Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Quick Word on Chemophobia

First, two definitions:
Chemophobia: a fear of chemicals, esp as used in artificial food products or industrial processes (OED

Chemophobia is a "fear of chemicals". It is most often used to describe the fear that "chemicals", usually meaning man-made products or artificially concentrated but naturally occurring chemicals, are bad and harmful while "natural" substances are good and healthy.(Wikipedia

However this is not the way that it is used and this has created a great deal of friction between chemists, environmentalists, and the general public (anyone from your local baker to people with multiple doctorates in physics), all who generally have completely different reactions to the media's portrayal of "chemicals."

Now I'm not questioning that this fear exists - anyone who knows brand new parents is well aware of how real it is. Just as a very legitimate fear exists, so does extreme frustration chemists have about being so negatively portrayed.  

My issue is that this term is used by chemists to describe a negative portrayal of chemistry (that's not what it actually means!). I also have a hard time with this word because it is used in such a way that it strengthens the rift between the public and chemistry when there doesn't have to be one. How? Well, we are still recycling the idea that chemicals are something to be afraid of by using this term. Yes, there is a general confusion about what chemicals are but this term doesn't contribute to solving that problem. People aren't scared of chemicals, they are afraid of toxins. I also find that chemophobia  dismisses the issue at hand instead of taking that opportunity to educate.We just need a new term. 

Coming up with one isn't as easy as it sounds. I spent an afternoon tweeting with chemists across several time zones and the best we could do to come up with a term that wasn't dismissive, punching down, or dissing chemistry was #BogusChem which means both lack/misuse of facts and negative portrayal of chemistry.

I've been asked why I'm so hung up on this a couple of times. As scientists we chemists have to reach out to the public so that everyone can make informed decisions. The only people who benefit from this divide are those that promote this negative perception of chemicals with scare-tactic marketing. While we argue, they're laughing all the way to the bank.


  1. Looking forward to reading your blog--just a quick request for dark type on light background. I'm photosensitive with light type on dark background--seems to occasionally generate a migraine for me. Thanks!

    1. Thank you so much for your feedback. I empathize with getting migraines so I'm a bit embarrassed that I didn't factor that in when I chose my color scheme. I'll get on it stat.