemistry and science in general is by enhancing the awareness that science is all around us and explains everyday phenomena.

    Marketers sometimes exploit the risk assessment psychology that David Ropeik points out above and figure out ways to give things innocuous sounding labels. As examples, MSG (mono sodium glutamate) and sugar go under many different names in food products. There is currently a campaign underway by the corn products industry to solve negative attitudes to high fructose corn syrup by simply re-naming it something else. How would consumers know on their own by reading a label if instead of MSG on the label they saw “hydrolyzed vegetable protein”. Even though the hydrolyzed vegetable protein actually contains high levels of glutamate, superficially, one sounds so natural, and seemingly “chemical free”, the other does not.

  11. Deborah Blum says:

    Very smart post, David. And the survey you quote: “A survey asked people what came to mind when they heard the word “chemicals” and the leading category of answers included words like toxic, hazardous, deadly, destruction, accidents, kill, harmful, bad, and cancer” definitely makes the point that we need much better education on this subject.

  12. Grant says:

    Let’s resolve to give up the ridiculous, the misleading, the this-is-simply-not-possible-so-just-let-it-go phrase “chemical-free”.

    I agree! – we get this nonsense in NZ, too. It’s exasperating, isn’t it?

    If you like Pinot Noir, Central Otago—near where I live (I’m in the coastal region of Otago)—has world-class Pinot Noir. Drop by some time 😉

    For all that, I have to admit for red wines I’m more a Cab. Sauv. or Shiraz man.

  13. Deborah Blum says:

    This is a great post on chemical free realities, Grant. I really liked the chemical-free baby wipe example, probably because it made me laugh. And, of course, wine tours of New Zealand is a long time dream of mine. Although I’m mostly addicted to your Sauvignon Blancs – which I really think are the best in the world. Chemically speaking, of course!

  14. Deborah Blum says:

    Thanks for your very smart comments here, Gaythia, especially terrific examples of chemical semantics in labels. Hydrolyzed vegetable proteins is a great case in point.

  15. Grant says:

    The example isn’t mine, but was from the documentary. It make me laugh at the time, but not for the reason that they might have wanted!

    I have to admit I don’t drink enough Sauv. Blanc., silly of me but I think in NZ it’s sometimes considered an ‘ordinary’ wine. I think it’s the longest established wine here, the one that founded the NZ wine industry, which might have something to do with it. Not that I know much about wine, other than what I like!

  16. Roberta says:

    This is closely related to another anti-science slogan I’ve been hearing a lot lately: “Don’t eat food with ingredients you can’t pronounce.”

    So someone like me with a chemistry background is allowed to eat the worst processed junk available just because I can pronounce it? And the caveats, that chemistry is by definition unpronouncable (shades of Barbie’s “Math class is hard!!”) and that ignorance and disdain of science is a good thing.

    I’d like to hear a campaign for “don’t eat any food-type product that comes in a box or a squeeze tube.” I’d support that.

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  19. Deborah Blum says:

    Really good points here. I should do post on your excellent comment about things we can and can’t pronounce. Thanks so much for writing.

  20. Richard Van Noorden says:

    I posted this before [regarding fear of chemicals and unpronounceable names] on one of your earlier chemical free rants :) but it bears repeating and is my favourite example:

    “If someone came into your house, mixed you a cocktail of unknown chemicals – and offered you a drink – would you take it? Of course not. You wouldn’t want untested chemicals in your home, your drink, or your body. You don’t want them – but shockingly – they’re already there.” Chemicals out of Control section, Greenpeace International website

    But…”If someone came into your house and offered you a cocktail of butanol, iso amyl alcohol, hexanol, phenyl ethanol, tannin, benzyl alcohol, caffeine, geraniol, quercetin, 3-galloyl epicatchin, 3-galloyl epigallocatchin and inorganic salts, would you take it? It sounds pretty ghastly. If instead you were offered a cup of tea, you would probably take it. Tea is a complex mixture containing the above chemicals in concentrations that vary depending on where it is grown.”

    Derek Lohmann, research chemist [from a Sense About Science document on chemicals].

  21. Deborah Blum says:

    Yes, it’s one of my favorite rants! And thanks for posting this again, seriously. It’s so incisive and it’s one the best examples of every day chemistry I know.

  22. Lauraven says:

    I have long had the same thought about “chemical free”. Thank you for expressing it so well. A similar gripe for me is “organic” food.

  23. Gaythia says:

    The word “organic” is such a communication problem between the public and us chemists, since our idea of an organic chemistry lab isn’t what they have in mind at all!

  24. Great post. I made this mistake myself earlier this week in a PLoS post—in an attempt to keep my title short and sweet, I alluded to the idea of staying “chemical-free.” I think that the desire to keep things short and simple is part of the problem—”chemical-free” has just because an easy, popular term to describe products or lifestyles that are devoid of potentially harmful chemicals. But you’re completely right, it’s inaccurate, and it’s giving rise to this false idea that all chemicals are bad, which is totally ridiculous. I’ll be more careful from now on—thanks!

