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The Rise of Chemophobia In the News 463

Posted by samzenpus
from the dangerous-compounds dept.
eldavojohn writes "American news outlets like The New York Times seem to thrive on chemophobia — consumer fear of the ambiguous concept of 'chemicals.' As a result, Pulitzer-prize winning science writer Deborah Blum has decided to call out New York Times journalist Nicholas Kirstof for his secondary crusade (she notes he is an admirable journalist in other realms) against chemicals. She's quick to point out the absurdity of fearing chemicals like Hydrogen which could be a puzzler considering its integral role played in life-giving water as well as life-destroying hydrogen cyanide. Another example is O2 versus O3. Blum calls upon journalists to be more specific, to avoid the use of vague terms like 'toxin' let alone 'chemical' and instead inform the public with lengthy chemical names like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) instead of omitting the actual culprit altogether. Kristof has, of course, resorted to calling makers of these specific compounds 'Big Chem' and Blum chastises his poorly researched reporting along with chemophobic lingo. Chemists of Slashdot, have you found reporting on 'chemicals' to be as poor as Blum alleges or is this no more erroneous than any scare tactic used to move newspapers and garner eyeballs?"
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The Rise of Chemophobia In the News

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  • frist (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @01:51PM (#39944019)

    Chemists of Slashdot, have you found reporting on 'chemicals' to be as poor as Blum alleges or is this no more erroneous than any scare tactic used to move newspapers and garner eyeballs?"

    Yes. This is not an either/or question here; both are true.

    • Re:frist (Score:5, Informative)

      by mcgrew (92797) * on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:10PM (#39944403) Homepage Journal

      There's nothing new here, reporters screw up all their stories, whether it's a city council meeting, a new scientific discovery, or an engineering breakthrough. I'm pretty sure everyone here has seen a news story reporting about something in their field that they just had to shake their head in wonder at how stupid the reporter must be.

      And don't forget, scare tactics and sensationalism bring eyeballs and ad revenue.

      • Re:frist (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:21PM (#39944587)

        It's not even that. There's a deep-seated fear of being poisoned baked into the human subconcious by millions of years of evolution. For whatever reason is far more terrifying to die from poison than, e.g., dying in a car accident, or getting shot in the face.

        Eleven kids dying from bad cough syrup resulted in the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic act in the US. Only 11 deaths! This was in 1938; I guarantee you that there was a hundred times as many kids in Europe getting ground under the just-awakening wehrmacht at the time.

        • Re:frist (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Githaron (2462596) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:31PM (#39944759)

          For whatever reason is far more terrifying to die from poison than, e.g., dying in a car accident, or getting shot in the face.

          A quick and painless death is preferable to a slow and painful one.

          • Re:frist (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @03:23PM (#39945601)

            No, poison can be painless. Car crashes can be slow and painful. People understand car accidents, they know when they're happening. A car hits another one. Bam. You get crushed or burn up or something. Poison? Maybe you just ate some. Maybe not. Maybe you're slowly dying and you don't know it.

            People are afraid of what they don't know/understand. It's natural, why do you think there's such a widespread fear of the dark? You don't know what's there when it's dark.

          • by geekoid (135745)

            "A quick and painless death is preferable to a slow and painful one."

            Speak for yourself.

          • A quick and painless death is preferable to a slow and painful one.

            Well I think this will change with the younger generation preferring the slow painful death as it is a great opportunity to get a huge amounts of hits on their blog posts for an extended period of time.

          • A quick and painless death is preferable to a slow and painful one.

            That depends on whose death that is. ~

        • Re:frist (Score:5, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:36PM (#39944857)

          getting ground under the just-awakening whermacht at the time.

          Did you really just Godwin the thread in three moves? That just happened like a blitzkrieg! You're an orator of Churchillian proportions! You bypassed the Maginot line of logic and rationality and annexed the Sudetenland of irrational comparisons!

          Bravo, sir. Bravo.

