Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Chemistry and the Dangers of Perception as Reality

(***DISCLAIMER: I've intentionally "dumbed down," for lack of a more politically correct term, this post so that I don't end up talking over the heads of my non-technical readers. It doesn't mean I think you're dumb, not at all! Rather, it means that I understand I can tend to get carried away when writing about science given my profession and I don't want to risk alienating those of my readers who won't know that the hell I'm going on about by using too much technical jargon.***)

Recently I've been seeing a lot of posts online discussing the perils of chemistry in our lives. Screaming headlines declaring that we're all being poisoned, unwittingly or otherwise, by toxic chemicals that are in everything from our food and water to our clothes, cosmetics, houses, and everything else. Whether it's been in the news or on social media, every day we're inundated with articles and posts going on about how toxic chemicals are, how unnatural they are, and how they're harming us and our children (invoking "the children" is always an effective way to grab someones attention no matter what issue you're trying to gin up support for). Now, I'm not trying to make light of the fact that some chemicals are indeed harmful and need to be used carefully and judiciously. What has gotten my hackles up lately is the fact that the discussion, if you can call it that, on chemistry has been incredibly one-sided. Obviously I've got more than a bit of bias being a chemist myself, but I want to state upfront that I don't feel passionately about the matter because I feel as though my livelihood is being threatened; rather it's the incredible amount of misinformation and taking advantage of the general public's ignorance when it comes to chemistry and science that really irritates me. The complaint from those in my field that the media continually misrepresents science and uses buzzwords and carefully crafted headlines to stoke fear and outrage in society is an old one, but not entirely without merit. However, the prevailing response always seems to be the declaration that we need to "have a discussion" and "educated the public" as to the numerous benefits of chemistry in our everyday lives. The problem is that these internal discussions within the chemistry community never result in any real action and so the problem persists...lather, rinse, repeat...

This post isn't supposed to be my attempt at rectifying that; I have neither the time, desire, or self-importance necessary for such an undertaking. Rather, I merely want to express my personal feelings on the matter. I've written several pieces about being a chemist, how much I enjoy it, and several of its challenges. Beyond the benefits I've experienced in my career, one of the biggest advantages I've found to being a chemist is in the way I now view the world around me. When discussing or thinking about anything in my life from a rusty nail to the GPS in our new car or anything in between or beyond, my experience and knowledge as a chemist has allowed me to understand what makes (most) everything around me work (or not work, in some cases) at a fundamental level. And if I don't know about something, the training I received while I was a PhD student has allowed me to either figure it out or find the answer so that I can understand it. My kids are always astounded that I am able to explain so many answers to them when they ask me about random things, and I tell them that's because of chemistry. I've written about chemistry's reputation as the central science before so I won't belabor the point, but it's true...everything can be traced back to it. However, the downside to all of this is that, as soon as people know I'm a chemist, they expect me to be able to answer any question they ask me in order to satisfy their own curiosity. Usually that's okay, but it gets frustrating when they don't understand that chemistry isn't a one-size-fits-all science. Just because I'm a chemist doesn't mean I can answer your question about why a certain medicine acts in a certain way with your body. I've specialized in organic materials chemistry, not medicinal chemistry! It's the same way a medicinal chemist won't be able to fully answer a question about why adding certain functional groups to a polycyclic aromatic compound can increase or decrease its electronic band gap the way I'm able. And no, not all of us are like Walter White in Breaking Bad, making illegal substances in our basements (that's another one I hear All. The. Time.). My point is, there's an awful lot of chemistry specifically and science in general that there is no all encompassing way to talk or think about it, which leads me to the crux of this post...

