“Are you sure you want to eat that? I’ve heard there are lots of chemicals in there.” I’d have to say that you’d be lying if you hadn’t heard this sentence – or at least a similar one – at some point in your life. Perhaps it was grandma repeating something she’d seen on the evening news, part of some ludicrous advertising plot or maybe someone just screamed it at you from behind their beard in the organic section of your local supermarket; it doesn’t matter who said it, I’m just certain you’ve heard it somewhere. While they might be on to something – given that food has been shown to contain certain plastics – there is often this knee jerk reaction to automatically fear anything labelled a chemical, which is quite misguided due to one small fact: all observable matter in the universe is made up of chemicals.
This chemophobia hasn’t came from nowhere. As large scale chemical processes became more common place in the 20th century, so did related problems. I think the biggest – or at least the most well known – example, is that of thalidomide, a drug that was used to treat morning sickness in pregnant women during the period 1957-1961. However, the drug ended up being harmful to foetuses, resulting in severe birth defects for at least 10,000 babies. The drug was available in various different countries, though like most negative things from the early to mid 20th century, it originated in Germany. Understandably, this and other similar events – such as the proliferation of DDT in the environment, or ozone depletion – lowered the public trust in synthetic chemicals.
While the aforementioned drug was assumed safe to consume, chemicals which are known to be genuinely dangerous also exist. As a chemistry student, I’ve worked with a chemical that had the safety phrase „may cause heritable genetic disorders“ attached; given that I don’t intend to sire anything myself, it’s not a particularly big deal to me, though it’s a frightening idea nonetheless. That being said, the water we drink, the oxygen we breathe and the other things necessary to our survival, are indeed chemicals.
It’s practically impossible to say what makes a chemical toxic or dangerous to humans in a few words because there are a plethora of different mechanisms which determine why different chemicals are toxic or dangerous. However, just because something is synthetic, it doesn’t mean that it’s more dangerous than something which occurs in nature. To give an example, a naturally occurring poison could be much more dangerous than something like paracetamol or aspirin (depending on the dosage, of course).
The Haber-Bosch Process
Without synthetic chemistry, society as we know it wouldn’t exist. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough is that of the Haber-Bosch process, which is used to make ammonia, a component in the fertiliser we use to grow crops. This process allowed us to significantly expand our agricultural sector and provide enough food to sustain the population growth of the 20th century; though as a disclaimer, I am using the word sustain quite loosely here.
The tale of the sunburned back
Don’t get me wrong, you absolutely should be cautious about what you put in or on your body, and it’s important to have an awareness of how chemicals can be dangerous, as well as a healthy dose of scepticism to what people or organisations are telling you. However, to fear anything labelled a chemical is simply a bad idea. I’ve even fell into the trap of this kind of thinking myself, as once I was convinced that the chemicals in suncream were not worth putting on my skin; the heavily sunburned back and several nights of uncomfortable sleep said otherwise. The bottom line is that you should appreciate science for what is and what it has done, and put some faith in the scientists who are doing the research; just don’t make the mistake of trusting them too much.
Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.