      • by bistromath007 (1253428) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:37PM (#39944863)
        In a shocking report released by slashdot contributor mcgrew today, the Times and other newspapers use "scare tactics" to "bring eyeballs and ad revenue." Experts were appalled to find that media outlets across the nation were engaging in what amounts to terrorism in a ploy to control America's eyeballs, extorting advertising agencies in the process. It is not known at this time what reporters want to do with our eyeballs, considering that it is currently illegal to sell human body parts; it is assumed that such large businesses would have a tough time discreetly participating in the black market.
      • Re:frist (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Dexter Herbivore (1322345) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @03:34PM (#39945761) Journal

        There's nothing new here, reporters screw up all their stories, whether it's a city council meeting, a new scientific discovery, or an engineering breakthrough. I'm pretty sure everyone here has seen a news story reporting about something in their field that they just had to shake their head in wonder at how stupid the reporter must be.

        And don't forget, scare tactics and sensationalism bring eyeballs and ad revenue.

        My personal bugbear is the word 'toxin', although 'chemical' and 'toxic waste' qualify as well. Any compound can be toxic, is a chemical, and may be toxic waste. As an example, water is toxic in the wrong place/situation/amount, it is definitely a chemical compound, and it can be a waste product of various chemical processes so effectively could be 'toxic waste'. Toxic waste is ANY excess product from a reaction that *may* be toxic, the term itself is emotional and not truly descriptive.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @01:53PM (#39944059)

    So when is Kirstof's writing an article about the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide?

    First bad joke?

    • by Joce640k (829181) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:21PM (#39944585) Homepage

      Dihydrogen monoxide? You mean, like, from the toilet?

      • by Beardo the Bearded (321478) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:39PM (#39944893)

        It's no joke man, they've found DiHyMo in 100% of brain tumors. It's used in all sorts of industrial applications including GMO farming and pesticide production. And it's ubiquitous. People will spray it all over their lawns to try and promote growth. It's so bad it's in all the runoff in the streams rivers, and we just dump it right into the ocean.

        • by celticryan (887773) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @03:55PM (#39946043)
          Do not forget the chief component of acid rain and in gaseous form it is a greenhouse gas. Also, if inhaled at room temperature it is fatal.
      • by Idaho (12907) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:39PM (#39944905)

        My favorite source for actually scary chemicals is Things I won't work with [corante.com], a chemists weblog detailing all sorts of stuff that, well, he won't work with. Random quote:

        The experimental section of the paper enjoins the reader to wear a face shield, leather suit, and ear plugs, to work behind all sorts of blast shields, and to use Teflon and stainless steel apparatus so as to minimize shrapnel. Hmm. Ranking my equipment in terms of its shrapneliferousness is not something that's ever occurred to me, I have to say. It's safe to assume that any procedure which involves considering which parts of the apparatus I'd prefer to have flying past me will not get much business in my lab, no matter how dashing I might look in a leather suit.

    • <pedantic>
      The proper term is "hydrogen hydroxide": it naturally dissociates into H+OH. Please people, can't we use the proper terminology for our hazardous chemicals?
      </pedantic>

    • by jimbolauski (882977) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @04:28PM (#39946523) Journal
      A few years ago my former company sent out a memo that they had become aware that bottles of explosives were being stored in the building, and that hydrogen tanks were no longer allowed in the building. Some of our machinists had to do hydrogen welding and had the supplier call it diatomic protium they had no problems with it then.
  • DHMO (Score:4, Funny)

    by Megane (129182) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @01:54PM (#39944075) Homepage
    Need I point out the most dangerous of all chemicals, Dihydrogen Monoxide? [dhmo.org] Especially with this year being the 100th anniversary of the Titanic incident, where a large number of the fatalities were actually due to DHMO poisioning, a fact that the One World Government has covered up?
    • Re:DHMO (Score:5, Informative)

      by Mindcontrolled (1388007) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:05PM (#39944281)
      Guys, I appreciate the joke, but the nomenclature sucks. Dihydrogenmonoxide is just not IUPAC conform. Or would you call methane with a systematic name of "Tetrahydrogen monocarbide"? Either you go with the Silane, Borane etc. nomenclature and call it Oxiran, or you go the usual way and call it Oxygen hydride.
      • those hydrides, man, they're reactive as all hell. why, this stuff will corrode even steel! it dissolves poisons and carrier them throughout the human body! oh, woe is us!!!