Misinformation and panic-induced hysteria about science in particular do no good to anyone and in many cases cause further harm, whether unintentionally or not. While it is true that many chemicals can be toxic, in many cases the lethal dosages are so far above what a person would ever realistically be exposed to over the entire course of their life that the danger is minimal to nonexistent. Likewise, there are chemicals that are toxic but in quantities that no normal person would ever ingest in the required time span such that they would suffer its effect. For instance, the chemical used for the artificial flavoring and aroma of microwave popcorn, butane-2,3-dione, is naturally occurring and has some negative health effects, but in order to be affected from it you either need to work in the factory where microwave popcorn is made over many years in order to be exposed to enough of it, or you'd need to ingest enough for it to harm you which would be some ridiculous quantity of it every day for many years. (See the case of Wayne Watson from 2012, who ate two bags of it a day, every day, for ten years to see what I mean). As a more high profile example, banning other chemicals, like DDT, has had disastrous consequences for malaria deaths in the developing world. My point here isn't to throw caution to the wind, damn the consequences to public health and environment, and use chemicals wherever and whenever we want. Rather, it's to make the point that when used responsibly and safely, many chemicals which are essential for improving our health, comfort, safety, and so on can be utilized in a safe and environmentally benign manner from which we all benefit.

Lastly, I get very tired hearing people decry "synthetic" chemicals vs. "naturally occurring" ones. As a clarification, just because something was synthesized in a laboratory doesn't mean it also isn't naturally occurring. Vanilla, aspirin, penicillin, and the aforementioned butane-2,3-dione, to name but four, are all naturally occurring chemicals that are now prepared in huge quantities synthetically in order for the quantities to be high (readily accessible) and the prices low (affordable). Many lifesaving medicines are entirely synthetic, and result from either modifications of naturally occurring molecules or being entirely synthetic analogues of natural medicines, imparting improved efficacy. Likewise, just because a chemical is "natural" doesn't mean it's safe: ricin, saxitoxin, and cyanides are all naturally occurring and are exceptionally toxic to humans. What I'd like to see in the future isn't the shutting down of the debate on chemistry, but rather a better educated media (with input and assistance from, gee I don't know, actual chemists?) without an agenda who can discuss the subject in a calm and rational manner so that there aren't scares that result in devastating unintended consequences like the malaria outbreaks that have killed millions since DDT was banned outright in 1972. Like everything in life, there needs to be a balance between information and responsible use. Certainly any entity, be it a company or individual, who needlessly harming the public or the environment with chemicals should be held accountable, but I wonder how many people would be willing to give up their life saving medicines or their modern conveniences? Because the fact is that most, if not all of those are synthetic, you know...

I'd love to hear thoughts from fellow scientists as well as non-scientists in the comments section below, so please chime in and let me know what you think. Am I off-base? Am I being too sensitive and/or paranoid? Or am I right to be concerned with this misinformation? Let's discuss!


  1. I often wonder about the Coke vs. Diet Coke controversy. My guess if you partake of the Diet version (which is the one I prefer) ever so often it's okay--just don't drink two or three a day. Another controversy is whether or not to vaccinate. I tend to go ahead and do it for flu or whatever, and if I had a child I'd do it for them as well. I know there's other concerns that may override that decision like cost, etc. Sometimes though I do wonder where people get their opinions/information from, and get confused/overwhelmed by much of the conflicting info.

    1. Exactly! The aspartame thing is a good case...a Diet soda once and a while is fine, but when you hear about these people who have aspartame poisoning and then learn that they drink LITERS of the stuff every day for years and years...it make sense. Hell, water, sugar, and salt are all naturally occurring substances that can kill you if consumed in excess.

      As for vaccinations, that was a load of junk science from the start. Sure, there are definitely a small % of people who will have adverse effects to vaccines, but the hysteria around vaccinations and autism, for example, involved linking an unrelated consequence to an equally unrelated causation and stating it as fact. And like the DDT ban 40 years ago, it's led to a lot of awful unintended consequences of kids getting and spreading infectious diseases that had been all but eradicated for decades. And all because scientists with agendas passed the (mis)information on to an equally agenda-driven media who fed it to an ignorant (in the literal sense of the word) public.

      As a scientist, this bugs me to no end.

  2. Very enlightening. What do you think of the dyes and preservatives that are in most foods? Are they harmful?

    1. Some of them might be, definitely, but I'd guess that would be in very high/unrealistic quantities (unless you're like the popcorn guy I mentioned in the article above). I do wish that so many foods didn't have to have additives to give them longer shelf lives but that's the price of our food-aplenty society. I'm certainly not under the illusion that EVERYTHING added to foods and what not aren't harmful in certain doses, but this pervasive thought amongst a lot of people that we are being intentionally poisoned is ridiculous. What benefit would any business get from slowly killing its own paying customers?