Chemical Place

Fear of Chemicals

​So why are people afraid of the term chemicals?

Liquid nitrogen getting splashed all around, hydrogen balloons ignited like mini-Hindenburgs, and ethanol-fuelled rockets zip around the playgrounds. Chemistry is fun. So why is everybody afraid of chemicals? Because we are, aren't we? The very word chemical is often synonymous with toxin or poison. We use phrases like "it's chock-full of chemicals" to imply something is artificial and bad for you. 

Meaningless slogans like "chemical-free" pop up on products in health food stores and billboards. And nobody seems to mind, least of all the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). I know - I've complained to them and they told me that consumers clearly understand that "chemical-free" really means "free of synthetic chemicals".

Orange juice and E300 crystals. What's the difference? Orange juice and E300 crystalsI don't get the distinction. Why are synthetic chemicals worse than natural ones? Why is the synthetic food additive E300 bad, while the vitamin C in your freshly squeezed glass of orange juice is good? (Even though they are both the same thing.)

​Chemistry is fascinating because of the way it can be used to synthesise new stuff - it's like molecular Lego. The fact that everything is made from 100-odd building blocks is remarkable. Throw chemicals in a pot in the right way and you can build the world around us.So why is chemistry the bad boy of the sciences?

Why is there this chemophobia?

​Chemophobia or Chemphobia is an irrational aversion to or prejudice against chemicals or chemistry.

​Biology doesn't get a bad rap - quite the opposite. Biology has amazing animals, plants, the human genome project and David Attenborough. It's natural and good.

​What about physics? Well, physics is just pretty damn cool. It's got stars, lasers and the most impressive machine ever built - the Large Hadron Collider. It doesn't get any cooler than that.

​And then there's chemistry which, by reputation, has pollution, poisons, and weapons so bad that they warrant a Nobel Peace Prize-winning organisation to control them. And the closest thing we've got to a celebrity chemist comes from the drama Breaking Bad, where Walter White, a chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin, uses his chemistry knowledge to synthesise hard drugs, poison his enemies and dissolve the bodies of his victims. He doesn't really do much to combat chemophobia.