A big shoutout to Mark Lorch for tackling chemical ignorance in his blog in Guardian.

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138829_6871Dr. Mark Lorch, who is a senior lecturer in biological chemistry at the UK s University of Hull, seems to be channeling what we at ACSH have been saying for years: Chemical has become a pejorative word for no good reason (very bad reasons, really) and this is largely due to a fundamental lack of knowledge by the public, the inability of chemists to disseminate correct information, and, of course, the scare industry that plays upon unwarranted fears in order to sell chemical free nonsense.

In his piece, Manmade or natural, tasty or toxic, they're all chemicals, Lorch clearly spells out the common misconceptions involving chemicals and chemistry:

  • There is an inherent difference between synthetic and naturally occurring chemicals. (No, there isn t.)
  • The presence of a chemical in your body means that it is harmful.
  • Dose doesn t matter. A little isn t much different from a lot. (Anything but.)
  • That the terms chemical and poison are interchangeable. Even the Oxford Dictionary defines a chemical as a distinct compound or substance, especially one which has been artificially prepared or purified.

Yet, the misconceptions persist, and even flourish, despite the attempts of scientists to debunk them. Why?

Dr. Lorch comments, All these arguments are trotted out by chemistry bloggers on a regular basis, but these writers are only preaching to the converted. The good news is that on Monday the campaign group Sense about Science [highly recommended] joined the discussion with the publication of a guide entitled Making Sense of Chemical Stories, which is also an excellent read.

Perhaps the most telling part of this story can be found in the comments section following his piece. Here are a select few, followed by comments from ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom

I can't avoid natural occurring chemicals, I have to eat. Given the choice, I try to avoid anything additional.

JB: Is it possible that this person actually read the article and still posted this? I need some Maalox.

The real problem here is that the popular culture still sees living things and dead things and made things as fundamentally different.

JB: Great point. Popular culture has also given us The Real Housewives of New Jersey and Paris Hilton.

"By any chance...own shares in a chemical company? There wouldn't be extremes were it not a matter of making as much money as possible - to hell with consequences.

JB: And I thought I was jaded.

Not all chemicals are identical. 1) Biochemistry must never be confused with organic chemistry; 2) even small doses of most synthetic chemicals may be harmful to some people (clue: individual genetic tolerance) and 3) life consists of left-handed molecules only. Life is never synthetic. Young readers beware; industry at work.

JB: The Maalox is gone. It didn t work. Time to start sniffing glue.

Dr. Bloom concludes,Although one can derive some amusement from comments like these, unfortunately, they do reflect the views of many people. This leads to poor individual choices, as well as poor public health policies, which is not so funny.