Archive for the ‘Chemophobia’ Category

Sue the “Chemical-Free” Bastards

Monday, June 17th, 2013

Chemical Free Beauty ProductsWhile I’m an idealist at heart, in my old age, I’ve increasingly found myself giving in to apathy and letting things slide more often. In the shower this weekend, I saw another one of my fiancée’s hair-care products advertised as “chemical free” and was soon awash in the same frustration expressed in this old post. The phrase “chemical free” is profoundly stupid, it is damaging to our field, and the problem is getting worse. While a lot of frustration has been expressed by a small group of chemists online, I’ve seen no effective campaign against the stupidity of the term “chemical free.” On the flip side, you’ve got another group of chemists who find the argument against “chemical free” to be pedantic, and some have even embraced the term for use in lab.

While I might be closer to abandoning this cause in favor of apathy, I don’t think the problem is worth giving up on just yet. Previously, I have lobbied bench chemists to become more involved in educating the public, suggested that the ACS develop a “war room” to address misinformation in the mainstream media, and volunteered a first draft of a pro-chemicals ad campaign. But maybe that’s my idealism talking. “Positive” approaches, where we tout the benefits of chemistry, require a lot of effort and take time to bring about change. Perhaps it would be more effective to adopt a negative approach? And, of course, what approach could be more negative than to sue?

SUE, SUE, SUE!

Yes, let’s start suing companies that advertise their products as “chemical free”. Make the dummies hurt where it counts: their wallets.

You see, there are laws that require truth-in-advertising, and many of them should be directly applicable to “chemical free” cases. The Federal Trade Commission has explained its policy for how it judges whether or not it will act on potentially deceptive ads:

Certain elements undergird all deception cases. First, there must be a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer. Practices that have been found misleading or deceptive in specific cases include false oral or written representations, misleading price claims, sales of hazardous or systematically defective products or services without adequate disclosures, failure to disclose information regarding pyramid sales, use of bait and switch techniques, failure to perform promised services, and failure to meet warranty obligations.

Second, we examine the practice from the perspective of a consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances. If the representation or practice affects or is directed primarily to a particular group, the Commission examines reasonableness from the perspective of that group.

Third, the representation, omission, or practice must be a “material” one. The basic question is whether the act or practice is likely to affect the consumer’s conduct or decision with regard to a product or service. If so, the practice is material, and consumer injury is likely, because consumers are likely to have chosen differently but for the deception. In many instances, materiality, and hence injury, can be presumed from the nature of the practice. In other instances, evidence of materiality may be necessary.

Thus, the Commission will find deception if there is a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances, to the consumer’s detriment.

So, there are three major criteria for an ad to meet: (i) it must be deceptive, (ii) it must have an impact on a “reasonable” consumer, and (iii) it must induce a material change in behavior on the part of a consumer. Any product which advertises itself as “chemical free” easily meets these three criteria.

First, everything that I have come across as “chemical free” (e.g., cosmetics, fertilizer, sunscreen) has contained chemicals, so the claim is a false written representation of the product. Second, the fear of chemicals is so widespread in society that it is more than reasonable for an average, uneducated consumer to care whether something is “chemical free”. Finally, a “chemical free” label can easily have a material effect in that a chemophobic consumer could choose to purchase a falsely labeled product over a competing product that is not labeled “chemical free” yet contains the same active chemicals.

Unfortunately, it is probably unreasonable for any halfway-decent chemist to claim he was fooled by something as scientifically nonsensical as “chemical free.” But, a class-action lawsuit waged by a group of typical (chemophobic) consumers who’ve purchased a chemical-free product could easily have merit.

Perhaps even more effective would be for a major company (with hefty legal resources) to file lawsuits claiming damages due to unfair business practices. It is unfair to have to compete against rival products that benefit from advertising with false claims. Let’s see these smaller companies have to defend themselves against the giants. Unfortunately, there’s no single chemical-free product on the market that is successful enough to make such a lawsuit a worthwhile cause.

Outside of lawsuits, what can you do? Well, the FTC has an FAQ about what sorts of ads are potentially deceptive, and you can contact them to register a complaint about products making false claims. Some complaints they pursue and some they don’t, but their decisions carry the weight of the law and they can issue cease-and-desist orders as well as fines. You can also register complaints with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and state/local consumer protection offices.

I’m not saying that lawsuits are the best approach to solving the problem, but in some cases, insisting on the enforcement of existing laws might be an effective solution to the proliferation of all this “chemical free” nonsense.

Chemical-Free Fruit Washing

Monday, June 10th, 2013

A friend sent me the following picture on Facebook:

chemical_free_fruit_washing

 

Cleaning Fruit – Chemical-free and EASY!

Fill sink with water, add 1 Cup of Vinegar, and Stir. Add all fruit, and Soak for 10 minutes. Water will be dirty, and fruit will sparkle with no wax, or dirty film. Great for Berries too, as it keeps them from molding. Do this with strawberries, and they last for weeks!

SHARE this post with your friends!