      • Dihydrogenmonoxide is just not IUPAC conform.

        And that's sort of the point. Let's break it up.

        Di = Die!
        Hydrogen = Bad Stuff--Hydrogen Bombs, Hindenburg, etc.
        Monoxide = Bad Stuff--Carbon Monoxide poisoning.

        So, if you're trying to get the media to help with your culture-jam, "Dihydrogen Monoxide" sounds far worse than "Oxygen Hydride."

        Never let reality get in the way of a good story.

      • by Artraze (600366)

        > Dihydrogenmonoxide is just not IUPAC conform. Or would you call methane with a systematic name of "Tetrahydrogen monocarbide"?

        Well, it's not like it's entirely unbased: there's "dicholorine monoxide", for instance, and similar metal-free compounds tend to follow the same rules. Incidentally, the compound most like water, Hydrogen Sulfide, is also know as "Dihydrogen monosulfide". You can even have some fun with it too, and call it "Hydrooxidic acid" or something.

        I would also point out that "oxiran" i

        • Ehm, *cough*, ehem. Epic fail on my side. It should be "Oxidan", not Oxiran, that is actually in the IUPAC recommendation. On the "-oxide" or "-hydride" thing, on can discuss, it is pretty much on the boundary. If you go the oxide path, you should at least go with "hydrogen oxide" without the useless counters. Sounds pretentious otherwise. In the end, we (bio)chemists just call it "water", anyway.
      • by Fned (43219)

        Or would you call methane with a systematic name of "Tetrahydrogen monocarbide"?

        You would if you wanted it to sound scary. This is memetics, not chemistry.

      • Re:DHMO (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Ol Olsoc (1175323) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @10:12PM (#39949765)

        Guys, I appreciate the joke, but the nomenclature sucks. Dihydrogenmonoxide is just not IUPAC conform.

        Bravo! Your post illustrates that the wags who like to bring up the tired old DHM joke aren't as clever as they might presume about chemicals.

        Rant on.........

        At the possible expense of ruining all the fun, my own read on why so many people are phobic regarding chemicals isn't necessarily stupidity and ignorance, but a combination of real world experience and anecdotal experience, plus a lot of lies they have been told. And ridicule too. So they think that a safe course is to assume that all "chemicals" are bad.

        Contact dermatitis from cleaning solutions is not a mental issue. I obtained a nice case from photographic chemicals which spread over my hands - made worse by latex gloves I wore in an effort to keep the chemicals away. Interesting enough, a cream of various chemicals cured it right up - but the lay person thinks of that as "medicine", not chemicals.

        Interesting that some of the chemicals in photo processing - like Sodium EDTA, snd Sodium Sulfite are used in cleaning soultions and salad lettuce "freshener" respectivley. Not with universal good results either.

        As for the lies, Love Canal was not the cause of any of the people who lived there's illnesses. Minimata? There's a scary story,

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minamata_disease [wikipedia.org] Just some quick examples.

        Then there is the ridicule factor. While the Dihydrogen Monoxide joke was funny the first dozen times or so, it in reality is a symptom of the problem. And for the geniuses out there, it is entirely possible to suffer and or die from water intoxication.

        During the Fukushima Tsunami/Powerplant disaster, the riducule was out in full force here on Slashdot. While the wags were decrying the stupidity of people who thought that maybe something bad was going on, those same fools were able to view the destruction caused specifically by the reactor problems, not those caused by the Tsunami. The initial figures of radiation release have been updated to new levels of 15,000 TBq for the combined amount of iodine-131 and caesium-137. Not so good, given that TEPCO initially told people the release was only 4,720 TBq. There's a lot more info, but this is only used as an example.

