Saturday, January 11, 2014

Chemophobia-phobia: When chemists defend too much

I've written exhaustively about my feelings on Chemophobia. I've blogged, podcasted, and tweeted about it until my face (and your ears) turned blue. Chemistry is a beautiful science that affects every moment of your life. The air you breath, the food you eat, the iPhones, computers, cars, shoes, medicines, roads, buildings, clothes, etc. that you use every day  are only possible because of chemistry. So when someone says they want a "chemical-free" alternative or claim that our "modern life-style" is killing us I get pretty upset pretty quickly.

And really, that's a problem.

It's a problem because those are real concerns by real people. Not only that, some of their concerns are completely valid. Take the spill in West Virginia of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (or is it methylcyclohexane or methylcyclohexanol - ok, what spilled? Does anyone know?!?). Whatever it was, this spill has left some 300,000 people without drinking water. If we, as chemists, are calling this chemophobia we need to seriously take a minute to ask ourselves one question: What about this fear is irrational?

Now, it turns out that 300,000 people aren't without drinking water because there is a deadly chemical in the water. 300,000 people are in the hospital because a chemical that we know very little about is in the drinking water - or at least that's what Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water has said:
"We don't know that the water's not safe. But I can't say that it is safe,"
In other words - we just don't know what to expect with this chemical. And frankly, that's the worst thing chemists could say. If a chemical with a known toxicity and documented effects spills the public panics and retreats into deeper chemophobia (that is, the next time they see the word "chemical" it is even more scary). When a chemical with unknown toxicity spills the reaction is likely to be even worse. Chemophobia isn't just a fear of chemicals - it's a fear of the unknown.

Chemists should be the first to demand strict policies for chemical safety. We shouldn't be taking the "side" of corporations who insist on turning a blind eye to chemical safety. But that's what we (or at least I) seem to do. Our (my) first reaction is to defend chemistry - almost blindly and universally.

Take as an example the Radium Girls. These young girls are some of the best examples of chemical misuse. The girls were hired to paint the dials of watches with glow-in-the-dark, radium based paint. They were even taught to lick the tips of their paintbrushes to give them a fine point. Over time this exposure to radium was devastating to the young girls' health (see "The Poisoner's Handbook" film - start at about the 1 hour mark. Actually, start at the beginning, but for this particular story see about the one hour mark).

The Radium girls are a perfect example to compare to today's chemical concerns, but not because it's a story of an evil corporation doing harm to its workers. Radium was seen at the time as a miracle element; the perfect health remedy. U.S. Radium, the company the Radium Girls sued, may not have been acting maliciously to poison them but they were guilty of turning a blind eye. This is, I think, the state of modern chemical safety. OSHA does a pretty good job (all things considered) of protecting U.S. workers from known dangers, but major spill of a chemical with no (or at least little) toxicology data is alarming.

If we really think chemophobia is a problem the best thing we can do is be realistic - chemicals can be dangerous. Safety policies should be strict and clear. Major chemicals used in industrial settings need thorough toxicology studies. Evidence-based chemistry should be our goal - not just anti-chemophobia.