Most chemistry conferences these days feature a session on the “public understanding of chemistry.” Usually speakers express frustration about equating the term “chemical” with “toxin” or “poison,” about consumers looking for “chemical-free” products, and about the extent of scientific illiteracy. There tends to be a collective bemoaning of the lack of appreciation of the contributions that chemistry has made to life and of the eyebrows raised when a chemist reveals his profession in some social setting. Annoyance surfaces about synthetic chemicals being seen as the culprits responsible for a host of human ailments whereas natural substances are judged to be unquestionably safe.
Often there is criticism of bloggers who maintain that if you can’t pronounce the chemical name of a food ingredient you shouldn’t be eating it and of the bothersome image of the frizzy-haired “mad scientist” who is bent on brewing up some nasty carcinogen to unleash on an unsuspecting public. There’s lots of lamenting the demonization of “petroleum-derived” chemicals by scientifically uneducated, self-appointed protectors of the public good.
Speaker after speaker expresses concern that the public is being unduly alarmed by ill-informed pundits who inflate the risks of non-stick cookware, fluoride, pesticide residues, preservatives, plasticizers, GMOs and various chemicals found in cosmetics and cleaning agents. There is also concern that chemists are unfairly maligned, mistrusted and uncaring about the long term consequences of their actions. All of this is usually followed by a call to arms to change the public’s attitude toward chemistry, and vigorous discussions ensue about how to go about curing what is seen as widespread “chemophobia.” I know, because I’ve been there and have taken an active role in such dialogues.
Now, though, it seems that our worries may have been overblown, at least judging by the largest survey ever carried out about the public’s attitude toward chemistry by the U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry. A qualifier has to be mentioned here though. In the U.K. pharmacists are also called chemists and this likely skewed the statistics since health professionals tends to be regarded in a positive fashion.
The survey featured interviews with over 2000 randomly selected people and discussions with a number of focus groups. While there were concerns about chemicals, chemistry as a profession was viewed positively. Sixty percent of the subjects interviewed said they believed that the benefits of chemistry outweigh any harmful effect, and eighty four percent agreed that chemists make a valuable contribution to society. Interestingly, only twelve percent of chemists interviewed thought the public would have such a high appraisal of their profession.
When it comes to chemicals, seventy percent agreed that everything can be toxic at a certain dose, but only sixty percent knew that everything is made of chemicals. On the positive side, less than twenty percent thought that all chemicals are dangerous. So chemophobia does not seem to be as extensive as we think it is.
Chemists have a knee-jerk reaction every time we see the word “chemical” used in what we consider to be an inappropriate fashion. We bristle when someone says they do not want to eat food that contains chemicals or when we hear that consumers are looking for a cleaning agent without chemicals. What ignorance, we think! But it seems that when people use “chemical” in this fashion, they refer to substances that they believe are potentially toxic, not to all chemicals in general. It’s a matter of semantics. Maybe we are wasting our time by trying to set the record straight every time we see the word chemical used in a way that strays from our scientific definition. Perhaps it is time to accept that words can have different meanings depending on their context, and that when lay people talk about “chemicals” they are using the term to mean substances that are potentially harmful.
Ridiculing the misuse of the word as a synonym for “toxic”, as those of us in the chemistry field often tend to do, can have an undesired consequence. It can give the impression that we think that all chemicals are safe. In fact no one knows the potential harm that can be caused by some chemicals better than chemists.
An unreasonable attack mounted against some chemical by a chemically illiterate person is sometimes interpreted by chemists as an attack on their profession and prompts a vigorous rebuttal. Even if scientifically warranted, it tends to project an image of being a defender of all chemicals.
As scientists, chemists are gung-ho on evidence and are wary of anecdote. Yet, it appears that our belief that chemists are considered as societal pariahs because they produce chemicals, that is, “toxins,” is purely anecdotal. The U.K. survey actually revealed that seventy-five percent of people think that chemistry has a positive impact on our wellbeing.
Admittedly, I was surprised by that statistic, probably having been misled by my personal anecdotal evidence. Because of the business I’m in, I tend to take note of any chemical nonsense I come across. I see it in my emails and on posts on my Facebook page. And I guess I forget that the vast majority of people who have a reasonable view of chemicals and chemists are not vocal about their beliefs. It’s the squeaky wheel that we hear.
Thanks to the Royal Society of Chemistry’s survey, we can now move from anecdote to science. It is comforting to note that chemophobia is not rampant and that only twenty-five percent of people are confused, bored, shocked, saddened or angered by chemistry. But there is another noteworthy statistic. More than half the people do not know what chemists actually do, and do not feel confident enough to talk about chemistry. So instead of worrying about the misuse of the word “chemical,” we should focus on educating the public about the role of chemistry in our lives.