        So while chemophobia is absolutely wrong, it is perfectly understandible why most people have the affliction. They've been able to see the damage, sometimes to themselves, and they've been lied to and ridiculed. What prudent person wouldn't adopt a "I don't know what is good, and what isn't, so I just have to presume it's all bed" attitude.

        The cure of course is education, and for crissakes stop the lying,

    • Especially with this year being the 100th anniversary of the Titanic incident, where a large number of the fatalities were actually due to DHMO poisioning

      No, most deaths on the Titanic were most likely due to hypothermia due to the cold water. Those that got hit on the head or trapped or were too infirm to stay afloat long enough for hypothermia to get them and so drowned died because their lungs could not extract oxygen from water. I am guessing that it is a very safe bet that nobody died from drinking too much water [wikipedia.org] which is how you die of DHMO poisoning.

      • by geekoid (135745)

        And as we all know, the Titanic sank because it was critically overweight with time travelers going back to see why it sank.

    • by tinkerton (199273)

      It's a funny site, but mostly the criticism on the use of "chemicals" and "radiation" is inspired by a backward interpretation of how words should be used. Most of the time "chemicals" and "radiation" can be used in a clear and unambiguous way, and people understand that their intended use is "harmful chemicals" and "harmful radiation". In those cases there's no need to insist on the long naming. And choose not to use the words when they are confusing.
      The rule should be whether the communication is clear, n

  • As a former chemist (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @01:58PM (#39944161)

    I find much in the popular media to be anti-chemical. Invariably, "Chemical" is used as a perjorative, almost always being prefixed with either toxic or hazardous. Further, it seems that the term "organic" means without "chemicals", which is idiotic, since Every! Single! Thing! is composed of chemicals.

    So, anyway, I have a wonderful time with the chemophobes, preferring to use the term "Organic" to refer to a class of covalently-bonded chemicals, primarily composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms, with various other elements occasionally found.

    So, most pesticides (with the exception of things like Bordeaux powder) are organic, as artificial sweeteners, etc. Water is never organic, btw.

    • by Chris Burke (6130) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:26PM (#39944671) Homepage

      "Chemical" is used as a perjorative

      Damn right, and I love it. When someone says something I don't like, I just give them with a disdainful look and say "I don't have to take that from someone filled with disgusting chemicals."

    • by MartinSchou (1360093) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:29PM (#39944739)

      Thankfully in my native language we don't use the term "organic" for food items - we use ... well, something like "ecologically".

      However, when I'm talking to English speaking 'green freaks', it is rather fun to point out that by their own standards dog shit is organic.

      The same is true for urine. Not only is it organic in the chemical sense (uric acid), but for people who swear by organic foods etc., it is also a wholly organic product.

      Granted, I rather doubt either of those are particularly healthy, but hey - at least it's organic, right?

      The whole organic vs organic thing reminds me of an old anecdote (not sure if it's true though).

      A news crew gets a call about a tanker truck crashing, resulting in a large chemical spill nearby, so they rush off to cover it. Two minutes later they get another call from their boss:
      "Don't bother with the tanker truck story - turns out it was only organic chemicals."

    • by Sebastopol (189276) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @03:04PM (#39945357) Homepage

      "Organic" pertaining to food also refers to production methods consistent with sustainability, not just reduction of carcinogenic pesticide use.

      While I also partake in the joys of shooting down uneducated neohippies who shell out money without a skeptical eye toward marketing (re: "all natural"), it's almost impossible to rationally defend industrial agriculture as a peer to certified organic farming. I know you weren't doing that, but it sounded like you may be headed down that path, so I offer my unsolicited comment.

