What's in a name and other myths about Chemophobia
This post is an edited version of a post I wrote for the Skeptoid blog. The original can be found here. I was interviewed today by a radio station about this post, so I thought I'd repost it here.
As a chemist there’s almost nothing that annoys me as much as chemophobia; the belief that chemicals – especially synthetic chemicals – are inherently bad. In supermarkets I see things labeled “all natural” or “organic” and cringe.
What’s in a name?
The Myth: A good rule of thumb is “if you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t put it in your body!”
The Truth: The structure of molecules (both healthy and toxic) can be fairly complex. When chemists name a chemical they need to accurately and unambiguously describe its structure. To ensure that terminology is consistent chemists have the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), an international organization that defines chemical nomenclature. Not only does this naming system give a name to every chemical that exists, it also gives a name to every chemical that could ever exist. Because of this, systematic names for chemicals can become difficult to pronounce even for experts in the field. As an example look at this systematic name:
That mouthful is the systematic name for the chemical you know as Vitamin D. Obviously vitamin D would never be classified as a dangerous chemical and yet the name is nearly unpronounceable. Again, that’s because chemists need to know a chemical’s structure by its name. A more extreme example of systematic naming is:
Which is the systematic name for cucurbituril, an interesting molecule that is not only non-toxic, but has many proposed uses in the medical field including insulin binding and drug delivery. The name may seem daunting, but that doesn’t make it bad for you.
Interpreting this rule literally also means that every chemical is harmful to my two year old son (since he can’t read) and chemicals do much less harm to me than they do my wife (since I have a background in chemistry and can pronounce names earlier). Now, I know that I’m misinterpreting the rule of thumb, which is meant to apply to the general public’s knowledge, but I do so purposefully because it shows why the rule is ridiculous – the name has nothing to do with the toxicity. A good chemical can have a complex name (as with vitamin D) and a harmful chemical can be easily pronounceable (cyanide, for example).
(It’s interesting to note that while chemists pack a lot of information into a chemical’s name, the one thing they never include is information about toxicity. On the other hand, some think that toxicity is the one thing you can know by just the name.)
The Myth: Synthetic chemicals are more toxic/less beneficial than their natural counterparts.
The Truth: A vitamin synthesized in the lab is identical in every way to a vitamin found in a fruit, vegetable, or any other natural source.
Now of course I can’t say this for every lab, so you should know something about the lab you’re getting things from or at the very least something about the regulations implemented. However, if the synthesis is properly done (including proper separation and isolation of the product) the synthetic chemical is indistinguishable from the natural source chemical. How can I say this with such confidence? Well, there are hundreds of thousands of analytical techniques available to chemists: Nuclear magnetic resonance, mass spectrometry (which is my field), thousands of kinds of spectroscopy, kinetic methods, thermodynamic methods, gravimetric methods, and many, many more. None of these methods, which measure hundreds of different properties, are able to distinguish between the two.
In fact, every chemical is a synthesized chemical. Everything around you from plants to cars began its synthesis in the crucibles of the universe: stars. There, hydrogen was compressed to form helium, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all of the other elements lighter than iron. This synthesis process continued as supernovae spread these elements throughout the universe where they joined together and broke apart in a seemingly random (but in fact energy guided) process. Every day this synthesis continues as plants convert sunlight and carbon dioxide to sugars or your DNA arranges amino acids into complex proteins. Believe me, a chemical laboratory is nowhere near as efficient as the synthesis that is already taking place all around you; nature is the ultimate synthetic chemist.
I’ll just play it safe
The Myth: If a chemical is dangerous in large quantities it is also dangerous in smaller amounts.
The Truth: Every chemical is dangerous in large quantities. How dangerous something is in large quantities says nothing about its low concentration toxicity.
I’d like to warn you about a dangerous chemical. This chemical is extremely deadly in high doses. It’s chemical structure is simple, but it’s influence is strong enough in your body to create kinks in the proteins your body needs to live. This chemical is the bi-product of almost every industrial synthesis. It’s even the reason that nuclear power plants are required to have massive exhaust towers. Thousands of people die every year because of this chemical. I’m speaking of course, about water.
Water is the perfect example when talking about toxicity. We all know that we need it to live but it can also be deadly in high doses. That’s because everythingis deadly at a high enough dose. In the same way, everything is also harmless at a low enough dose. The key in toxicity is LD50 – a fairly morbid measurement of how much of a chemical was needed to kill half of a rat population. Not only is everything deadly at a high enough dose, but sometimes things that are deadly in large doses are helpful in small doses (no, homeopaths, I don’t mean that low). Vaccines are the easy example – small amounts of a dead or disabled virus can help us prepare for the real infection when we encounter it.
The Myth: The nature of our modern lifestyle means we are surrounded by chemicals.
The Truth: The nature of the universe means we are surrounded by chemicals.
Notice the subtle difference in those statements. Living a “chemical free” lifestyle might sound appealing, but it’s impossible. Chemophobia displays a flawed understanding of the universe. You can’t get away from chemicals because everythingis a chemical – water, concrete, trees, natural foods, processed foods, cars, horses and so on. Anything you can touch, smell, see, or taste is a chemical. We can’t live chemical free, and we shouldn’t want to, either.