As a chemist, it’s probably not surprising that I’m interested in chemical reactions. The transformation of one substance into another, and the rationale behind it, has been the bread and butter of chemistry from its alchemical origins to the modern day. Most laboratory chemists spend their day making, modelling or measuring chemical reactions.
But there is another kind of chemical reaction that catches my attention. The reaction *to* chemicals. So frequent is the reaction to the concept of “chemical” a negative one – distrust, suspicion, hostility, fear – that a word has been coined for it: chemophobia. Chemophobia is the irrational fear of chemicals.
Now, I have an irrational fear of wasps. I know it’s irrational and that wasps aren’t going to cause me undue harm and yet I can’t help but react like a lunatic whenever one approaches. Cue much embarrassment at an outdoor conference meeting last summer where I attempted to share some research opinions while performing, what can only be described as, acrobatic evasion tactics as
1 or 2 an army of wasps descended (sadly, true story). I am irrationally afraid of wasps but I know that they are unlikely to actually harm me and yet I involuntarily react. My mum, with her vertigo, may well struggle to walk across The Golden Jubilee Bridge without employing the skills of an expert tight-rope walker (another true story) but she does know that she is unlikely to come to harm, even if she can’t fully control the involuntary response to her fear.
But chemophobia, I think, is something different. In my experience, those exhibiting chemophobia aren’t reacting involuntarily to an irrational fear at all. The attempt to exclude anything perceived as “chemical” from their environment is a deliberate one. And, rather than having a fear response to something they know to actually be safe, they believe that “chemicals” will harm them. We are bombarded with the messages equating “chemical” with bad and “natural” with good, as though both those positions are always true and are mutually exclusive. This, of course, is nonsense. Chemicals can be safe or dangerous, whether synthetic or natural, depending on the context. People aren’t actually afraid of chemicals. They are afraid of what they perceive a chemical to be.
What would the world look like if I hadn’t had a chemical (or scientific) education? What would my perception of “chemical” be? How would I feel about the “chemical industry,” about “Big Pharma”? Would I curse “chemicals” for causing cancer, celebrate them for curing it or judge them on a case-by-case basis? Would I happily treat my headache with (R,S)-2-(4-(2-methylpropyl)phenyl)propanoic acid if it wasn’t obscured by a generic or trade name? Would a chemical structure mean anything at all? Would I recognise that chemicals and chemistry pervade all aspects of our life? Indeed, that chemistry *is* life?
I don’t know what my perception would be but I do know it’s easy, as a chemist, to adopt a defensive position, to haughtily declare, “Chemistry is everywhere!” and wash my hands of this particular set of chemical reactions. I’ve been guilty of this but I have to admit that it’s reductive. Yes, chemistry is everywhere and everything is chemical but how does that blanket statement help engage and inform. And how does it help to provide an understanding of the complexity of chemistry. At the root of the “chemical” vs “natural” argument is a difference in language, a misunderstanding of what a “chemical” is. And further than that, is the uncomfortable reality that a chemical, whether synthetic or natural, can only be judged dangerous or safe in context.
Challenging the perception of “chemical”, James Kennedy, a chemistry teacher based in Melbourne, Australia has produced really attention-grabbing infographics. His most recent series has gone viral and began by showing the chemicals in a natural banana. He has since created a whole range including blueberries, kiwi fruit, strawberries, beetroot, passion fruit and an egg (which you can buy in poster form or on a t-shirt through his blog). I’m looking forward to the coffee and tea ones. As he discusses in the Collapsed Wavefunction podcast, the aim of his project was to show the relevance of organic chemistry to his students. Even though it wasn’t James’ intention to address chemophobia, his infographics challenge the concept of “chemical” and the notion that “natural” and “chemical” are mutually exclusive.