Five Myths About Chemicals You Should Stop Believing

All too often the use of the word "chemicals" in the news, in advertising and in common usage has the implication that they are bad. You never hear about chemicals that fight infections, help crops grow or lubricate engines. That is because the chemicals doing that job are called antibiotics, fertilisers and engine oil, respectively.

Gas mask picture from Shutterstock

As a result of the emotive language often used in conjunction with "chemicals", a series of myths have emerged. Myths that Sense about Science and the Royal Society of Chemistry are debunking with the publication of Making Sense of Chemical Stories. Here are five of the worst offenders.

1. You can lead a chemical-free life

Despite the many products that claim otherwise, using the term "chemical-free" is plain nonsense. Everything, including the air we breathe, the food we eat and the drinks we consume, is made of chemicals. It doesn't matter if you live off the land, following entirely organic farming practises or are a city-dweller consuming just processed food, either way your surroundings and diet consists of nothing but chemicals.

2. Man-made chemicals are dangerous

So we have established that there is no way to lead a chemical-free existence. But surely natural chemicals are better than synthetic ones?

Nope. Whether a chemical is man-made or natural tells you precisely nothing about how dangerous it is. Sodium thiopental, for example, is used in lethal injections but it's about as toxic as amygdalin, which turns up in almonds and apple seeds. What makes one of these chemicals dangerous and the other part of your healthy five-a-day is quite simply the quantity that you consume.

Granted there are many documented cases of man-made chemicals that have been banned due to health concerns. But on balance chemicals have done far more good than harm. A good example is brominated flame retardants which are no longer used in furniture due to allegations of unpleasant side-effects. However these worries should be balanced against the estimated 1150 lives saved because the chemical stopped furniture fires spreading.

Even substances that are upheld as terrible cases of chemical pollutants, such the pesticide DDT, have their place. The World Health Organisation support its use for control of malaria transmitting mosquitoes stating:

DDT is still needed and used for disease vector control simply because there is no alternative of both equivalent efficacy and operational feasibility, especially for high-transmission areas.

3. Synthetic chemicals cause cancer

News outlets are fond of reporting about research showing "links" between particular chemicals and occurrences of cancer and other diseases. Sometimes the stories even claim that a substance definitely causes cancer or definitely cures it.

But more often than not these reports only cover part of the scientists' conclusions. They just mention that an effect on cancer (either positively or negatively) was seen in the presence of a chemical. This is what we call a correlation, but it does not necessarily imply a causal link.

Cartoon: XKCD

For example, the number of diagnosed autism cases correlates with sales of organic produce, but no one would seriously suggest that man-made chemicals used on farms somehow protects people from autism.

The point is that correlation on its own isn't that useful, unless it is accompanied by other observations such as a plausible mechanism to explain it. But once a correlation is seen then scientists can start looking for that other supporting information.

4. Chemical exposure is a ticking time-bomb

Phrases such as "cocktail of chemicals" and "time-bomb" are pretty emotive, and they certainly make for good headlines. But we permanently live among a cocktail of chemicals and have done so ever since life first evolved in a chemical soup.

So why have we suddenly become more aware of all the chemicals in our environment? In part, it is due to amazingly sensitive technologies that allow minute quantities of chemicals to be detected. It really isn't difficult for a chemist to find minute quantities of antibiotics in a swimming pool or cocaine in water supply.

5. We are subjects in an unregulated, uncontrolled experiment

There is no conspiracy. The reality is that the use, manufacture and disposal of chemicals are strictly regulated and controlled.

Each new synthetic chemical used as a food ingredient passes through a series of safety tests before it is allowed by the relevant body, such as the UK Food Standards Agency. New medicines go through clinical trials, which are even more rigorous tests, before the drug agency, such as the US Food and Drug Administration, allows it to be marketed. Even the tiny amount of waste chemicals produced by university research labs are managed according to the hazardous waste management rules of local governments.

Chemists in academia and industry have to adhere to these regulations in the process inventing or manufacturing amazing new chemicals to better our lives.

