Monday, February 10, 2014

Winning the "War on Chemicals" by redefining victory

With some rudimentary photoshop skills I could appropriate one of Stephen Colbert's "War On _____" graphics as a post banner. Alas, I have none.

With clock-like regularity, some synthetic compound bearing the unnerving label "chemical" is brought to the public's attention. To make matters worse, the "chemical" also is identified by its proper name, an intimidating number of consonants and vowels jumbled together into a seemingly incomprehensible order to the untrained eye. The end result is most often a demand that the offending substance be expunged from existence because of the inherent risk in coming into contact with "chemicals." The public's irrational fear of chemicals has been dubbed chemophobia, which is also a popular hashtag for connecting discussions of the subject online.

The most recent dustup involves the use of azodicarbonamide in Subway's flour/bread. This instance has all the hallmarks of chemophobia: bad analogies, (wildly) exaggerated claims of health risks, insinuations of conspiracy. Chemists immediately took to twitter and blogs to defend chemicals and debunk claims that led Subway to decide to phase out azodicarbonamide. In the Pipeline had previously summarized why the risks of using azodicarbonamide are extremely small, and the Curious Wavefunction discussed the real danger of chemophobia. The response is typical of how we chemists have combated these controversies, and we are losing.

As people who spent an inordinate amount of time in institutions of higher learning (including as a career), the "defend and debunk" strategy comes quite naturally. We like education and educating. Being scientists also makes exploiting this tactic even more amenable because we've been trained to collect, analyze and interpret data. When we see dubious claims or "chemical-free" products, our instincts take over and we make solid arguments backed by science; however, we are not engaged in a scientific debate with paper reviewers or grant referees. As has been documented previously, facts don't matter in these situations. When presented with evidence that a belief is demonstrably wrong, people often become more entrenched in their position. In order to defend chemistry, we need to change course and redefine what constitutes winning an argument. What strategies should we employ? Here are some ideas, but there certainly need to be more.

As the Curious Wavefunction alludes to, the biggest problem is when fear subverts the solutions to problems that science has produced. Feeding the world's +7 billion (and growing) people using only organic farming is almost certainly impossible. It has even been suggested that much-maligned GMOs will be necessary to produce enough food on a planet suffering from the adverse effects of climate change. These are more global versions of the problems science and chemistry has produced to deal with problems of food production, distribution and storage that are essential to modern lifestyles. In the discussion of azodicarbonamide, I have only seen passing references to its use as a flour conditioner, but not a justification. Oxidants like azodicarbonamide are used to oxidize sulfhydryls in gluten to disulfides. This conditioning ultimately speeds up flour processing, which historically was accomplished by the oxygen in air and takes weeks. As a non-food chemist, I conclude that azodicarbonamide was developed in the 1960s as a replacement for bromate as an oxidant. Bromoate, like azodicarbonamide, is banned in the EU, but it is unclear (to me) what has been adopted instead.

In a case like this, the discussion should be about the process and whether or not it is the best one available. Clearly, multi-week air oxidation of flour is incompatible with modern demand and production limitations, but azodicarbonamide is also +50 year old technology. While the risks may be small (or non-existent), is there an equally effective (or superior) alternative that would be more appealing to the public? The advantage of the alternative need not be limited to public perception, they could easily be more effective, efficient or cost-effective. As Carmden Drahl tweets, this may best be viewed as an opportunity to develop new chemistry and employment opportunities. Instead of focusing on the fear aspect, overcoming chemophobia may be easier by emphasizing the benefits of the chemical process and engaging in conversations about the alternatives. Such discussions may better illustrate what the safest option is, as well as why chemistry is essential. This may even be more convincing ways to show that the current methods were actually chosen because they are the safest/best.

The language and tenor of debate also does not help to advance the cause. When someone calls for a "chemical free" version of something, chemists are quick to point out that everything is composed of chemicals. There is even a line of t-shirts and posters that aim to show everything, including the humble banana, is nothing more than a complicated mixture of chemicals. While this is unarguably correct, this undoubtedly comes across as condescending and put those propagating erroneous information on the defensive. As indicated above, this will only serve to further entrench these people into the "anti-chemical" camp. Chemists are not particularly renowned for PR and marketing skills, but the chemophobia problem has more parallels with politics than science. To shift public opinion, we must be able to change the perception of chemicals. A better approach may be to suggest an alternative to "chemical-free" for the specific case without the condemnation. We like to be right, but proving we're right is losing the debate.

This brings us to the central thread of this debate, chemophobia. Like "chemical-free," the objections to synthetic additives based on uninformed opinions can undoubtedly be classified as an irrational fear. "Chemophobia" is certainly an accurate moniker that quickly summarizes what is, or what we believe to be, the basis for someone's objections to a chemical like azodicarbonamide; however, even though it's a relatively new term, chemophobia has already become a pejorative. Name calling and insults seldom (never) persuade someone to a different point of view. Godwin's Law could readily be applied to chemistry where every argument ends when we call someone a chemophobe.


  1. Very true, we need to treat this more as politics than education. I can't help but wonder if it might be wise to subtly and non-condescendingly try to reclaim the use of the word “chemical” as a neutral term, i.e. drop references to “the chemical beta-carotene,” “the chemical ascorbic acid,” etc.

    1. I agree reclaiming the word chemical could help, but it will require a well thought out, clever strategy. I gather than many in the "chemical free" camp will be suspicious of any advocacy as propaganda. Much like the anti-vaccine crowd, any deviation from their worldview is deemed evidence of conspiracy. Definitely a tough task, but worthwhile. Perhaps step 1 is getting people to use more precise words like pesticide or toxin (provided that chemical doesn't automatically mean toxin). Specificity may be key, but difficult for people without a strong chemistry background to adopt.

    2. We're on the same page about reclaiming 'chemical.' A group of chemists on Twitter have started a 'blogversation' to brainstorm ways we can do this. Check out the latest post on Tales From the Critical State for a quick break down. Apologies, I wanted to post a link but the comments won't let me paste it here.