Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Real Damage of Chemophobia

I root for the underdog.

I'm not sure why, really. Maybe it's because I watched Rudy too much growing up or because my city's Minor League Baseball team couldn't win a game for a "Make-A-Wish" kid even if the other team was in on it. I cheer on the Miami Dolphins and go to Utah Jazz games. Lately I've noticed that I've been backing another, much more unfortunate, underdog: Chemistry.

Chemophobia is an irrational fear of chemicals. It can (and has been) debated that the word itself creates more of the same irrational fear; that it drives the fear deeper by making it a point to ridicule. Whether that is true I'm not completely convinced. What I am convinced of is that an irrational fear of chemicals runs deeper every day. This fear is seemingly unchecked by the chemistry community at large. I don't mean we don't talk about it. We do. We talk plenty about it. But what are we doing about it?

In early January General Mills announced that it will no longer be using genetically modified crops in Cheerios. You may have heard this but unless you've read it straight from the source you probably missed the part where vice president of Global Communications Tom Forsythe admits that the move actually changes nothing in the Cheerios recipe and is nothing more than a new marketing strategy:
"We did it because we think consumers may embrace’s not about safety...And it was never about pressure. In fact, General Mills’ position on GMOs hasn’t changed."
General Mills' position, by the way, is very reasonable. It's just unfortunate they have tried so hard to hide it from consumers. They admit that 20 years of rigorous testing has shown GMOs to be safe, that not a single disease can be linked to GMO crops, and that a host of benefits come with the technology. So why hide this evidence-based, rational position? Because they see that consumers embrace the opposing position.

Another company, Johnson & Johnson, recently made some radical changes to appease consumers (changes that brought with it some serious chemical misinformation). The famous amber colored "No More Tears" shampoo recently got a new formulation. In the past the well known shampoo contained formaldehyde. Actually, to be more accurate it contained preservatives that over time produced low levels of formaldehyde. How low? You would need to drink 15 bottles of shampoo to get the same exposure to formaldehyde that you get from eating one apple. You heard that right, an apple (and why in the world are you drinking shampoo?That's for washing babies). But Johnson & Johnson went through an exhausting process to reformulate the shampoo and remove the preservatives. All this because it makes them look good and consumers demanded it.

Finally, this morning I read a petition by the self described "Food Babe" to Subway. In it she demands that Subway stop using the chemical azodicarbonamide. She claims that eating a Subway sandwich with azodicarbonamide is the same as eating a yoga mat. This claim isn't new. Chemistry blogger Derek Lowe handily debunked the claim nearly 8 months ago. Azodicarbonamide has been documented to cause respiratory problems but only in high concentrations. The dough contains very, very low concentrations. The bread is made even more safe by the fact that none of the chemical even exists in the bread; it breaks down when heated (a process that I'm pretty sure all the bread you've ever eaten has gone through. Bread needs to be baked after all). Azodicarbonamide is completely safe in your bread and there is no need to worry. Imagine my surprise, then, when just 24 hours after posting the petition on her website the Food Babe gets a direct reply from Subway. It took only one petition and 24 hours for Subway to begin changing their recipe.

So what's the harm? Cheerios don't have GMOs, baby shampoo still looks and works the same, and I don't really like Subway in the first place. Big deal, right? I can keep eating the food I want and using the products I choose because companies will work just as hard to please me as the "chemical free" crowd. Why do I even care what health choices someone else makes? Aren't they making healthy decisions? If Subway removes azocarbanomide from their bread it will only make it more fresh and healthy, right?

The reason this is such a big deal has nothing to do with those individual products. The real damage of chemophobia comes when little by little the word "chemical" becomes a bad thing. The harm comes when people believe that if you can't pronounce an ingredient you should never put it in your body. Ingredients like thiomersal, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and formaldehyde. You'll find these ingredients in vaccines. Vaccines that save lives. Vaccines that - if avoided - will cost lives. So yes, chemophobia kills. I'm not just a pedantic chemist. An irrational fear leads to irrational decisions and every corporate concession legitimizes that fear. When General Mills goes against their own policy to appease the GMO free crowd they misinform the public. This misinformation leads to third-world countries banning GMO crops; the very crops that can help produce a thriving farming industry.

This is all very disheartening but I'm a perpetual optimist. I think chemophobia is something that can be overcome. If the Food Babe can bring about change in as little as 24 hours with one petition then so can we. I challenge organizations like the American Chemical Society to be more vocal about chemophobia. Do it in a way that educates. Do it in an open way, not behind a pay wall or trapped behind the safety of the chemistry blogosphere. Do it in a way that the American public won't be able to ignore. Do it in a way the American people will love you for. Chemistry doesn't need to be scary, but it doesn't need to be boring either. It won't be easy and it won't be cheap. But it is necessary and I think we can do it.

Because I root for the underdog.