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Has the Era of Chemophobia Reached an End?
Posted on March 31st, 2016 by Christina Valimaki in New Materials & Applications
If public controversies over the use, accumulation, or accidental spills of hazardous chemicals make it sound like we’re still living in a chemophobic culture, a recent study by UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) on public perceptions of chemistry tells a different story. The project, which included qualitative workshops and a national survey, captured public notions about the chemical industry, and also explored how professional chemists thought outsiders would respond to the survey’s questions. Interestingly, the chemists guessed wrong. While almost 90 percent of them doubted they would be perceived as making a valuable contribution to society, an overwhelming majority of the public (84 percent) said that they held this belief. Sixty percent of the public believed that the benefits of chemistry are greater than any harmful effects. Furthermore, over half of the respondents affirmed to know that everything is made of chemicals, two thirds of them rejected the myth that all chemicals are man-made, and 70 percent agreed with the basic principle of toxicology that everything, including water, can be toxic at a certain dose.
Chemophobia generally refers to an aversion against chemicals or chemistry, which has been quite widespread in the Western world and Asia for over half a century. It emerged along with environmental concerns over the use of synthetic pesticides, and increased during the 70s and 80s with an awareness of ecological devastation and health disasters resulting from notorious cases of industrial spills and accidents. The harmful effects of man-made chemicals can indeed reach global levels, as shown by the work of Nobel laureates Molina and Rowland on chlorofluorocarbons, which are used in common materials such as refrigeration fluid and spray-can propellants – once these chemicals are exposed to UV-rays in the upper atmosphere, they lead to the destruction of protective ozone. Yet, while many of the concerns that have triggered chemophobic sentiment in the past have had a genuine foundation, it is undeniable that the use of man-made chemicals, from life-saving medical drugs to innovative materials in electronic devices, is essential for our current standard of living and technological advancement.
Chemicals: The Myth of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Negative connotations attached to the concept of “chemicals” often come from oversimplifying the meaning of the word, as well as from misconceptions about the different categories of chemicals. That is, to many people, the word “chemical” is associated with “synthetic,” and “synthetic” with “toxic.” However, it’s important to remember that the toxicity of a chemical is not necessarily related to its source. Many synthetic chemicals, like vitamin C produced in a laboratory, totally mimic (and are undistinguishable from) those purified from natural sources, like the vitamin C isolated from fruit. And while many chemicals invented by man are inert and largely innocuous, the most toxic substance known is actually a product of nature: Botulinum, naturally produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum and related species, is one million times more potent that any human-created chemical.
Rebuilding Trust Through Science and Information
One of the most promising aspects of the RSC study on the public’s attitude towards chemistry is their self-reported interest in how chemistry relates to everyday life. The use of chemistry to help solve urgent sustainability issues, like finding alternative sources of clean water or renewable energy, seems very attractive. Chemical science – and toxicology in particular – is helping people understand that chemicals in themselves are neither good nor bad, but instead more or less safe in different situations depending on a combination of factors. Toxicologists integrate information on the chemicals and their toxic effects (a process known as “hazard identification”) together with information on possible exposure routes and amounts (or “exposure assessment”) to produce estimates. In other words, chemical risks are starting to be seen more moderately, rather than as inevitable and dire.
Take the case of Teflon, DuPont’s trademark polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a chemical with high repellent properties widely used in paints, fabrics, clothing, and household items. Teflon has very high melting point, which makes it ideal as an anti-stick agent for cooking utensils. However, it was discovered that when heated above 662oF, it degrades and releases compounds that can cause lung damage if inhaled. This is obviously a cause for concern, as most of the aluminum cookware commercially available uses non-stick coating like Teflon. In evaluating whether or not the everyday use of non-stick pans is safe, a concerned consumer might consider:
- reports about the harmful effects of PTFEs in humans and other species (e.g., some birds happen to be particularly susceptible in ways that humans are not), and about the different routes of exposure (like ingestion or inhalation, short term or long term);
- reports about exposure to PTFE by regular use of non-stick cookware in a kitchen. This could include research on the temperature Teflon typically reaches during cooking, about protections that could be put in place (e.g., ventilation), and about the degree to which PTFE would be released into food should a Teflon surface be scratched.
Still, if they did their research (setting aside unknown information like the effects of prolonged long term exposure to PTFE fumes), they’d see that as long as the non-stick cookware is used appropriately (that is, not overheated, not left it in the heat unattended, and not scratched), it’s relatively safe for humans.
Many factors are transforming the public dialogue around chemicals, from appropriate regulation and increased information on the safety of chemicals to more detailed product labeling. These changes are allowing for rational decisions about the safe use of chemicals and products in different situations, and taking cheomophobic feelings head-on.
 Molina, M. J.; Rowland, F. S. (1974). “Stratospheric sink for chlorofluoromethanes: Chlorine atom-catalysed destruction of ozone”.Nature 249 (5460): 810
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