  • On the flip side (Score:5, Insightful)

    by joeflies (529536) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @01:58PM (#39944165)
    I find it somewhat annoying that there seems to be a mainstream association with the "natural" to mean "safe". There are lots of naturally occurring dangerous substances.
    • by TeknoHog (164938)
      I'd be intrigued to study a chemical that does not come from nature (also known as the universe).
      • by drerwk (695572)
        Do you mean element?

        chemical
        noun - a compound or substance that has been purified or prepared, esp. artificially: never mix disinfectant with other chemicals | controversy arose over treatment of apples with this chemical.

        Point is that the common usage of the word, and the definition in my dictionary means especially artificially produced.

    • by OrangeTide (124937) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:03PM (#39944245) Homepage Journal

      Yea, like grizzly bears. Those a natural, but they can ruin your afternoon.

    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      Like Cobra Venom? All natural all Organic?
      Ricin?

  • by cpu6502 (1960974) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @01:59PM (#39944167)

    They've successfully re-educated the public and turned a good word (hacker==hobbyist) into an evil word, such that stores yank magazines off shelves if the title says, "How to hack your Linux computer". And you expect reporters to correctly published chemical formulas when they never took chemistry classes in college??? LOL.

    (And yes I picked the subject on purpose.)

  • I'm made of them.

  • by InvisibleClergy (1430277) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:04PM (#39944257)

    ...they're just usually not the right ones. For example, the token anti-vaccine person I know rails first about vaccines. Then, if pressed, he will say that the issue is the mercury. Then, if pressed more, he will say some specific compound involving mercury such as thimerosal.

    The point is, people can fixate on names all day. It's people's tribalism that's the problem. If one person has a terrible problem with one doctor, that means that he or she will tell all of his or her friends that doctors are bad, and science is bad, and that home birth is the ONLY WAY. And then he or she will go out in search of anecdotes and outlier studies to support his or her claim.

    And yes. There will be studies to support any claim. This is why news sources need to slap their sources' confidence intervals [wikipedia.org] right next to any reporting done on studies, ever.

    • by jackbird (721605) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:09PM (#39944385)

      What does your token anti-vax friend say while they pick up their teeth with broken fingers? If you haven't fucking punched them right in the face, you aren't doing your civic duty.

      • by InvisibleClergy (1430277) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:22PM (#39944591)

        Haven't seen him in person since high school, honestly. Good ol' Facebook with the Facebook 'friends' and suchlike.

        Punching someone with a strong belief in something only strengthens their belief. I'd much prefer to convince them that it doesn't matter as much as they think, and then change their belief through reason once all that pesky emotion is out of the way. One asshole science-person counteracts hundreds of completely fine science-people.

        That said, if I had kids, I would give him a fucking piece of my mind, because I don't want their god damn disease-ridden kids getting my kids sick. And aside from that, anti-vaccine people treat autism like it's some sort of death sentence. Like any autistic person is instantly a pariah. It's the more subtle douchery of anti-vaccine people.

      • by cpu6502 (1960974) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:33PM (#39944789)

        >>>What does your token anti-vax friend say while they pick up their teeth with broken fingers?

        Yes because the way to deal with people who hold "wrongthought" is to punish them with brutality. Maybe even send them to a re-education camp, like they did in Socialist Russia. Are you a Democrat per chance? I may not like your opinion or your group (KKK) but you still have a natural right to express yourself using the body given to you.

  • by geekoid (135745)

    well done, more people need to make these demands on journalists.

  • It's what plants crave!
  • by cdrguru (88047) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:08PM (#39944351) Homepage

    Sorry, but once that phrase was co-opted by the enviro-wackos to mean that all chemicals were bad it should have been clear that things were going to take a turn for the worse. Today it is clear to everyone that "chemicals" are bad. Nearly everyone does not understand that "chemicals" are things that are present in the heavily filtered water you are drinking, the nice organic food you are eating and in the very air you are breathing. Most people think you can filter out all the "chemicals" and that if you do not, you aren't safe.