 

Oh, I will share this post with my friends all right…

No chemicals, you say? Fantastic! I am glad you’ve managed to remove the acetic acid impurity from your vinegar. :|

Of course, you’ve seen this on ChemBark already. What I find more interesting are the comments attached to the post:

fruit_facebook_discussion

Oh, you think vinegar works well? Have you tried mixing vinegar and baking soda? It’s magic!

What a discovery!  “Magic” = sodium acetate + bubbles of carbon dioxide.

I bet these people would be frightened to learn how baking soda is made. It’s not exactly the most “natural” of processes.

H/T: M.E. for the link. Thanks!

Radio Prank: Dihydrogen Monoxide in the Water

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

I was amused by a news story out of Florida, where a pair of disc jockeys were suspended after going on the radio Monday (April Fools’ Day) and reporting that the local water supply had dihydrogen monoxide in it. Unaware that dihydrogen monoxide is H2O, and H2O is water, many residents went crazy:

Click for Video

As if we needed any more evidence that science education in this country is absolute crap.

What’s more, the DJs might face felony charges. From a legal standpoint, I’m interested in seeing how this one turns out. I haven’t heard any direct quotes from the broadcast, but can you charge someone with a crime for stating a scientific fact? I’m assuming they were careful and said something along the lines of “there’s dihydrogen monoxide in the water” as opposed to “the water is poisoned with dihydrogen monoxide.” Anyway, I suppose the DJs went in with a fair amount of mens rea; what else did they expect to happen?

Combatting Chemophobia

Friday, February 1st, 2013

Chemical Ed with GogglesThe annual ScienceOnline 2013 conference is taking place in North Carolina, and chembloggers Carmen Drahl and Dr. Rubidium are running a session tomorrow on chemophobia. You can follow updates on Twitter labeled with the hashtag #chemophobia.

Personally, I think the greatest failure of our field over the past three decades has been the steady decline of the public image of chemistry. Our “brand” has steadily deteriorated from an apex of “better living through chemistry” in the 1970s to the ever-worsening current climate where “chemicals are bad” and products are nonsensically advertized as “chemical-free”.

There certainly are cases where specific chemists and chemicals have had horrific consequences for the public (e.g., thalidomide or the Bhopal disaster), but surely these cases are balanced by the numerous ways that chemistry has improved modern life: from countless new pharmaceuticals that improve health to a wide array of new materials that make modern technology possible. That’s all “chemistry” and “chemicals”, but the average person-on-the-street would probably not associate these advances with our science.

Of course, this is a blog for chemists, so there’s no sense wasting time here celebrating all of the benefits of chemicals and chemistry. Rather, why don’t we focus on how utterly stupid our field is with regard to communicating these benefits? Despite the manifestly dire state of the public image of chemistry, chemists continue to do nothing to correct the problem.

But, Paul…is it really a problem? Who cares if the public dislikes chemicals? So long as chemists know better, we will continue doing good science. Why should we be distracted by general ignorance?

The problem with that argument is that we live in a democracy. For a democracy—where the People govern by voting—to function efficiently, the electorate must be educated and informed. The steady decline of chemistry’s public image is a massive problem, because it erodes support for our field. Taxpayers fund our research, and if they are convinced that not only is chemistry not helping the world, it is hurting it, then what is going to stop politicians from cutting funding? This is already occurring. Look at how many Americans vilify scientists who support the highly (un)controversial theory of evolution. We also spend many, many times more money on the DoD than scientific research because the public is generally much more concerned about the threat of foreign dictators than the combined threats of insidious disease and the global energy crisis. Seem stupid? Well, turn on the news tonight. What are people talking about, the Middle East or cancer? And what’s worse than people not knowing anything about chemistry is when they “know” incorrect negative information about chemistry. That’s basically where we are.

Hey Paul, isn’t this something the ACS should handle?

Yes! Actually, it is something all of us should take responsibility for handling to some degree, but the ACS should be at the forefront. This brings me to the point: WHAT THE HELL HAS THE ACS BEEN DOING FOR THE PAST 30 YEARS? As far as I can tell, very little in the public-image battle, and the miserable status quo is all the evidence you need that our professional society has failed its mission in this regard.

OK, wise guy, what should the ACS be doing?

I can think of a number of things, but let me give you two: one from the executive level and one from the grass-roots level. First, the ACS needs to get a handle on misinformation in the media. When someone blurts “chemical-free” into a microphone or opines about the hazards of a compound with zero supporting evidence, the ACS should have someone step up and provide a rebuttal. We need a “war room” at ACS headquarters that monitors all major media outlets and contacts editors and producers when something is wrong. The war room should have experts trained in public communication who are camera-ready 24 hours a day and a TV studio on-site for satellite interviews. Reporters are getting lazier; we must adapt. At the grass-roots level, the ACS needs to do a better job organizing outreach efforts and coordinating volunteer chemists to run these programs. More on that below.

Whoa. Volunteer chemists and outreach programs? What are you talking about?