The Conversation

Mark Lorch is Senior Lecturer in Biological Chemistry at University of Hull. He is a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Comments

    BFR is a really poor example. There is so much we didn't know, which we do now, and there are now alternatives to which have the same function. You need to look past the ordinary use of the chemical and consider how it starts to behave when subject to heat or fire, and when disposed of. BFR for example can bio-accumulate which means it could gather in toxic amounts and leak into ground water and find its way into the food chain.

    1. Yep

    2.3.4. We do not live in the same chemical soup that existed throughout earth's history thanks to the petrochemical revolution.

    Seeing how many manmade chemicals are toxic, carcinogenic or disrupt biological functions, and they're found in sizeable amounts in modern life, it makes sense to minimise your exposure to them instead of pretending you're safe, it does all add up.

    We have never been exposed to as many harmful chemicals in human history as the present day and we're only adding to it without taking caution. You just will not find many people living to 100 in cities or near factories.

    And then there's dumb people who do things like heat plastics in ovens and think it's safe because they do it all the time, and wonder why they get headaches...
    What happens if you get people like that in charge of your food or policy?

    Perhaps we'll adapt in a few generations but a lot of people will get sick first.
    I really wonder how often people get sick working at Kmart with the overbearing fumes from abundant cheap plastics.

    Speaking of chemical pollution, nearly one-fifth of China's farmland is polluted, mostly from yearslong accumulations of toxins from factories, mining and agriculture

    5. The FDA is a joke and a lot of the long term effects will slip under the radar as they already have
    How long have BPA/S been in plastics until people realised they were endrocrine disruptors, and that's the tip of the iceberg

      Well spoken! The post above very much reflects a scientific paradigm that views the world from a laboratory and value-free angle, excluding the messy aspects of life like history, commercial interests, societal power structures, etc.

      Are you a chemical engineer or molecular biologist? If not, and the sum of your knowledge can be gained from reading things found on the internet, then you'd better leave the speculation to the experts.

        Oh boy, so we're back to the days where the priests were the only ones who could talk to god or read and interpret the bible

        Cause there's no way I can make sense of a study that finds that low levels of BPA can cause fetal abnormalities in primates.
        http://munews.missouri.edu/news-releases/2014/0227-bisphenol-a-bpa-at-very-low-levels-can-adversely-affect-developing-organs-in-primates-mu-researcher-finds/

        I'm not a primate am I, why should I be concerned? If a river is full of dead fish, I shouldn't think twice about drinking from it, cause I'm not a fish. I'll worry when my misleaders tell me to :P

        BPA is everywhere, we're all fucked, and our kids too!
        But let's wait for the experts to tell us what they think in 10-20 years time, after further damage is done

        Remember when the experts used to say that smoking is good for you in the 30s and 50s
        I am not waiting for the 'experts'

          What you posted wasn't a scientific study, it was an article about a scientific study. Two very different things.

          You may be able to make sense of an article about a study, but that's very different to making sense of the study itself. I'd wager that if you had a read of the actual scientific journal article describing the study then you'd be absolutely lost as you wouldn't have the required training, expertise or experience to correctly interpret it.

          Non-scientific articles about scientific findings are notorious for skewing the actual results, and in many cases completely reaching the wrong conclusion. This image summarises it nicely: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive/phd051809s.gif
          You'd be the grandma in that situation.

          And you can't compare god or the bible to science. One is a fairytale open to interpretation by anyone, the other is based on observable and repeatable facts.

          Last edited 20/05/14 2:20 pm

      Obviously man-made chemicals are harmful, because as they have become more common the human lifespan has dropped.

      Hang on.

      Lifespan has been on a steady upwards trend for at least a century. Damn.

      That's not to say all manmade chemicals are harmless - there are many harmful artificial chemicals just as there are many safe ones. But it's useful to keep in mind that just as we have evolved to tolerate "natural" chemicals, various natural organisms have evolved harmful chemicals as a protective mechanism. There's an effective 100% chance that whenever you hear about food poisoning in the media, the source will be natural in origin. The only exception I can recall was when melamine was added to Chinese milk a few years ago.

      It's also true that many "artificial" chemicals are manufactured versions of natural chemicals. Aspirin has been used from natural sources since antiquity.

      Basically, the natural=good artificial=bad duality is at best a simplification and at worst a deliberately inaccurate fabrication to encourage people to buy untested concoctions from herbalists.

