This blog is my attempt to reconnect with the world of chemistry. I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and make a living doing research for a large company in Michigan. As times have changed, that company has changed its focus and I no longer have as much chance to do the basic, fundamental research which I most enjoy. Through this blog, I am hoping to recapture the magic which I felt during my graduate (and undergraduate) days in college. Expect topics on chemistry and alchemy along with some non-chemistry related items which I think might be interesting.

"The chymists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapour, soot and flame, poisons and poverty; yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that may I die if I would change places with the Persian King."

Johann Joachim Becher (phlogistonist)
Acta Laboratorii Chymica Monacensis, seu Physica Subterranea, (1669).

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Chemophobia

“So what do you do for a living?” asked the guy standing next to me. “I’m a chemist,” I said, expecting to see his face light up with a mixture of admiration and envy. “Oh…. So you work with chemicals, then?” he said, and his emphasis on the word “chemicals” indicated both repulsion and pity for my unfortunate career choice. I thought about saying, “Everyone works with chemicals, since everything is a chemical,” but I can usually spot a lost cause when I see one so I just nodded and began talking to myself until he decided he wanted to be somewhere else. Why does the term ”chemical” evoke such negative feelings in some people? I suspect that much of the reason has to do with the media (and those who use the media, e.g. politicians). It’s pretty much an unwritten rule in the media that the word “chemical” is only to be used when negative connotations are required. If a chemical is found to be beneficial, words like “substance” or “ingredient” or “compound” or “drug” will be used instead. Here's an article I found discussing the use of chemical alternatives to chlorine in swimming pools. These alternatives include ozone, Cu2+, and Ag+ to kill bacteria. The pool owners are happy that they no longer have to deal with the problems inherent with chlorine and there’s no problem with that. But you’ll notice that many of these owners (and the writer of the article) indicate they are glad to be in a chemical-free pool. What? Copper and silver aren’t chemicals?

Want to get someone’s attention? Just invoke a chemical name – the longer and the more scientific sounding, the better. There’s been a series of hoaxes over the years based on the supposed necessity of banning DHMO (dihydrogen monoxide). The most recent incarnation occurred last year in New Zealand when an MP was tricked into believing that DHMO might be harmful to the public. DHMO was described to her as colorless, odorless, tasteless, causing the death of uncounted thousands of people every year, and yet so addicting that, for those who become dependent on it, its withdrawal means certain death. Not bad for a substance which covers over two thirds of the planet’s surface.

8 comments:

Chemgeek said...

Great post. Sadly, it's so true. Over the years I have become more jaded and have become less considerate when it comes to people's chemophobia. At times I try to freak them out and scare them with my talk about scary chemicals.

I am also annoyed by the use of the word "organic" to describe a type of farming. I'm pretty sure I didn't plant any tungsten tomatoes in my garden this year.

Angry Lab Rat said...

Great blog. Thanks for the link to my site.

I can't say I'm a chemist, but I work with chemistry every day through the work I do at my evil global biotech company. I'm not a chemophile, but I'd say I've overcome most of my chemotension. I've even been known to suggest inventive new structures (for the chemists in the company to synthesize, I might add).

Chemist Ken said...

[Homer voice on]

Mmmmmmm...... Tungsten tomatoes... (add apopropriate drooling noises here)

[/Homer voice off]

katiedid said...

I use the "everything is chemicals" defense all the time but I usually get a "you know what I mean" back inferring that they meant the dangerous, bad, scary chemicals. It bugs the hell out of me.

The DHMO story cracked me up.

David Bradley said...

Back at the start of my career in science writing (very early 90s), I wrote a feature article on chemophobia for one of the big popular science magazines. Unfortunately, their features editor was probably one of the biggest chemophobes around and even after three rounds of revisions the feature was spiked. I should resurrect it for Sciencebase at some point, although, the writing style may be a bit embarrassing...

Ψ*Ψ said...

The woman who works in the business office for my lab is afraid to open the boxes things are shipped in and stick labels on chemicals that arrive. (WTF?! This is the ANALYTICAL lab...most things we get in are standards...I mean, I wouldn't eat them, but...)

Chemgeek said...

During summer our DHL packages are delivered to a main reception area. Today I got a phone call. With a sound of desperation in her voice she said quickly, "um.. we have package here and the box says 'toxic.' Could you please come and pick it up!"

She did not want a box labeled "Toxic" anywhere near her. It was deuterated chloroform. While ingesting the stuff is probably a poor idea, I doubt there was any danger while it was in it package.

Febriarmono Uniza Putra said...

Well, i'm a chemist, and i'm proud about it :) Life is chemistry, there is no life without chemistry :)