I think it is important that every chemist spend some time engaging the general public for the purposes of education and promoting the benefits of our field. Let me toss out a ball-park figure: 5% of your time allotted to chemistry.

You want me doing what, exactly?

Pretty much anything where you are bringing science/chemistry to a population not already intimately involved in the field. I am not talking about writing essays for Angewandte or leaving comments on In the Pipeline. I am talking about: (1) judging kids’ science fairs, (2) writing letters to the editors of newspapers to correct misinformation, (3) running or volunteering at a local science club, (4) explaining your research at a science cafe, (5) volunteering to talk to a middle-school science class, (6) developing a lab exercise for high schoolers based on your research, (7) making a science Web site for a general audience, (8) making YouTube videos pretending you are “Phil Nye the Chemistry Guy”, (9) editing Wikipedia, (10)…   need I go on? Anything. Anything! There are thousands of possibilities. If you don’t think you have a good idea, other people should have plenty of ideas in need of volunteers.

You think this will work?

Yes. I believe it will help. I think that education and outreach, or “E & O” in NASA parlance, is exactly what kept a largely overpriced set of shuttle missions in operation for so long. Spacemen realize that they need the public on their side, so they appeal to the public. I assume astronauts on space stations have more important scientific activities they could be doing than giving interviews to the yentas on The View, but NASA has the big picture in mind. If NASA could keep the space shuttles up so long, think about all of the additional funding we could bring to a field of science that is much more successful at improving people’s lives.

What’s in it for me?

Lots of things: (1) you’ll become better at communicating and teaching technical material, (2) you’ll feel good having taught someone something, (3) you’ll be giving back to society – was there a role-model or teacher when you were young that made you want to pursue a career in science?, (4) you are making the world less dumb, one person at a time, (5) in thinking about fundamental concepts and how to explain/teach them, you will invariably come up with new ideas. Sometimes it’s nice to think about areas of chemistry outside your focus of research, (6) you will help to improve the funding climate by persuading voters chemistry is valuable.

Bah. Those are worthless. I can’t list those on my CV!

Actually, you can list outreach activities on your CV. They may even make you seem human, you robotic hardass.

Seriously, my boss/advisor won’t care. Actually, I’ll get in trouble because he views them as a waste of time.

Public engagement should be a shared responsibility. Perhaps the reason almost nobody pitches in is because “why should I do it if the guy over there doesn’t?”  We need to find ways to incentivize desired behavior. Maybe a small outreach component for Ph.D. theses? Maybe make it part of tenure packages?

But Paul, I went through 11 years of university training to become a high-powered research machine. I am God’s gift to chemical research. I can think of nothing more inefficient than removing me from the bench to muck around with third-graders. Can’t we just hire professional outreach people so I can be left alone?

First, you are going to be able to bring things to the table that an education professional would not. Second, if you are truly “God’s gift to chemical research”, then you are a rock star. People love rock stars of any field. That is why we are willing to watch events like curling in the Olympics. You will be a great help! Also, get over yourself! Astronauts frequently give interviews while working in space. I assume there are probably some experiments they could be doing, but NASA recognizes the importance of education and interacting with the public.

Paul, I am too busy, go away.

What if everyone were too busy? Everyone is too busy! You can make a little time for this. C’mon.

Paul, I am still unconvinced this is actually worth my time.

Fine. You are a selfish jackass. I hope there are enough good chemists out there who can make up for your dereliction.

 

Folks, if we don’t start getting serious about addressing chemophobia, we are going to find ourselves in a bad, bad place as a profession, and the consequences for mankind won’t be pretty either.

Jamba Juice Hates Chemistry

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Just about every chemistry blogger—including me—has lamented the increase in the number of businesses that advertise their products as “chemical free”. This rampant war on chemicals is as distressing to our field as it is to common sense—no product is free of chemicals.

But while I’ve seen plenty of anti-chemical ads, I’d never seen an anti-chemistry ad…until now:

Photo credit: Megan!

My fabulous labmate Megan snapped this photo at the Jamba Juice on historic Colorado Blvd in Old Town Pasadena. For those who might not be familiar with Jamba Juice, it is a fast food chain that sells overpriced fruit drinks to people who want to pretend they are living a healthy lifestyle. Imagine a less successful, fruity version of Starbucks. The slogan on their trough reads:

“ALL THE ENERGY, WITHOUT THE CHEMISTRY.”

Well, hot damn. No chemistry…whatever that means. And here I thought “chemistry” actually had a positive public image (e.g., “that football team has good chemistry”). Oh well. Not for long.

Jamba Juice even has a handsome anti-chemistry commercial too:

Oh no! Taurine? Inositol?! I don’t want anything to do with those!

Give me real fruit juice (for $6.99 + tax) and I’ll forget about the fact that real fruit juice naturally contains inositol, and taurine naturally accounts for 0.1% of our body weight.

Argh! I’ll stick to soda to wash down this stupidity.

 

Chemical-Free Treason

Wednesday, 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:

CHEMICAL FREE ZONE!!

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.