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“Chemical” doesn’t mean “toxic”

 

Say it out loud, “chem-i-cal”. It flows well, and it has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? What does this word mean? You’d be surprised by most definitions. They may not be considered clear to the less scientifically inclined – here’s my simple definition in progress, “Chemicals are elements, or a combination of elements, with a specific composition and structure. All matter is made of chemicals!”

Unfortunately these days, the term “chemicals” is colloquially misrepresented. They are generally considered offensive, are balked at and even feared, because they might turn you into the Hulk (why’s that so bad? Isn’t he Incredible?), not to mention that “chemicals” are the source of cancer and an incalculable number of other illnesses. Because of this chemicals are often advertised as the bane of our existence. I think everyone, even those of us who are irked by this popular misuse of the term “chemical”, must be reminded that absolutely everything is a chemical (see aforementioned definition)! News flash:

- We are chemicals.
- Our friends are chemicals.
- Our babies are chemicals.
- The air we breathe is chemicals.
- The food we consume is chemicals that are digested by chemicals that turn them into more chemicals.

You probably get the point here, but not everyone does! It’s time we start opening more minds to the idea that “chemical” is not a bad word, chemicals are actually fascinating, and we can’t exist without them. Chemicals Are Your Friends (CAYF) is an ambitious project to try and do just that. The primary goal of CAYF is to spread chemical awareness in an accessible way to everyone by any reasonable means – like blog posts, photos, videos and songs (yes, I have every intention of writing songs about chemicals!).

The creation of CAYF, less than a month ago, was triggered by two things. In early February I had the pleasure of attending a talk, given by Dr. Effie Sauer, titled “Teaching chemistry for the future: what do we want our students to remember five years down the road?”. Her entire seminar resounded with me, but what was particularly noteworthy were her primary goals which include stimulating enthusiasm for chemistry and purging the negative connation associated with chemicals.

Dr. Sauer’s seminar restarted the wheels in my head that had begun sometime in undergrad and must have veered off track early on in grad school. Then I had an experience which 100% catalyzed CAYF. I am a vegan, and I like to think I am conscientious regarding my food and lifestyle choices. I had discovered a new term, “veganic”, and was naturally curious. Thefirst site I looked at defines veganic as “[the growth of] crops without the use of chemicals, compounds or animal inputs of any kind.” There is a lot that is wrong with this definition, but let’s stick to the point of this post. Let’s make a short and obvious list of questions regarding this definition:

- Are crops a complex mixture of chemicals?
- Can crops be grown without the use of chemicals?
- Do soil and fertilizer contain an abundance of chemicals?
- Is water a chemical?

I hope that most people would answer “YES” to all of the above questions! Some may even go a step further and mention the fascinating chemicals involved, such as the organic (containing primarily carbon and hydrogen atoms) chemicals, photoactive (responsible for harvesting light) chemicals, the nitrogen-containing chemicals, and perhaps the most essential chemical of all, water (two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom). As you might be able to tell, I found this definition of “veganic” a bit irritating. I should mention that there are more accurate definitions of veganic out there. However, the first I stumbled upon is an excellent example of the motivation behind “Chemicals are your friends”.

We’ve all seen countless products that are marketed as “chemical free”. Here is my favorite example, where the interested reader will find that under the heading “No chemicals” it says, “Well this one just makes sense; How can our beer be as crisp and clean as ocean air if we put chemicals in it?” Does it make sense? I don’t know about you, but I certainly wouldn’t enjoy beer as much if it didn’t contain ethanol. As Dave Barry said, “Not all chemicals are bad. Without chemicals such as hydrogen and oxygen, for example, there would be no way to make water, a vital ingredient in beer.”

Describing toxic and harmful chemicals as just plain “chemicals” comes from a good place. It is true that not all chemicals are good for us, and even those that are (like water or fluoride) can be harmful if we are exposed to too much or in the wrong way. However, all matter is made of chemicals, so it’s important to be more explicit.

It’s also important to mention the popular and misleading idea that natural chemicals are better for us than synthetic chemicals. First, some of the most toxic chemicals on Earth are natural. Second, sometimes synthetic is safer for your health, such as synthetic melatonin supplements since those naturally derived may contain viral material. Third, some synthetic chemicals are better for the environment, for example natural sources of vanilla (the vanilla bean) are being depleted.

Remember, most chemicals are pretty amazing, they are all around us and they are us. Take a minute to look around you. The objects you are able to see are due to chemicals absorbing light, the things you smell are chemicals binding to your olfactory receptors, and chemical signals in your body are responsible for your ability to sense these things. Chemicals deserve respect and appreciation because whether or not you want to admit it your friends are chemicals!

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