Chemophobia is major problem, and it is time scientists to do more to stop the press intensifying it. I welcome all discussion on ways to inform journalists and petition news agencies to report in a conscientious and scientifically correct manner.
As a chemist, misuse of the term chemical frustrates me. The use of the word chemical to describe things we must avoid, things that damage our health and the environment is a far cry from its actual definition; a distinct substance or compound. Fear of the word chemical brings with it, at the very least, public mistrust of the field of chemistry, and at the more worrying end of the scale public rejection of life saving products like vaccines. A quick Google search will lead you to many websites claiming governments are asking us to fill our children’s bodies with “harmful chemicals such as mercury, aluminium and formaldehyde” 1. Some have suggested that it is time for chemists to let go of the word chemical, that the original meaning is gone and we should move on to more important matters concerning the public and science. However, as a chemist, researching chemistry using chemicals, I feel the need to protect the word and, I believe, with it, public respect and understanding for my field and science in general.
Recently the frustration I feel over the press misusing the word chemical was tested beyond the point that I could sit and watch with an article in theguardian.com’s life and style section by journalist and blogger Erica Buist entitled “Green apps and gadgets: can E-cloths clean your home without chemicals?” The article is a review of E-cloths, which “claim to clean your house without the need for chemicals”. Buist starts off the article by leaving the reader in no doubt of her chemiphobia:
I’m afraid of chemicals. They make me cough and my hands itch. They can even kill you if they’re not used as directed.
Of course, some chemicals do make you cough and make your hands itch, but unless Buist is afraid of oxygen, water and all the other chemicals keeping her alive then the opening sentence of the article is simply untrue. The article goes on to describe how well the E-cloths clean without the use of “toxic substances” and includes a video where Buist smears various compounds onto glass before cleaning them off with the E-cloth (the cloths appear to work very well, if the video is truthful). The article is littered with references to the “nasty” nature of chemicals; from claiming they don’t leave surfaces shiny to stating that too much contact with chemicals can cause dermatitis. As I watched the video I was torn between amusement and fury as she used water with the E-cloth. Water- one of the simplest and best known chemicals there is.
I would like to make it clear that I do not think that members of the public are lying when they state that they don’t like chemicals in their food or shampoo, I think they are merely misinformed. However, as a journalist, Buist has an obligation to check her facts to prevent this misinformation occurring in the first place. Another article from theguardian.com, this time in the science section, discusses this exact issue in an article entitled “Do TV adverts have to tell the truth?”. The author, Fran Swain, discusses “dodgy science in TV adverts” and the “gob-smackingly untrue” claim by Miracle Gro that one of their organic composts is “100% chemical-free”. Swain states “Every scientist and journalist knows the importance of checking their references,” and later goes on to say:
While it’s not the responsibility of Miracle Gro or the Advertising Standards Authority to educate the public on issues of science, both have a responsibility to adhere to standards of truth that are decided independently of “colloquial understanding”. If you want the respectability that scientific grounding brings, you can’t abandon that process when it doesn’t agree with your current understanding. If anything, science means challenging perceived truths, however uncomfortable that may be.
It seems unbelievable that the same newspaper that published this article published Buist’s article, or at least it would be unbelievable if I wasn’t sadly aware of the current state of scientific reporting by the press.
Facts, including but not limited to scientific facts, must be correctly reported in all areas of journalism, not solely in science sections. It is completely unacceptable that trusted and widely distributed sources such as The Guardian are spreading misinformation leading to public suspicion of science. While an article on E-cloths may seem harmless and innocent, it plants the seed of chemophobia and strengthens dangerous campaigns, such as the anti-vaccination movement, which use the word chemical to fear monger.
Many people have pointed out Buist’s misuse of the word chemical in the comments section of her article, but instead of being open to learning from experts and correcting her mistake she is defending her use of the word. In one reply she states:
Again, I’m amazed at how many people seem to think when I or the headline referred to “chemicals” we mean “anything that appears on the periodic table”.
It is astounding that a journalist would be amazed that experts infer the correct meaning from a word. It is deeply concerning that a journalist is not worried about her readers who may now be misinformed about basic science after reading her article.
It is time for chemists to claim back the word chemical from the press, and find ways to prevent chemophobia spreading further and causing more damage than it has already done. I am tired of the press encouraging basic concepts in my field to be misused by groups, such as anti-vaccine campaigners, with unscientific and harmful agendas.
Susan Vickers (@susanmvickers) is originally from Scotland and obtained an M.Sci. in Chemistry from the University of Glasgow in 2009. She currently lives in Vancouver, Canada where she is a materials chemistry PhD student at the University of British Columbia. Susan is passionate about science outreach, particularly encouraging adults with little or no scientific background to establish an understanding of the scientific process.
- I won’t link directly to any of these websites, I don’t want them getting any traffic through me ↩