    This has been going on since the 1970s and with 40 years of it behind us there is almost nothing anyone is going to be able to do to stop it.

    We have politicians that believe this or at least profess to agree with their constituents who believe it. Laws are being made to accomodate these beliefs.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Common language just isn't exact. When people say they want to filter the chemicals out of their water it's pretty clear that they'd like to get as close to H2O as possible and filter out other chemicals even if they are healthy. When people say they don't want chemicals on/in their apples it's pretty clear that they don't mean the sucrose that occurs naturally in them, they mean specifically the chemicals that are specifically designed to kill insects or drive off other pests. Worrying that the "lingo"

  • We've been told for decades to "just say no" to drugs. Is the fact that some folks internalized the concept really so surprising?

    Remember, "better living through chemistry" means drug abuse as surely as "gay" means homosexual.

  • by JLDohm (741501) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:17PM (#39944499) Homepage
    Yes, they are using the word "chemicals" wrong. Get over it. Use your brain to substitute something that is correct and listen to what they are saying. Just because they paint all chemicals as evil, and they are wrong, does not mean that all chemicals are safe. With snakes, I assume they are poisonous unless I know otherwise. Why not do the same with things I put in my body?
    • by MobyDisk (75490)

      This isn't just pedantry. The problem with co-opting scientific words to have a different mainstream meaning is that it reduces people's ability to read and understand science. Someone might find a scientific article that talks about a new type of (soap, pesticide, fuel, spice) but calls it a chemical. The naive reader is immediately convinced that this new product is unsafe. This causes politicians to make bad policy decisions too.

      Scientists tend to lose in public debates against non-scientists. This

  • by sam_handelman (519767) <`ude.aibmuloc' `ta' `3002hks'> on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:23PM (#39944609) Homepage Journal

    Truth1: Chemistry reporting is as bad as all other science reporting.
    Truth2: The Chemical industry is as unconcerned with "externalities" as any other business.

      Reporters will get you to panic even if they don't have a good reason; the reason that reporters are capable of spreading panic easily is because chemical manufacturers will poison you in order to make a buck. So, from a certain standpoint, the response of the general public is rational - they don't trust the chemical industry, and they shouldn't, so why not err on the side of caution when dealing with certified professional liars (marketing, PR and advertising people). Particulates are bad for you; the chemical industry (and domestic manufacturing generally) denies this, but they're lying. Vaccines are not harmful; but they are a big emerging profit center for pharma. If vaccines were harmful (again, they aren't), would pharma lie about it? Damn straight they'd lie through their teeth. So it becomes a double problem - it's difficult to educate the public about what is safe (vaccines are safe), and at the same time it's difficult to get robust action on what isn't safe (airborne particulates are not safe; neither are most chlorinated organics, heavy metals, etc.)

  • by itsdapead (734413) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:26PM (#39944663)

    Isn't this just a case of colloquial vs. technical language?

    I think most non-technical folk associate the term "chemical" with artificially manufactured or extracted substances not usually encountered in our little corner of nature. Colloquial meanings often differ from modern technical usage (see also "organic", "work", "weight"). Words mean different things in different contexts - deal with it.

    By all means challenge specific cases of "chemophobia" but you won't win any hearts and minds by telling people they're stupid because they don't use the same definition of "chemical" as you.

    Also, remember the hidden wisdom of the old "dihydrogenmonoxide" joke: there ain't no such thing as a "harmless substance" and anything can be toxic or dangerous if too much of it turns up in the wrong place at the wrong time. I mean, harmless old Sodium Chloride might not seem a problem until every food manufacturer starts adding it in huge quantities to make their product tastier without paying for more expensive spices.

  • Fly in the Ointment (Score:4, Informative)

    by jklovanc (1603149) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:31PM (#39944749)

    There is an excellent book, Fly in the Ointment [amazon.com], that debunks a number of these kinds of issues.

