Chemophobia is an irrational fear of chemicals, particularly synthetic chemicals used in the food industry, industrial processes, and drug making (legal and illegal). This fear of chemicals is often perpetrated by the media and environmentalists.
- 1 Commonly targeted chemicals
- 2 Natural vs. synthetic chemicals
- 3 Drugs and Explosives "Precursors"
- 4 References
Commonly targeted chemicals
Acetone is often targeted by various groups since it's a "solvent" and not made naturally and thus dangerous. Although concentrated acetone is irritant since it defattens the skin on contact, and combined with its volatility means it can strongly irritate the lungs, acetone has a low LD50 compared to most volatile solvents, with a value of 5-6000 mg/kg for most animals. Acetone is naturally produced in the organism, as side product from the decarboxylation of ketone bodies. Certain dietary patterns, including prolonged fasting and high-fat low-carbohydrate dieting, can produce ketosis, in which acetone is formed in body tissue. Health conditions, such as alcoholism and diabetes, can produce ketoacidosis, in some cases the amount of acetone produced is high enough that it can be sensed in the person's sweat. Acetone is also produced in significant amounts during pregnancy. Despite these facts, in many places acetone has often being replaced by other "safer" alternatives. In Netherlands, many acetone solvents have been replaced by "greener" products, allegedly safer, while in some cases said "safer" alternative is 2-butoxyethanol, which is actually classified as harmful in US and Canada. Acetone has been replaced in many nail polishers with ethyl acetate, which has similar LD50, and has a similar cost. While the use of ethyl acetate in nail polishers is due to the fact that acetone cannot be used on some types of fake nails as it damages them, the replacement is unnecessary as both products have already been sold in parallel.
Many artificial sweeteners, such as cyclamate, aspartame, sucralose, have been repeatedly considered to have negative effects on health, ranging from irritations, to cancer, and as such have been banned from use in foods. Aspartame is considered one of the most studied and vetted food additives in the entire world, and all studies so far have not shown any negative effects and certainly no cancer or other claimed negative effects, while studies that claim negative effects have not been successfully replicated.
"Whole food" advocates have repeatedly and misleadingly stated that ascorbic acid created in a lab is not the same as the vitamin C found in foods, because it lacks certain specific cofactors that make up a "C complex." Thousands of studies have shown that L-ascorbate is sufficient and necessary to meet vitamin C requirements in the body. If this weren't true, all patients on parenteral nutrition would have died from scurvy due to the lack of a "C complex."
Azodicarbonamide is a preservative used in bread as a flour bleaching agent and an improving agent. In the US and Canada it is generally recognized as safe in concentrations less than 45 parts per million. However, a blogger known as "The Food Babe" successfully pressured Subway to phase out the product, arguing that the chemical is also used in shoes and yoga mats. While there are alternatives to azodicarbonamide, there was no reason to remove it from bread.
Commonly known as water, the use of this systematic name scares environmentalists. Numerous websites parody the aversion to chemical names, describing the material as being "able to cause burns in the vapor state and frostbite when solid," a reference to steam burns and other thermal injuries that have nothing to do with the water itself.
Playing off of this prank almost cost two radio talk show hosts their jobs, and they almost faced felony charges, but luckily these were dropped.
Formaldehyde is the simplest aldehyde and depending on the definition, the simplest organic chemical compound containing the elements CHO (only methane is simpler). It is a side product in most biochemical reactions, though the amount produced is minute (an average human body normally produces and metabolizes 50,000 mg or 50 g of endogenous formaldehyde daily, which corresponds to 22 mg of formaldehyde per minute). At high concentrations, formaldehyde is toxic and a potent carcinogen. Due to this fact, any product that has any amount of formaldehyde is often decried as causing cancer, being dangerous to children, unsafe, synthetic, etc. This is an argument often used by anti-vaxxers who claim that since Pharma companies put formaldehyde in vaccines (which is used in the morgue, scary!), vaccines are dangerous. However the amount of formaldehyde from vaccines is insignificant. An average single vaccine dose contains around 100 μg of formaldehyde, an amount so small it can't even be sensed via smell. By comparison, a typical fruit, like a 200 g pear, has around 12,000 μg (12 mg) formaldehyde, which is almost 100 times more than found in vaccines, while other common fruits have similar levels.