  25. Deborah Blum says:

    I don’t mean to be a chemistry cop here and I do get that it’s shorthand for problem chemicals. So I really appreciate you writing about this. It’s really only over the last year or so that I’ve started to think about how these kind of semantics issues can really shape perceptions. Not just the impression that all chemicals are evil but the failure by many people to recognize that we do live in an all-chemical world and the the real trick to navigating it is understanding it. Off the soap box now – I really am glad for your smart comment and wonderful blog.

  26. Farmer Zeke says:

    Yes, but would you ask for butanol, iso amyl alcohol, hexanol, phenyl ethanol, tannin, benzyl alcohol, caffeine, geraniol, quercetin, 3-galloyl epicatchin, 3-galloyl epigallocatchin and inorganic salts when you simply want a cup of tea? Not everyone is a scientist. When referring to “chemicals” in food, most people mean man made compounds or extracts that may have a deleterious effect on their health. The english language is rife with homonyms. If I have a date with Sabrina, are we holding the fruit of a palm tree or are we going “out” for romantic dinner? And if we are going going “out” to a restaurant, does that mean we are eating in the outdoors patio?

    I understand what you are trying to put across here, but just have feeling that this may take away from the intended message which is that people are concerned about ingesting potentially toxic materials in their food, air and water (which is more than simply H2O unless you are always drinking distilled water which may well be the case if you are a chemist, but most of us drink “water” which is H2O based along with different mineral and biological elements depending on where it’s sourced, thus almost all of us say “water” not “H2O”), and for good reason!

  27. Leslie says:

    Finally someone has addressed a most frustrating pet-peeve of mine since forever! (ie the first time I heard it!) It’s as nutty as “some pregnant.” Would like this covered on national news … and wish the FDA would ban the phrase in advertising as completely misleading and inaccurate!

  28. Leslie says:

    meant “somewhat pregnant” … hate typos! LOL

  29. Jon Edwards says:

    Hi Deborah,

    Always a pleasure to see more people fighting against misuse of the word “chemical”. We at the RSC understand how some words have loose meanings, or more than one meaning, but we think “chemical” has been unfairly maligned by marketers.

    So we decided we want it back. It’s a great word! Stuff like oxytocin and endorphins are chemicals that everyone likes to have. It’d be a shame if people became scared of the word because of some misleading advertising.

    The £1m prize stands, and I still get long, technical emails with people trying their hardest to convince us they have something 100% chemical free. Of course no-one’s got there yet, but someone came admirably close last year:

    Thanks for a great post!

    Jon Edwards, Royal Society of Chemistry

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  31. jeconnery says:

    Jumping, for a quick moment, on the education theme…. I find it particularly disturbing to note how often this “education” is not only post-secondary but post-post-secondary. It’s one thing to realize that “the public” can be mislead or confused by pseudo-information. It is another much sadder thing to see that the “best-and-brightest,” our college-going youth, can’t seem to get through the basics of the physical world.

    I don’t mean to suggest that good information ought to be given first and foremost to the privileged population that attends college. I simply mean, if institutions of higher learned can’t seem to produce some arguably learned graduates… the problem is not a few cruddy chem teachers in run-down high schools. We have a systemic problem with education (scientific or otherwise), folks.

    However, I digress.

    Great post, Deb. Couldn’t agree more!

  32. Katherine says:

    Excellent post. Thank you. The other misconception that really dismays me (and that you touch on in your post) is how often “natural” is conflated with “good”, and “synthetic/manmade/processed” with “evil”. The anti-flu vaccine hysteria from last year is a good example; statistically, the odds of serious health problems or death from contracting the flu are much larger than an adverse reaction to a vaccine constituent, but no matter how often this was patiently explained, there were many people who persisted in believing these myths. (The compounding tragic irony is that people who *do* have allergies or other conditions that make the vaccine risky must rely on herd immunity–and are more at risk of getting ill when people refuse the vaccine because of baseless fears.)

    I do think it’s a problem of people fearing what they don’t understand, and the generally poor state of chem education; not just formal, school-based education, but also the kind that comes through public outreach. There was an editorial a while back in Nature that mused on how while physics and biology have relatively good public images (occasional insanity about evolution notwithstanding), and several well-known representatives/pop-sci figures (Sagan, Hawking, Dawkins, etc.), chemistry doesn’t really have any equivalent ambassadors, and is generally thought of as something to distrust.

  33. Julie says:

    Your use of chemical illustrations here answers a copyright question I have had in the past. I’ve wanted to use illustrations like the CO illustration but wasn’t sure if I was supposed to cite such a thing. Is a picture of two balls stuck together in a molecule really worth a copyright?
    My blog doesn’t have many illustrations for this reason.

    I’m concluding its ok to do this for the simple ones.

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  41. Dene says:

    Deborah – you may be interested in this article:
    http://personalcaretruth.com/2010/12/if-you-cant-pronounce-it/ – specific to cosmetics, but the fundamentals are the same.

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