    I especially like the one about peeling apples because they have been coated in chemicals. The chemicals they are coated with is simple wax used to replace the naturally occurring wax that is removed during the washing process. Why wash the apples? To remove fungus spores, dirt and insect eggs. Why replace the wax? To prevent premature spoilage due to excess oxygen getting to the fruit.

  • by drwho (4190) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:46PM (#39945025) Homepage Journal

    It's been nearly two hundred years since Friedrich Wöhler synthesized urea, a compound which has previously been known only from biological source, from substances not of biological origin. This should have demonstrated that we are all made of chemicals, as are animals and plants, and that no substance exists which is not chemical in nature. Yet, this Vitalism persists. I don't know if Vitalism is the cause or effect of the Chemophobia which seems to be increasing its hold on the populace of advanced nations. I see both as related to the fear of fire and the disregard for human observation. The legend of Prometheus, and others like it, seem to demonstrate a recurrent thread of thought which damns such uses of powerful natural forces by man. In the twentieth century, the twin gift and curse of fire became more powerful with the harnessing of nuclear energy for productive or destructive purposes. In the twenty-first century, we are brought again to the question of Vitalism with the boom and boon of biotechnology, and this time the Vitalism is contained within the DNA itself, and when humans directly change these molecules, other humans rise up in a resentment that goes beyond reason, though it is often cloaked in arguments which attempt to manipulate reason.

    Chemophobia is merely another aspect of a widening rift between those who trust in reason and its utilization in the realms of science and technology, and those who do not. The anti-science people conglomerate in the anti-evolution movement on the right side of the political spectrum, and the anti-chemical movement on the left.

  • Hydrogen (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hawguy (1600213) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:49PM (#39945071)

    I don't think the layperson fears "chemicals", so much as artificially produced and altered chemicals that are in our food.

    It's not the chemicals (or the elements) themselves that are feared, but what they do to our body -- and the lack of disclosure about what they are doing. Look how long it took to get the trans-fat containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oil removed from our food (which wasn't even removed, but when manufacturers had to report trans-fat grams, suddenly hydrogenated oils weren't so necessary for many of their products).

    So even that innocuous hydrogen that is so important to basic life can become a threat when combined with other chemicals.

    Of course, the Hindenburg disaster gives another reason to fear "harmless" hydrogen. (ok ok, so maybe it was the fabric shell covered with incendiary paint that triggered the disaster, but the 200,000 cubic meters of flammable hydrogen didn't help).

  • by Bob9113 (14996) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @03:00PM (#39945271) Homepage

    There are distortions everywhere. Some are more subtle than others. When Kirstoff generically refers to "chemicals", most people recognize that he is either biased or using shorthand for "a compound which I did some research on and found to be risky in the context in question." Deciding which he is doing is an exercise for the reader, and must always be. Using "perfluorooctanoic acid" is certainly better for an educated audience that has the will, time, and ability to do its own research, but it is better for Kirstoff to do the research and shorthanding -- in a truly unbiased fashion, which may not be the case here -- for an audience that either lacks the will, time, or ability to dig deeper on their own. Perhaps ideal is for the article to have hyperlinks for more information.

    While we're on the subject of distortion, I recently read a summery that had a couple of strong shorthand distortions in it, which may provide some interesting points of comparison:

    "Pulitzer-prize winning science writer Deborah Blum" -- appeal to emotion -- it asserts that the reader should assume that Deborah Blum is an expert on science matters because she won an award for writing. If her article stands on its own, leave that bit out. If it rests on her expertise, this brief note is not enough to establish it. This sentence is fine for an audience that has the time, will, and ability to check on Deborah Blum's actual credentials, but relies upon the author's research and integrity for those audience which lack those criteria.

    "decided to call out" -- appeal to emotion -- trying to get the listener to emotionally go along with a rebel who's fighting the power.

