August 19, 2013
Chemical Crazy – Why We Should Reduce Our Chemophobia
Chemophobia simply means “fear of chemicals.” Of course, most people wouldn’t see the chemical formula AgCl3Cu2 (for example) in a textbook and shriek in terror. What people are actually scared of is the impact of the chemicals around and about them in their everyday lives; in the air they breathe or in food and drink. But the science community is keen for us all to understand better that mostly those fears are unfounded, and we should all sleep easier.
Like most phobias, chemophobia’s definition comes with the word “irrational” attached. Most of us don’t actually know why specifically we are fearful of the chemicals around us. In fact, perhaps the shady, unknown element to all this is what is most scary.
That so many of us do jump to nightmarish conclusions is a source of great irritation to scientists. Recently, #Chemophobia has been making an appearance on Twitter, and the discussions often mention a joke that is an old classic in certain circles of the science community. It basically says “Watch out! There is dihydrogen monoxide coming out of your tap!” Dihydrogen monoxide is simply an alternative description for water, and is harmless. The joke has even extended to becoming a hoax, with scientists actually trying to get people to react with fear to warnings about dihydrogen monoxide, in order to later tell them that it is something they need to consume every day, and it is only the name that scares them — as a result of lack of knowledge or education.
Some people have said that joke is a bit unkind or condescending, but it is effective in making a point (even though it won’t rupture too many spleens through excessive laughter). Chemicals are not boogeymen, and many of them are essential to our wellbeing. Certain compounds help to protect against bacteria and threats to ourselves and to the food we eat. What’s more, many of these compounds occur completely naturally. There is a common, negative connection between chemicals and synthetic, man-made products which people find repellent. But natural chemical compounds are around us all the time and, as well as offering protection and sustenance in order for us to survive, they are also responsible for the lovely smells of the countryside and of food, for example.
It’s thought that chemophobia has been made worse, maybe even created entirely, as a result of some high profile chemical disasters. Incidents such as the worst in history — the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, in which a chemical spill occurred at a pesticides factory leading to thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of medical problems. Or the Cantara Loop spill of 1991 in California in which a train carrying soil sterilizer derailed and the outpour killed over a million fish and thousands of trees.
On top of this, there are notoriously deliberate attempts to spread chemicals around our environment, such as the insecticide DDT, which destroyed much more animal life than the pests it was supposed to reduce and has been linked to human health problems, such as diabetes.
Will all this in mind, it’s not difficult to see why chemicals are a bit scary, especially when we think of them being in our food or local environment. Add to this a fairly widespread suspicion of big business and governments in terms of the balance they strike between public well-being and their own efficiency (especially economically), and it can seem difficult to convince the public not to be suspicious of chemicals. But the scientists want us to know that they are the good guys, and we can trust them to reassure us. Whether we can rely on them to make us laugh is another matter, but at least we can worry less about chemicals.
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