Chemical-Free Treason

May 23rd, 2012

Matt at ScienceGeist is hosting a blog carnival this week on “Our Favorite Toxic Chemicals.” The idea is to generate posts about chemicals that have reputations for being toxic, but that also have important applications and non-toxic manifestations (e.g., in low concentrations). All of your favorite chembloggers have posts up, including Excimer, who has returned from a long blog hiatus.

I should have my contribution up by Friday. What I love about this carnival is that the posts will live for eternity, standing ready to drop some knowledge on any curious soul who runs a Google search for one of these molecules.

In other news, I have been busy going around the department in preparation for a visit next week from a very special guest. On my recent travels from office to office, I came upon a number of these signs in the hallway outside of a research lab:


NO labcoats, gloves, tlc plates, NMR samples or other chemical contaminants


The extra exclamation mark lets you know that they mean business. I’ll refrain from identifying the lab to protect my colleagues, but the scene definitely made me cringe. I understand it when marketers raise the “chemical-free” dagger, but a lab of chemists? Et tu, Brute?

In a subsequent discussion on the matter, a member of a different lab pointed out that my concern was probably a trifle, because this building was a laboratory not generally accessed by the public. Under these conditions, the sign is widely understood to succinctly communicate that contaminated items should not be brought into the office space.

While I think such an argument is tenable, it is preferable (and relatively easy) to avoid the controversy completely. If we—chemists—can’t be bothered to find a suitable alternative to “chemical-free”, then why should we expect the same from laymen? It seems like a sign that says “No lab equipment or samples in this room” would get the job done with only a slightly less economical use of words.

And finally, a kind chemical engineer sent me a link to the following paper, in which a freshly-minted Harvard professor railed against “chemical free” in 1995:

Chemistry and the chemical industry often are misunderstood by the general public. It is not uncommon for products to be advertised as “chemical free” or for a product to be labeled dangerous because it contains chemicals. As chemists, we know that these claims are incorrect. Unfortunately, many people in today’s society do not have the chemical training necessary to determine whether or not such claims are valid.

I guess J. Chem. Ed. was where bloggers blogged before there were blogs.

23 Responses to “Chemical-Free Treason”

  1. Akshat Rathi Says:

    The blog carnival is a nice idea. Yes, it will live for eternity but that doesn’t guarantee that it will be read by the people when they need it or when they should read it. Someone needs to go more mainstream with this. Think of an entertaining way to tell people about this. A stand-up comedian maybe? I vote for Tim Minchin. Let’s do something to get his attention. It would be worth the effort.

  2. Slurpy Says:


    “Chemical Free Zone” is a bit lazy, but it is a succinct way to write “No solvents, reagents, possibly-contaminated protective gear, analytical samples, or other lab equipment here, to prevent poisoning of the people who eat and drink at these desks.”

    I agree that a better solution is required, but this is hardly as egregious as a “chemical-free chemistry set” being marketed to the public.

  3. Paul Says:

    @Slurpy: So what is better…


    NO labcoats, gloves, tlc plates, NMR samples or other chemical contaminants


    “No lab equipment or samples in this room”

    Isn’t it hypocritical to say that “chemical free” is ridiculous, then to turn around and use it ourselves? If a group of chemists can say that they understand the phrase to represent a succinct alternative to a long explanation, why can’t advertisers make the same claim? (e.g., well, the public knows what we mean when we say “chemical free”).

    Or do you think it is like the n-word? Chemists are allowed to use “chemical free” amongst themselves, but non-chemists are not afforded this liberty.

  4. See Arr Oh Says:

    @Akshat – I love this idea….now, what might chemical stand-up comedy sound like???

    “Hey, good evening, ladies and germanes!”
    “I just flew from Oak Ridge to Argonne by quantum entanglement, and boy are my arms tired.”
    “So I started a new job as a Parr salesman, but I had to quit…I just couldn’t handle the pressure.”
    “Whoa, listen, I’m not saying cyclodextrins are fat – they’re sugars. But when they sit around the analyte, they really sit AROUND the analyte, know what I’m sayin’?”
    “Hey, Boo-Boo….if we get some pi-to-d donation, we’ll be ‘shorter than the average bond!’
    “You’re a few electrons short of an octet, hay-o!”
    “Told my folks I’d leave home to seek my fortune as a chemical comedian….they said ‘Try the job market'” (*rimshot*)

  5. Slurpy Says:


    I’m not disagreeing that it’s fallacious, and needs to go – merely that it is being used as a sort of trigger-phrase, like “No Smoking.” “No lab equipment or samples in this room” is great for a subtitle – but for a three or four word phrase in huge font to trigger the brain of someone otherwise preoccupied (yes, I know, no chemist is EVER preoccupied), it is serving a purpose.

    Yes, it’s hypocritical, and should be corrected,* but I just don’t consider an act of laziness to be on the same scale as “chemical-free” being used as a marketing tool.

    *Personally, I recommend you get the cleaning staff to let you in to write something snarky on it when no one is in the office.

