Chemicals What Even Are TheyPosted: March 8, 2015
Chemophobia is a constant cause for consternation amongst chemists (alliteration FTW), and a regularly discussed topic on this blog. I often think and write about irrational fear of chemicals and the incorrect or misinformed usage of chemistry in the media, pop culture and modern life. Recently, I had an epiphany and have probably solved all of these problems for ever. OK maybe not but I thought it was worth blogging about.
In a recent visit to a materials science lab, I came across this sign on the door:
At the time I made a totes hilare crack about the lab being a vacuum chamber, because as we all know EVERTYHING IS CHEMICALS RIGHT therefore game over idiots the smug chemists win again. But I continued to think about it for a while because the context of the sign within a professional setting that I know to be not completely incompetent with respect to OHS was somewhat puzzling to me. I think in these situations, the place where I always come unstuck is what on earth do people actually mean when they say “chemicals”? It eventually dawned on me that that in this case, the word “chemicals” should be replaced with the phrase “hazardous chemicals” and everything would be 110 percent super and OK and making sense and perfectly fine and reasonable.
With the introduction of the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (don’t even get me started on the first sentence on that link, just don’t even), the phrase “hazardous chemicals” is clearly defined under the Australian Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulations using the GHS.
So, given that I totally solved this workplace chemical mystery, I wondered if I could apply the same logic to other bogus chemical claims out there. Maybe every time someone other than a chemist uses the word “chemical”, they actually mean “hazardous chemical as defined by the globally harmonised system of classification and labelling of chemicals” and of course they wanted to say or write this but it was just a teensy bit too long. My first port of call for chemistry idiocy is of course the Food Babe, who particularly hates the antioxidant BHT, the yogi’s favourite urea derivative azidocarbonamide and 1958 heterocycle of the year 4-methyl imidazole. When I search for these three compounds in ChemAlert (an Australian chemical management and compliance program), the results are shocking (OK not actually that shocking).
Yes, these three HAZARDOUS CHEMICALS are permitted in food and perfectly safe at certain concentrations – the dose makes the poison after all. So I wondered, is it possible that every time someone is concerned about “chemicals”, they are actually referring to Hazardous Chemicals which, by definition, are something surely worth a little consideration? Answer: YES CHEMOPHOBIA PROBLEM SOLVED FOREVER.
One example in violation of my proposed solution is artificial sweeteners. For example aspartame, which is not a Hazardous Chemical but is something that people like Food Babe, Mercola, Mike Adams et al. flip out about. Here I think the word chemical is used in the chemical=synthetic sense. Eh, can’t win them all…