Chemophobia is alive and well. It is difficult to get on the internet without celebrities, friends, and family members bombarding you with concerns about chemicals in your food, hygiene products, vaccines, etc. Indeed, being anti-chemical seems to be extremely fashionable at the moment, and you will often hear people talk about living a “chemical-free lifestyle” or trying to “avoid chemicals.” The problem is, of course, that everything is made of chemicals. Literally all matter is made of chemicals, and if you truly lived a chemical-free lifestyle, you would only live for a matter of minutes, after which you would die from a lack of oxygen.
I’ve written about this topic before, and I don’t want to spend this entire post belaboring the point, because it is a fundamental and basic fact of science that I shouldn’t have to explain. You are a biochemical machine that ingests and inhales chemicals (food, water, and air) and uses chemical processes to release energy from those chemicals so that the energy can be used to power your body. Everything you do is the result of chemical reactions. I could spend a long time explaining all of that in more detail, but for this post I want to focus on why it is important to understand that everything is made of chemicals and why we shouldn’t let people like the Food Babe get away with making claims like, “There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever.”
You see, when I point out the ridiculousness of trying to avoid chemicals, many people accuse me of pedantry and say that people who say that they are trying to avoid chemicals do know that everything is made of chemicals, they are just using the word chemical to mean “toxic” chemicals, or sometimes, “unnatural” or “synthetic” chemicals. Beyond the fact that they are distorting the definition of “chemical” to suit their own fears and biases, that response is very problematic, and I want to talk about why.
First, I’m not convinced that everyone is actually aware that everything is made of chemicals. Remember, the Food Babe was also concerned that airplane cabins didn’t have 100% oxygen, and she claimed that saying the words “Hitler” or “Satan” to water would change the water’s physical structure. So, at times we are clearly dealing with an extremely low level of scientific literacy and understanding.
Having said that, I can accept that most people probably do know that everything is made of chemicals, which brings me to my second and most important point. Using the word, “chemical” as shorthand for a “toxic” or “unnatural” or “dangerous” chemical creates a false dichotomy and fundamentally misrepresents chemistry. It ignores basic facts about chemistry, and in so doing, it dangerously misleads the public.
Let’s start with this notion of toxicity and assume that when someone says something like, “There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever” they really mean, “There is just no acceptable level of any toxic chemical to ingest, ever.” That statement is still fundamentally wrong, because the most basic concept of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison. There is no such thing as a “toxic” chemical; there are only toxic doses. Every chemical is toxic at a high enough dose and safe at a low enough dose. You can literally overdose on water if you drink too much of it in a short period of time. It is actually toxic to you at a high enough dose. Inversely, a few molecules of a chemical like cyanide won’t hurt you. Apple seeds contain cyanide, yet no one worries about accidentally ingesting one because the dose present in the seeds is far too small to be harmful to you. It’s not toxic at that dose. In other words, cyanide itself is not toxic to you as an organism. Rather, it becomes toxic at a high enough dose, just as water does.
As you can hopefully now see, even the concept of having a “[toxic] chemical-free lifestyle” is absurd, because all chemicals are toxic at a high enough dose. This concept proposes a simplistic false dichotomy between toxic chemicals and safe chemicals, while totally ignoring the fact that the dose is what makes something toxic. To be clear here, if you want to check the doses of chemicals present in your food, shampoo, etc., and also check the dose at which they become toxic to you, I have absolutely no problems with that, but that’s not what most people do. Rather, they view chemical toxicity as an entirely binary state. They view each chemical as either being toxic at any dose or safe at any dose, and they judge the safety of products merely by the presence or absence of a given chemical, rather than by looking at the dose. This simplistic view of toxicity is childish and dangerous.
Moving on, others use phrases like “chemical-free lifestyle” to mean a lifestyle that is free of “synthetic” or “unnatural” chemicals. This meaning is, however, even worse than the previous one. First, it once again assumes that chemicals can be placed into binary categories of “safe” or “not safe” without considering the dose. This is wrong. Both synthetic chemicals and natural chemicals have dose response curves. They are all toxic at high enough doses and safe at low enough doses.
This brings me to the second problem, namely, this argument is an appeal to nature fallacy. Nature is brutal and doesn’t give a crap about you. Nature will kill you in a million unpleasant ways, and the fact that something is “natural” tells you absolutely nothing about whether it is safe or beneficial. Remember earlier when we talked about cyanide? That’s a natural chemical. So is lead, aluminium, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, etc. Indeed, even if you lived in a pre-industrial society, you would naturally be exposed to most of these chemicals, and that would usually be fine, because they are all safe at low enough doses. The same thing is true when we talk about “synthetic” chemicals that scientists developed in laboratories. They are not inherently any more dangerous than a natural chemical. All chemicals are just combinations of atoms, and some of those combinations are only safe at very low doses while others are only dangerous at a very high doses, but all of them have a safe dose and a toxic dose. Where they originated is completely irrelevant.
As you can hopefully now see, statements about “chemical-free lifestyles” or “avoiding chemicals” aren’t wrong simply because everything is made of chemicals, but also because they represent a fundamental misunderstanding of chemistry and toxicology. These statements implicitly assume that some chemicals are always bad while others are always good, and that simply isn’t how chemistry works. The dose is what determines whether or not something is safe and chemophobia is irrational and misinformed. If someone tries to scare you about a chemical, ask them for the dose at which it is present in the item in question and the dose at which it becomes toxic. If they cannot answer both of those questions, then they either don’t know what they are talking about, or they are intentionally trying to mislead you.
Note for clarity: When I say that all matter is made of chemicals, I mean all matter at the atomic level and higher (obviously atoms themselves are made of subatomic particles).