Life is chemicals

Loved this post last month on “chemophobia:”

However, even as much of the world became cleaner, the anti-chemical movement became so polarised that allartificial chemicals are now considered tainted. This false assumption has led to a popular demand for products that are ‘natural’ or even ‘chemical-free’.

In reality, ‘natural’ products are usually more chemically complicated than anything we can create in the lab. To demonstrate, I broke down the components in an ordinary banana. (For brevity’s sake, I omitted the thousands of minority ingredients, including DNA.) Here is the result:

INGREDIENTS:

WATER (75%), SUGARS (12%) (GLUCOSE (48%), FRUCTOSE (40%), SUCROSE (2%), MALTOSE (<1%)), STARCH (5%), FIBRE E460 (3%), AMINO ACIDS (<1%) (GLUTAMIC ACID (19%), ASPARTIC ACID (16%), HISTIDINE (11%), LEUCINE (7%), LYSINE (5%), PHENYLALANINE (4%), ARGININE (4%), VALINE (4%), ALANINE (4%), SERINE (4%), GLYCINE (3%), THREONINE (3%), ISOLEUCINE (3%), PROLINE (3%), TRYPTOPHAN (1%), CYSTINE (1%), TYROSINE (1%), METHIONINE (1%)), FATTY ACIDS (1%) (PALMITIC ACID (30%), OMEGA-6 FATTY ACID: LINOLEIC ACID (14%), OMEGA-3 FATTY ACID: LINOLENIC ACID (8%), OLEIC ACID (7%), PALMITOLEIC ACID (3%), STEARIC ACID (2%), LAURIC ACID (1%), MYRISTIC ACID (1%), CAPRIC ACID (<1%)), ASH (<1%), PHYTOSTEROLS, E515, OXALIC ACID, E300, E306 (TOCOPHEROL), PHYLLOQUINONE, THIAMIN, COLOURS (YELLOW-ORANGE E101 (RIBOFLAVIN), YELLOW-BROWN E160a), FLAVOURS (3-METHYLBUT-1-YL ETHANOATE, 2-METHYLBUTYL ETHANOATE, 2-METHYLPROPAN-1-OL, 3-METHYLBUTYL-1-OL, 2-HYDROXY-3-METHYLETHYL BUTANOATE, 3-METHYLBUTANAL, ETHYL HEXANOATE, ETHYL BUTANOATE, PENTYL ACETATE), 1510, NATURAL RIPENING AGENT (ETHENE GAS).

This exercise illustrates a larger point. The distinction between natural and synthetic chemicals is not merely ambiguous, it is non-existent. The fact that an ingredient is synthetic does not automatically make it dangerous, and the fact that it is natural doesn’t make it safe. Botulinum, produced by bacteria that grow in honey, is more than 1.3 billion times as toxic as lead and is the reason why infants should never eat honey. A cup of apple seeds contains enough natural cyanide to kill an adult human. Natural chemicals can be beneficial, neutral or harmful depending on the dosage and on how they are used, just like synthetic chemicals. Whether a chemical is ‘natural’ should never be a factor when assessing its safety… [emphasis mine]

Misconceptions about natural versus synthetic compounds can have devastating consequences. The anxiety over formaldehyde is a telling example. Formaldehyde occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs and foliage. It is found in high concentrations in Peking duck (120 parts per million), smoked salmon (50 ppm), and processed meats (20 ppm) as a normal result of traditional curing processes. It is found at levels of around 2 ppm in a healthy human body, where it plays an important role in the production of DNA. Formaldehyde is also used in various industries as a preservative.

People automatically accept the many ‘natural’ sources of formaldehyde that are present all around, but minuscule traces of ‘artificial’ formaldehyde in vaccines and cosmetics have caused public outcry – even though all formaldehyde is chemically exactly the same: CH2O. One such incident in 2013 forced Johnson & Johnson to spend more than $10 million reformulating its skincare range. They did so even though the amount of formaldehyde present was so low that the average person would need to take 40 million baths per day before it posed any serious threat…

The roots of chemophobia run deep. We are irrationally hard-wired to overestimate the magnitude of risks that are imposed upon us. Americans are 35,000 times as likely to die from heart disease as from terrorism, yet terrorism tops people’s list of worries. It’s only through a better knowledge of chemistry and toxicology that we can begin to assess chemical risks in a more rational, healthier way. Then perhaps we can bend chemophobia back toward biophilia – creating an awareness that humans are chemically connected to all of the world around us.

Yes!!!  Of course we need to be extra cautious about newer synthetetic chemicals when we really don’t understand all their effects (we do have thousands of years of experience with bananas, apples, and honey), but, in general, when people are simply railing against “chemicals,” they pretty much have no idea what they are talking about.  Okay.  No go back to consuming some chemicals for breakfast.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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