The words ‘chemical’ and ‘poison’ have become interchangeable in the popular consciousness. As a result the whole subject of chemistry has become tainted with unpleasant connotations.



Chemicals are bad, right? Otherwise why would so many purveyors of all things healthy proudly proclaim their products to be “chemical-free” and why would phrases such as “it’s chock full of chemicals” be so commonly used to imply something is unnatural and therefore inherently dangerous?

On one level these phrases are meaningless – after all, chemicals are everywhere, in everything. From the air that we breathe to the pills we pop, it’s all chemicals. Conversely, many would argue (the Advertising Standards Agency included) that we all know perfectly well what “chemical-free” means and those who rail against the absurdity of the phrase are just being pedantic. Even the Oxford Dictionary defines a chemical as “a distinct compound or substance, especially one which has been artificially prepared or purified.”

So “chemical-free” products are adhering to a recognised usage.

But pedantry and definition aren’t really the point. The point is that every time anti-chemical slogans are used people are being misinformed. The implication is always that the terms “chemical” and “poison” are interchangeable. This is a perception that permeates our subconscious to the extent that chemists themselves have been guilty of exactly the same lazy language.

As a result of this common usage of “chemicals” the whole subject has been tainted with unpleasant connotations. And while physics and biology have their celebrity scientists extolling the wonders of bosons, bugs and big bangs, chemists are left floundering in their wake or are left completely unrepresented in the mainstream media (where’s the Guardian’s chemistry blog?).

This is all despite the modern world having been built on the innovations of chemists. For example, most of the world’s population is sustained by the innovations of one of them. Fritz Haber invented a means to turn the nitrogen in the air into useful agricultural fertiliser (40% of the nitrogen in you comes from Haber’s reaction). Meanwhile the chemists who artificially prepared or purified antibiotics are responsible for a treatment that saves more lives than any other medical intervention.

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 Sciencejoined the discussion with the publication of a guide entitled Making Sense of Chemical StoriesSense about Science is a respected charitable organisation that “equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion”. In short, it facilitates discussions between concerned/interested groups and relevant experts.


The aim of its guide is to bridge the disconnect between the lifestyle view (and popular definition) of chemicals and the realities of how chemistry is used to sustain the modern world. The guide does this by tackling common misconceptions about chemistry.

A key misconception is that natural chemicals are somehow safer than manmade ones. The wrongheadedness of this is nicely illustrated by a pair of infographics (above) created by Compound Interest that don’t shy away from admitting synthetic chemicals are often toxic, but also make it clear that whether a chemical is naturally occurring or manmade tells us precisely nothing about its toxicity.

Not only that, but where harmful chemicals do occur (be that in potatoes or lethal injections) the dose is the really important thing to consider.

Making Sense of Chemical Stories is being promoted to the public, journalists, lifestyle press and policymakers. It, along with the infographics, are freely available to download from Sense about Science, or if you prefer a hard copy (or a box full of them) email enquiries@senseaboutscience.org or call 020 7490 9590 with your contact details.

Order some and spread the word: chemicals are good for you!

Via The Guardian