Chemical-free chemistry sets, and other advertising that is free from sense

We may have hit rock bottom in terms of chemical-free hysteria. It’s one thing for supermarkets to sell “chemical-free foods” as a euphemism for “unprocessed food”, or for stores to sell “chemical-free cleaning supplies“, which generally means that nothing too harsh is in the bottle. But this picture was brought to my attention on Twitter by @BrennaArlyce:

Seriously? Everyday products without chemicals?

Yes, it’s a chemical-free chemistry set. No kidding. And this is available in Canada at Home Hardware stores. Home Hardware is a long-respected Canadian home improvement company, well known for being the dependable corner hardware store in many small towns. And they are now selling chemical-free chemistry sets for just under $50.

This chemical-free chemistry set is said to be “100% safe”, using “everyday products without chemicals”. The picture in Home Hardware’s shopping page shows that various forms of laboratory glassware comes with this package, so one has to wonder what chemical-free stuff will be put into these erlenmeyer flasks, or stored in the vials. The litmus paper will be quite useless if the products being tested do not contain chemicals. I do see a syringe as well – convenient for removing all air and leaving a vacuum, which is the only way one will get an actual chemical-free sample for this set.  I fear for the child whose first exposure to chemistry is with this set – will that child be a nervous wreck when he/she does chemistry experiments in high school or university, working with “actual” chemicals?

We generally know what advertisers mean when they declare a food or cleaning product to be “chemical-free” – they promote the absence of particular chemical compounds that are known (or thought) to be bad. However, usage of this term feeds into the hysteria surrounding chemicals, perpetrating the myth that all chemicals are bad and to be avoided. When well-meaning parents become obsessed with the presence of what they perceive as chemicals in food or anywhere in the environment, and when they make extra efforts to seek out “chemical-free” items, it is not a leap to recognize that there would be a market for chemical-free chemistry sets. But having your child learn about chemistry with a chemistry set that is free of chemicals is like having your child learn about literature with books that are free of words – and we all know that some words are scary and dangerous! In fact, that analogy doesn’t quite work since a book free of words will have pictures and can have some pedagogical value.

While this may be a most egregious example of chemophobia, it is not the only one that has caught my attention in recent weeks. ChemBark showed us the latest tagline for Jamba Juice’s All-Natural Energy Drink: “All The Energy, Without The Chemistry”.

Interesting Drink. (C) ChemBark

This leads to the obvious question: if the energy doesn’t come from a chemical reaction involving carbohydrates, proteins or fats, then where does it come from? Here’s a hint: “burning calories” is not a metaphor.

But while that line could be perceived as an attempt at being a bit droll, it is almost light-hearted compared to the straight-up fear that Whirlpool is delivering. In this ad campaign, Whirlpool actually asks us the magic question: “Are you drinking from the periodic table?” Apparently the correct answer is “no”, according to this picture:

But can I eat from it?

The accompanying video shows a family surrounded by the periodic table and some nasty-looking chemicals, which blogger See Arr Oh took the time to identify. Of course, while they tell us not to drink from the periodic table, they do use the chemical formula of water, H2O, to show that it is refreshing and fresh. So maybe the message is that hydrogen and oxygen are safe, but the rest of the periodic table is dangerous?  Perhaps it is okay to drink hydrogen peroxide (H2O2)? “It’s water, with added oxygen!” (Disclaimer: that was a joke.)

Obviously, I don’t want to drink water that is full of contaminants, and I would want no part of that stuff that came out of the tap at the beginning of the video. I own a water filter so that I have clean water on tap, and I want my drinking water to contain as little as possible beyond H2O.  But I want some things out of my water because I know they are bad for me, not because they ”come from the periodic table”.  There are plenty of things that “come from the periodic table” that I enjoy in my water.  In fact, I just ran clean H2O through a layer of crushed beans, and the dark-colored liquid that came out is H2O with a whole bunch of other compounds straight from the periodic table. And not only does it taste great, some of these compounds are believed to be beneficial for health. So let’s not knock the periodic table and feed the chemophobic beast even further.

In fairness, chemistry is not always portrayed as bad in advertising. I saw this in the washroom of a Toronto pub recently:

I am a chick magnet. I do hope there’s no curium in Dentyne Ice gum – I don’t need such a radiant smile

I did have a chuckle over the fact that Cm is curium, a radioactive element which would really give one a radiant smile, among other things. Apparently, chemistry is great when it doesn’t involve beakers and flasks, or the people in white coats that use them.

But let me come full circle, back to children’s toys.  How those parents who give their kids chemical-free chemistry sets would absolutely cringe at the thought of their children playing with actual chemicals that are also radioactive. Sure enough, this was the laboratory that some budding scientists could have in their bedrooms in the early 1950s: the Atomic Energy Lab.

Now, this would have been fun to play with.

The advertising makes it quite clear that it was not radiation-free materials in the kit – it contained actual lead-210, ruthenium-106, zinc-65 and polonium-210 (although the kit didn’t actually name the elements – they simply referred to them as alpha, beta, gamma and cloud chamber sources, respectively).  One could purchase replacement sources if necessary by filling the coupon that came with the kit.  I’m not sure that professional scientists can get such easy access to radiation sources today – polonium-210 is well-known nowadays for being used in some high-profile poisonings.

In 60 years, we’ve gone from atomic energy kits with real radioactive sources to chemistry sets without chemicals.  The pendulum has gone from one extreme to the other – playing with polonium-210 is unsafe, and chemical-free chemistry sets are a joke.  Properly supervised, hands-on experiments, done safely and with the watchful eye of a knowledgeable adult, is best for children to know, understand, and most importantly, respect chemistry.  They might even be able to dispel a few myths about chemistry in their own kitchen.

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One Comment

  1. Comment by Paul Murray:

    A safe chemistry set sold by a shop that sells hydrochloric acid, swimming pool chlorine, soldering flux, propane, fertilizer and a range of other fun and educational substances. Way to go.

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