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Everything is chemicals

| Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Friedrich Nietzsche once observed, “The most perfidious way of harming a cause consists of defending it deliberately with faulty arguments.” Even when your intentions are noble, making your case with flawed reasoning serves only to dissuade those who might otherwise be able to get on board. Such was the case a few days ago, when I was recommended an app called “Think Dirty.” The app enables users to scan household cleaning products and receive a readout of potentially harmful ingredients the product contains, ranked on a scale of one to 10 with 10 being the worst.

Sounds great—until you actually use it. I experimentally scanned a bottle of sunscreen and was immediately greeted with screaming red “9/10” warnings. The app had detected ethylparaben, a preservative and penetration enhancer, and a fragrance of unknown composition. It flagged ethylparaben in particular as an endocrine disruptor and allergen. As a chemical engineer, this piqued my interest, and I decided to do a little digging. A quick Google search brought me to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website. Their perspective was succinct: “At this time, we do not have information showing that parabens as they are used in cosmetics have an effect on human health.”

Honestly, I was far from surprised. I’d been skeptical of the Environmental Working Group, a group who has a similar app called “Healthy Living,” ever since I noticed its literature’s emphasis on the dog whistles of “toxins” and “synthetics.” My suspicions were confirmed when I glanced at EWG’s recommended alternatives, which were all tagged with meaningless buzzwords like “all-natural” and “organic.” Tragic though it is, the Think Dirty app and EWG are nothing more than a distillation of the worst elements of chemophobia.

Chemophobia has been defined by the American Chemical Society as “an irrational fear of compounds perceived as ‘synthetic.’” It’s the logical extension of the appeal to nature, in which things that are “natural” are good and things that are “unnatural” are bad. While this idea is wrong, it’s also easy to understand and remember. As a result, gullible people the world over have been indoctrinated into various stages of chemophobia, and from the fertile soil of their ignorance has sprung a bumper crop of charlatans and conmen. They come in a spectrum from the lovable panacea-pusher Dr. Oz to the hardcore vaccine deniers like Jenny McCarthy, but what the all have in common is an anti-scientific worldview and a desire to market the same to the credulous. I’m sure you’ve seen their product labels — “contains no chemicals! Non-GMO, gluten-free, organic salt!”

Several false assumptions form the bedrock of the anti-chemical agenda. Many naturally-occurring products (ricin, arsenic, mercury) are deadlier than anything the cleverest scientist could devise. While this does not assure the safety of a particular synthetic compound — look at trans fats — its artificial nature should not count against it. Further, the relative harmful qualities of a chemical are often far less important than the amounts absorbed into the body. Drink enough water, and hyponatremia will kill you. Meanwhile, your average grocery store pear may contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, but the concentration is so low that it’s not a health concern. It’s the dose that makes the poison.

I have no reason to doubt that the Environmental Working Group’s intentions are (pardon the pun) pure, and to their credit they do a good job of advocating for more abstract environmental causes like climate change. But it’s hugely irresponsible of them to simply point at a product, shout “Chemicals!” and then duck out of the way of the stampede. The socioeconomic consequences of these false beliefs are staggering. Consider the one-third loss in efficiency of organic farming; how many families go hungry when a farmland’s potential is wasted on “chemical-free” lettuce? In this regard, the EWG and the rubes who have helped to propagate this hysteria should be ashamed of themselves.

So what steps can be taken to minimize the impact of this anti-chemical propaganda? Stick to authoritative sources on chemical safety like the FDA or CDC, not spin-doctor blogs or apps. When possible, get your facts straight from the peer-reviewed literature available on PubMed or any other free aggregator of scientific research. And never, ever assume the good faith of someone who is trying to sell you something.

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated “Think Dirty” was an app of the Environmental Working Group. “Think Dirty” was actually a separate project founded by Lily Tse. The Observer regrets this error.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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