What is education’s place in dealing with chemophobia?

My Twitter feed was alight recently with the hashtag #scio13, representing ScienceOnline 2013 – a conference in North Carolina focussed on science communication, particularly online. Because of who I follow, it was natural that there was much traffic related to Session 8A – “Chemophobia and Chemistry in the Modern World”. The session abstract asks two interesting questions: “How can bloggers and the media effectively combat chemophobia? How much chemistry does the public need to know to be well-informed and make good decisions, and what’s the most effective avenue for disseminating that kind of information?”

I take great pleasure in writing and talking about science – chemistry and statistics, in particular. Although I have visions of sharing the scientific cutting edge in this blog, I realize that many past posts involve addressing and correcting misconceptions around chemistry. In my weaker moments, I feel that there is little point writing to the public about innovations in analytical chemistry when many people still believe that water and Vitamin C are good for you but dihydrogen monoxide and ascorbic acid are bad for you.

The attitude that “chemicals” are dangerous is generally called “chemophobia” – a word which I’ve used in past posts and on my Twitter feed, but a word that I do not really like. Perhaps it’s because I am in circles where there is much discussion on tackling homophobia – a word that is often used to describe attitudes that are rooted not in fear but in ignorance (attitudes that would be more accurately described as heterosexism). There are certainly dangerous chemicals, and some have caused real harm in the past.  Besides, many people remember the litany of safety precautions every time they entered their high school chemistry laboratory.  Combine that with marketers who exploit these concerns by making “chemical” synonymous with toxic and poisonous, and “natural” synonymous with safe and healthy, and it is not at all surprising that people would conclude that they should be scared of chemicals.  Much chemophobia exists because people sincerely don’t want to put their health, or the health of their loved ones, at risk.

My approach to addressing misplaced hysteria over “chemicals” is that knowledge is the key to understanding the role of chemicals in our World, by offering information and tools for people to recognize for themselves which chemicals are dangerous and which only seem to be so.  Most well-read, well-educated, open-minded people don’t have chemistry degrees, and many only studied chemistry in high school.  And more than a few people have told me, almost with glee, how much they hated chemistry in school.

But… if only a person understood why there is no such thing as a chemical-free cleaner or a chemical-free food additive – and that distilled water, purified air and pretty fluffy clouds are all still made of chemicals – that person would not be as scared about chemicals.  They would see through the fearmongering and marketing, and they would tell their friends and families about their newfound knowledge. That can only be a good thing!

The problem is that human nature is not so rational and straightforward. Of course, those who are selling their products or services will use whatever tactics they can effectively apply.  They’ll denigrate products for containing “chemicals” in order to push their “natural” products, and some of them know very well that their sales pitch is full of it.  Others are so well entrenched in their views that they will not admit they were wrong, even when presented with clear contrary evidence.

This stubbornness can be compounded when those of us fighting chemophobia do so with smugness or condescension. It may be cathartic to lecture a person advocating alkaline water by mocking their assertion that the body needs to maintain an alkaline pH. But even well-intentioned explanations can seem quite demeaning; what seems like a simple chemistry primer can sound to someone else like “if only you were smart enough to understand this – and frankly, it is really really easy to understand – then you wouldn’t be a chemophobe”.

So it creates a conundrum – education is the key to combating chemophobia in our society, but it needs to be effective.  Some people simply won’t listen, others will listen but be turned off by signs of haughtiness.  While it is an interesting factoid that a cup of tea contains hundreds of chemicals, how does a person use that information to alleviate their fear that they are poisoning their children with whatever toxin is in the news that week?  And how do the words of one scientist counter the words of celebrities, talk show hosts, family members and peddlers on the Internet who give contrasting points of view, while implying (when not telling people flat out) that scientists cannot be trusted?

ChemBark, in a more fleshed-out blog post, has suggested that chemists should spend 5% of their time allotted to chemistry on battling chemophobia. For someone working 40 hours a week (I know I know, academics work much more than that!), that’s 2 hours a week dedicated to this cause.  He gives 10 suggestions for what to do in those hours, but instead of copying the list here, I invite you to read his post.  (I’m doing suggestion #7 by writing this post!)

People can choose to live in a way that minimizes contact with chemicals, but these should be informed decisions, not driven by fear or spite towards elitist scientists.  I do invite anybody with thoughts or suggestions to comment on this article, and I hope to write more on this in coming weeks.

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