        That evolution took place over millions of years, now we've suddenly filled the oceans with PCBs, dioxins and mercury which weren't even there 50 years ago and have known detrimental effects, flooded the rice paddies with arsenic, and surrounded ourselves with estrogen mimicing compounds. It's a biological assault.

        Medical drugs and techniques are extending lifespans, but it does not often extend youth, instead it extends their aging years, and now disabilities are popping up in younger people earlier than previous generations.
        Nutrition and hygiene are big factors for preventing disease, but now the backwards attitude of most people will compromise those gains, the trends will go retrograde.

        Food allergies, alzeihmers, asthma, IBS, autism used to be extremely rare, where did these chronic conditions suddenly appear from?
        Couldn't be all the toxins we're exposed to daily could it?
        Toxins the body has never seen throughout it's entire evolution, the sterility can't be far behind.

          "Food allergies, alzeihmers, asthma, IBS, autism used to be extremely rare, where did these chronic conditions suddenly appear from?"

          Wouldn't have anything to do with that "special" (I use the term lightly, I'm Aspergers myself) kid back in the days before Aspergers and Autism were diagnosed? It was determined that Einstein was Aspergers but at the time the Autism field wasn't as developed as what it is now.

          Same with Cancer and Alzeihmers, cause people now get older, these diseases are becoming more noticed because of the fact people get older

            What about food allergies. Back in the 70's and 80's, peanut butter was an aussie staple. Every school had hundreds of peanut butter sandwiches at lunch time. Now, it is banned and considered a deadly weapon because a sizeable portion of kids have such severe allergic reactions that a sandwich will kill them. Add wheat intolerances. Add gluten intolerances. And that is before we get to the really weird shit appearing now.
            A lifetime of slow change makes things less notable to an individual but a human lifetime in the scale of evolution of the species, and the size and types of changes, are alarming.

              Cancer and Alzheimers (among others) are degenerative diseases. That is, as you grow older, there is a higher risk of being afflicted. With rising life expectancy and awareness/detection methods, of course the numbers are going to go way up. How much of it you can attribute to this, or to the harmful effects of chemicals is unknown, but it's definitely played a part.
              e.g. ADHD had low prevalence. Now, every kid who can't concentrate is potentially ADHD... is it the illness becoming more common, or is the diagnosis becoming more lenient?

              Allergies are caused by an excessive activation of antibodies/white blood cells when you're exposed to certain chemicals/compounds. It's as though you detect a snail in your backyard and sending an army or a nuke to destroy it. This reaction is determined by your genes; some people will have normal reactions, and some will have exaggerated actions. Thus, due to 'natural selection interference' by the health care system, we have a higher prevalence of allergies.

              Awareness/treatment of allergies -> people with allergies survive -> interbreeding of people with allergies OR genetic mutation -> more children with (possibly more severe) genetic predisposition to allergies -> increased prevalence and severity of allergies.
              ^the above applies to nearly everything. There is significant evidence that mental disorders (alzheimers/huntington's/autism) and cancers, among other diseases, are influenced by genetics.

              Paraphrasing Louis CK... Yes, allergies are a horrible thing. But MAYBE, if we all just covered our eyes and turned away, we could be done with allergies for the next half a century!!!

      Yes, many man-made chemicals have been found to have toxic or carcinogenic properties. Yes, exposure to these harmful chemicals is more than ever in the past.

      But, life expectancy of people in the 1st world countries are much higher than those living in 3rd world countries. There are more people living to 100+ in cities and countries with more exposure to these man-made chemicals than those without.

      So yes, these man-made chemicals have the potential to do great harm to life. But the amount of years we get from their use far outweighs the amount of life lost.

    You better watch out for that dihydrogen monoxide, that is some nasty shit right there, did you know that 100% of people who consume DHMO die.

    I actually saw a sticker planted on a bus stop the other day about DHMO and it being a harsh chemical, i hope it was being sarcastic or do people still believe in the whole DHMO bullshit.

      How about hydrogen hydroxide? That's even worse!

        I've heard it's been found in deathcap mushrooms and funnelweb spiders. All organic sources of poison have been found to be associated with DHMO. It's scary stuff.

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