  6. Chemical Free [Link] « Macdrifter Says:

    […] one of my biggest pet peeves was the expression “chemical free” with second place going to […]

  7. SpeedyGonzales Says:

    How about “Lab chemical Free Zone” You can even make the “lab” small. Now you differentiate between the chemicals from the bench, and the chemicals in the food, drink, researchers, their clothing, papers etc…

  8. Toxic Carnival: Day Three | ScienceGeist Says:

    […] ChemBark Paul takes notice of a “Chemical Free Zone” sign at Caltech. […]

  9. TakeAChillPill Says:

    I think that your concern over “normal people’s” flippant use of “Chemical Free” has over-sesntitized you to what is arguably a very reasonable use of the term “Chemical Free Zone.”

    Language is all about context – this is why we don’t need to explain everything in detail. If everything needed a qualifier, communication would become extremely difficult. Take for example a term such as “Lead free.” It would be impossible to remove every last atom (or is it ion in this case?) of lead from anything. It will still be present, even in ppt levels. So should it read “Free of lead to the parts per trillion level?” That would definitely be overkill, and confuse people more than help. The term lead free has come to mean that amount of lead is under toxic levels. The meaning of words change with time.

    In my department, someone will always correct a speaker for using the term sterics or electronics, saying it should properly be steric effects or electronic effects. While this may be correct, there comes a point where a mistake becomes standard. For an example, take the progression of pease to pea.

    In this case, a laboratory setting where everyone knows what a chemical is, this nitpicking is unnecessary. We know that everything is a chemical. But I would never refer to the water coming out of a drinking fountain as a chemical contaminate. In the average lab setting, saying chemical means research chemical. Like it or not, that’s the way the majority of people speak. And in language, once the majority of people say it, that’s the correct usage.

  10. DrBodwin Says:

    But the OSHA inspectors will LOVE that sign. I ran into a similar issue when labeling fridges, I settled on “NO FOOD – Laboratory Chemicals Only” and “NO LABORATORY CHEMICALS” for the fridge labels. Maybe “NO LABORATORY CHEMICALS, EQUIPMENT OR PPE” would work? Did the individuals in that lab/office design the signage, or is it standard signage from the Caltech Chemical Hygiene Officer? The CHO might be able to adjust and standardize the signage to be more “correct”. Which reminds me, we have a walk-through coming up in a few weeks, I should take a pre-walk-through today so I can nag people to clean up their areas…

  11. qvxb Says:

    Changing CHEMICAL FREE to TOXICS-FREE should fix the problem. Since this sign is aimed at chemists, CHEMICAL FREE is actually more attention-getting. It did get your attention. I also like the No Gloves label above the door handle

  12. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I agree that “chemicals” in this case clearly means “laboratory chemicals”. I don’t see why it’s so bad. As ChillPill points out, the context and target audience do make this case different. But I also agree that the other option would have worked out just as well.

  13. Boutros Boutros Says:

    Do you complain about this to your office mates? Do any of your co-workers hang up “Pedant free zone” signs, and tell you that you can’t come around their desk?

  14. Rebecca Says:

    Our lab areas have adjacent offices posted (a long time ago) as “Designated Eating Area”s. Serves a similar purpose, as well as keeping the Big Macs away from the lab bench.

    p.s. Can we get some outrage going on here about the “Tide contains cancer-causing dioxane” scare? I read the activists’ report and the method detection limit was 250 ppm… the group is claiming levels far below that. Why isn’t anyone rebutting?

  15. Anonymous(i.e. Untenured Prof) Says:

    Rebecca, I read the report – I especially liked two things: (a) “measurements represent levels detected in laboratory testing and may not represent actual exposure levels experienced with use of the product” and (b) limonene is an allergen… presumably if you are allergic to lemons then you wouldn’t buy the product that reeks of lemon?

    Back on topic though, I put up “No research chemicals beyond this point” on my student’s office door. Adding “research” satisfied my own pedantry without confusing anyone.

  16. wolfie Says:

    idiot-free cannot be such a lonely zone

  17. AlphaGamma Says:

    The problem with “no toxics” is that it’s not just toxic compounds that are an issue- even if you could eat every one of your reagents with no ill-effects, there’s still the risk of contamination with something nasty. More important is the flammability issue- the food fridges where I work are labelled “NO CHEMICALS IN THIS FRIDGE” because there’s a risk of a spark in the fridge as well as a risk of food being contaminated.

  18. bad wolf Says:

    Pretty sure no matter what you call it, if you didn’t specify “NO labcoats, gloves, tlc plates, NMR samples or other chemical contaminants” you would have a room full of labcoats, gloves, tlc plates and NMR samples. Students are particularly prone to not identifying the thing they have been working with all day as a contaminant.

  19. wolfie Says:

    This business is ugly. And real chemistry is not a business.

  20. a-non Says:

    The terms “Wet Zone” and “Dry Zone” would do for me

  21. No chemicals Says:

    Where I work, our safety people put a sign on the refrigerators in the labs that say “No food or Drink” So they trust us to use the nasty stuff in the fridge but they think we’re too stupid to not put our lunches inside.

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