However, while there is plenty of scare over the formaldehyde from some products and foods, there are a few known cases where the presence of formaldehyde was found to be at levels high enough to be responsible for health problems:
In some underdeveloped countries, formaldehyde is sometimes used by shady or crooked food companies to sterilize the food at unsafe levels, or "rejuvenate" expired food before reselling it as fresh food. Such products do contain unsafe amounts of formaldehyde and whenever they're caught, the outcome is never good for them. However, these cases are always criminal in nature and done by shady individuals in pursuit of profits at the expense of the national and international health safety regulations.
Old trailers that were treated with formaldehyde-urea resin have been shown to slowly release formaldehyde over time, which has been linked with increased health problems, like asthma in children. After hurricanes have struck trailer parks, the residents that returned in them began showing various health problems, and tests have indicated large amounts of formaldehyde inside, resulted from the decomposition of the resin in the presence of water.
Often called MSG, monosodium glutamate is used to increase the umami flavor of foods. In the 1980s, a report of "Chinese restaurant syndrome" considered several sources of the symptoms, but MSG was singled out as the cause. Repeated studies have shown that MSG has no adverse effects in moderation, and glutamate as an amino acid is an important component of proteins.
Although Prussian blue is not classified as illegal compound, hazardous, poison or even precursor, assuming it's even included in any classification, its use in many common products has declined over the years, since it's "cyanide". As such, overzealous authorities may consider it true cyanide and treat it as such, even though the compound is inert to most reagents and even digestion.
Sulfuric acid has been used in several acid attacks that cause extreme pain and disfigurement to the victim. While it is an extremely useful reagent to chemists and non-chemists (as battery acid and drain cleaner), pushes have been made to ban or severely restrict its acquisition, and the media isn't helping either.
The majority of acid attacks occur in South Asia and the Middle East. Most victims in these areas are women, but in more developed countries, like the United Kingdom, men are far more likely than women to be victims of such an attack.
Natural vs. synthetic chemicals
Many people have advocated the use of "natural" products, saying that artificial ones are somehow different from their natural counterparts and may have adverse effects ("appeal to nature"). Many companies have caved into the pressure and removed certain targeted chemicals from their products, most recently azodicarbonamide and brominated vegetable oil, not because they are dangerous, but to improve consumer perception of the product.
People who want to "ban chemicals" often do not realize that everything is a chemical, and that natural and synthetic chemicals behave exactly the same because the arrangements of atoms and the atoms themselves are effectively identical.
These people also fail to consider that quite a lot of compounds and materials that originate directly from nature and have been or are still used are quite toxic and dangerous for health, such as asbestos, fine silica sand, hydrogen sulfide, ozone, volcanic emissions, etc. Likewise, a great majority of organisms, both plants and animals contain a variety of extremely toxic and even deadly compounds, some even without any known antidote, such as ricin (from castor beans), α-amanitin (Amanita genus mushrooms), saxitoxin (from certain shellfish), as well as various toxins from many microorganisms, like tetanus, botulism, anthrax, diphtheria etc. Most common plants, both vegetables and decorative are quite poisonous, and yet many people have no problem having an oleander in their garden, even though you can poison yourself through touch. Likewise, the most toxic compound known to man is the botulinum toxin, which you can get it from almost spoiled canned food, whereas the most carcinogenic compound, aflatoxin B1, can be found in Aspergillus mold, which tends to grow pretty much everywhere (cereals, tree nut shells tend to be good growth environment), and pretty much everyone has entered in contact with at least a small amount of it. Yet you don't hear people complaining about the latter.
Drugs and Explosives "Precursors"
Oftentimes, legislatures will pass laws that restrict the sales of chemicals that they deem to be useful in the manufacture of drugs or explosives. Unfortunately, many of these chemicals are very useful for amateur chemists. Some jurisdictions are worse than others when it comes to how they enforce these precursor laws.
One particularly shameful example is Texas, which since 1987 has required reisdents to apply for a permit to own not only drug precursor chemicals, but glassware that has been deemed as being "designed, made, or adapted to manufacture a controlled substance," which is completely untrue of most pieces on their list, such as Erlenmeyer flasks, condensers, and Büchner funnels. To receive a permit, one must submit a lengthy application form including an account of exactly how the chemicals or equipment are to be used, and allow a police officer to inspect their home. This permit is only valid for a single transaction.