Archive for the ‘Chemophobia’ Category

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:


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.

First Draft of a Pro-Chemistry Ad Campaign

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

I have used this blog to opine that the American Chemical Society—and chemists in general—need to do more to improve the public image of chemistry. I think one effective method to advance this goal would be to design an ad campaign in the fashion of Dow Chemical’s “Better Living Through Chemistry.” Of course, it is easy to sit behind a computer monitor and shout at the ACS to do this. It is much more difficult to get the job done. So, in an effort to increase my credentials for yelling at the ACS, I decided to give it a shot myself. After all, how hard could it be to come up with a good idea for a pro-chemistry ad campaign?

It’s hard.

It is easy to come up with examples where chemistry and chemicals have helped society, and you can patch together some tag lines, but it is hard to make everything fit together. I was looking to: (i) do something visually appealing, (ii) introduce a decent slogan, and (iii) educate the public with a small, digestible morsel of the good of chemistry. Here’s what I came up with:



I am not enamored with it at all, but I’ll stand behind it as a first draft. Even if it’s thoroughly mediocre, at least it is something. If we continue to do nothing, the public image of chemistry and chemicals will continue to deteriorate, and it won’t be long before the chemical industry and research funding suffer serious consequences.

Anyway, I think you could extend the idea with other cool pictures and stories (e.g., “a chemical saved my life” with a patient on Gleevec or “a chemical saved my car” featuring some lubricant…whatever).

Credit: I took the photo above from the page of Flickr user treesftf, who kindly made it available for use with a CC-BY license. Also, I completely fabricated the story.

My Chemical-Free Nightmare

Friday, April 6th, 2012

One of the perks of having a girlfriend with a broken leg is that she requires assistance in the shower, which I am happy to provide. In my extra time in the bathroom this week, I was horrified to pluck these inconspicuous containers from a lush forest of colorful beauty products:

Organic! Chemical free!            Wait.          Chemical free?!

Hmmm. It sure looks like there is matter inside these bottles, and I’ll bet this matter comprises chemicals of some sort. Why don’t we just take a look at the list of ingredients, shall we?

Nope, I was wrong. No chemicals. Just enzymes, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, and fatty acids. No chemicals here :/

I have blurred out the designer of these products because he is my girlfriend’s hairdresser and friend, and I don’t want an army of irate readers to descend on Los Angeles. That said, I have instructed my ladyfriend to relay my emphatic disapproval—in no uncertain terms—of the use of “chemical-free” to describe anything except a completely empty container.

Chemistry has all but completely lost hold of its brand in the sphere of public perception, and in today’s society, that can have disastrous consequences. In politics, parties actively try to sink their competitors by painting them in a negative light. Republicans never miss a chance to label Democrats as “the party that wants to raise your taxes”, while Dems counter that the GOP “only cares about the rich”. This childish back-and-forth is tiresome, but effective. That is why you see politicians jabbing and name calling at every opportunity the media grants them. It’s a vicious cycle, because if you decide to take the high road and not fight back, the negative slogans—whether accurate or not—will stick and seriously damage your brand.

Unlike for political parties, the science of chemistry has no natural enemies. Physicists aren’t going on TV to complain that dirty chemists are getting too much grant money. But, what is happening is that we have stood by while marketing agencies have hijacked and rebranded a few key terms from our jargon. For instance, they have imbued the term “organic” with all sorts of positivity and wholesomeness, while warping its definition from what chemists have historically understood “organic” to mean.

The case of “organic” might not be so bad, but the problem is unequivocally dire for “chemical”. In today’s advertisements, “chemical” no longer has just a negative connotation, it essentially denotes “toxic ingredient”. Somehow, one of our most generic terms—and one that lies at the very foundation of our profession—has been twisted into something dreadfully sinister.

How could we allow such a thing to happen? The answer is obvious: we have never fought back. While our field was maturing as a science and an industry in the 20th century, we proudly trumpeted the idea of “Better Living Through Chemistry”. DuPont even adopted the phrase as a company slogan…only to drop it in the 1980s. Since then, it is hard to point to a solitary example of a serious PR campaign on behalf of chemistry. In the meantime, we have allowed Madison Avenue to fill this vacuum by painting “chemicals” as bad in a wildly successful tactic for marketing consumer products.

In my mind, this is easily the biggest failure of the American Chemical Society, and to me, it appears that the ACS continues to do next to nothing to solve the problem. Chemists cannot count on chemistry and science to “sell itself”. While we know chemistry offers all sorts of benefits to society, we are going to have to load our weapons and mow down the booger-eating ad executives who are wiping the floor with us. The sustained growth and financial support of our field depends on it.

And incidentally, this is the sort of thing for which I pay ACS dues. While the matter is phenomenally important, I really don’t have the time, expertise, or resources ($$$) to mount a national PR campaign to promote our field. That said, I do have the time to campaign against apathetic ACS officers and candidates in the annual ACS elections. Mark my words: we’ll remember come November.

Plastic-Free Plastic Bags

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Just last month, the county of California in which I live enacted a sweeping ban of lightweight plastic grocery bags.  Now, whenever you go to the supermarket or pharmacy, you must:  (1) remember to bring your own bags, (2) carry all of your loose items out of the store by hand, or (3) pay the store 10 cents for a paper bag.  Ugh.

We can debate the environmental impact of paper vs. plastic bags at some other time.  I think a far more pressing concern is what Pasadena’s large homeless population will use as toilets now that the ubiquitous plastic grocery bags are no longer available.

Just yesterday, I happened across this lovely scene outside an Albertson’s grocery store in Calabasas:

The whole parking lot was littered with those red and white signs touting “NO PLASTIC BAGS”.  Of course, when you go inside, this is what they are peddling:

Those look like bags to me.  (They are sold as “reusable” bags, but please tell me what type of bag is not reusable.)  The one on the left was purchased from inside the Calabasas store.  The bag on the right is from a rival grocery chain, Ralph’s.  So, if not plastic, what is the magical substance from which these bags are constructed?

Polypropylene.  Not just good-ol’ SPI resin identification code No. 5 polypropylene, but virgin/non-recycled good-ol’ SPI resin identification code No. 5 polypropylene.

Chemists, please note…effective immediately,  “plastic” = polyethylene.  Polypropylene is “all natural”, “organic“, “reusable”, and “eco-friendly”.  Basically, everything but “plastic”.

Remind you of anything?