    "have you found reporting on 'chemicals' to be as poor as Blum alleges or is this no more erroneous than any scare tactic used to move newspapers and garner eyeballs?" -- false dichotomy -- the options are "Kirstoff is wrong because Blum says so" or "Kirstoff is wrong because he uses scare tactics."

    Distortions are everywhere, and journalism necessarily calls for using shorthand. Eldavojohn wanted to communicate the essence of Blum's piece without reproducing it verbatim. He used shorthand which he hopes will give a fair image of the underlying work, by using turns of phrase which would -- in isolation -- be clear-cut distortions. The point is elegantly made by Blum herself (though she gets it backward):

    But if we, as journalists, are going to demand meticulous standards for the study and oversight of chemical compounds then we should try to be meticulous ourselves in making the case.

    No, you are wrong. It is specifically the case that chemical compound oversight should be far more technical than public writing. Public writing, whether from Eldavojohn, Blum, or Kirstoff, is about communicating complex underlying issues in a brief and simplified form. That is its very nature. If such simplification is biased, then there is a very serious problem -- but the mere act of simplification is not a fault in itself.

  • by Vornzog (409419) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @03:00PM (#39945277)

    Disclaimer: I am a PhD chemist, but I am not your chemist (or something like that).

    The nebulous threat of 'chemicals' has been present for years, but there has been a bit of an uptick in rhetoric recently.

    Much as the traditional computer hacker resents the rise in the use of the term hacker in the media to mean malicious computer criminal, most chemists I know are quick to dismiss the silly bias against 'chemicals' in the media. But the term has become a catchphrase for the larger population, and pointing out that everything is made of chemicals has little effect. 'Organic' food is the same way - no one would eat inorganic cucumbers (aka rocks), but the word organic means something else in that context.

    Long-hand chemical names won't fix it, because your eyes just gloss over the *fnord*perfluorooctanoic acid*fnord* chemical names. If you want to call out specific chemicals, give them a shorter name (maybe spell them out for people who really want to know), but then explain them and why they are bad.

    There are plenty of naturally occuring chemicals that will kill you in small doses, there are manufactured chemicals that are perfectly safe to spray on your children, and every spectrum in between. If the media wants to call out 'chemicals', I think we would all appreciate them specifying which ones.

    The whole 'fraking' thing is a great example of this. Most 'fraking fluid' is water and PEG (polyethylene glycol, a harmless 'chemical' found in lots of beauty products - see what I did here?). So who cares if you inject that into a shale formation miles below the water table? Are there other chemicals in there that might be harmeful? Could be (and often are). Call them out specifically if you want me to worry about them. But we have a problem here - people won't panic if you tell it like it is, making it much better to light someones tap water on fire! What's burning? Not 'fraking fluid', not any of those nasty 'chemicals', just natural gas that was probably there before any drilling started. But if you tell people that the oil companies are pumping nasty chemicals into the ground, and show them a faucet on fire, they'll draw their own conclusions, based an anecdotal evidence rather than logic and causality. And this is, or course, exactly what was supposed to happen in response to the scaremongering in the media.

    People love to get riled up about something, and there are no shortage of chemicals that they could be getting riled up about. Some more careful journalism, and a requirement that most people need at least science 101 and math 101 to really understand the information they will be presented with would all be good, but I don't see any of those changes happening in the short term. It is at once wonderfully reassuring and extremely terrifying that you don't need a brain to have an opinion.

  • by mspohr (589790) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @03:02PM (#39945323)

    The latest article by Kristof points out the dangers of "endocrine disruptor" chemicals and he makes it clear (from the very first sentence) that he is talking only about these chemicals. The red herring about hydrogen and oxygen was inserted by his attacker. Kristof says nothing about hydrogen.
    Endocrine disruptors have been shown to have serious adverse effects and they are poorly studied and regulated. He is calling for more study and regulation. They are becoming ubiquitous in our environment (from your cash register receipted to most canned foods).

Nothing is rich but the inexhaustible wealth of nature. She shows us only surfaces, but she is a million fathoms deep. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

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