Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Chemophobia and you

I'm reading a lot of the washup posts from ScienceOnline 2011 (gotta get tickets/registered for #scio12; it's like trying to get tickets for The Police reunion concert or something) and I saw this post on uh, the 'baloney' filter that people need:
Be skeptical of skeptics, Reuters Health Executive Editor Ivan Oransky urged a standing-room-only crowd at what was called a "keepers of the bulls**t filter" session.
His tips apply to all consumers and producers of science, health and medical information: keep a biostatistician in your pocket (that is, call on experts to assess the stats you read in research reports); understand the limits of the review procedures used to decide what is published in a journal; avoid disease mongering, the expansion of disease definitions in order to promote unnecessary treatments.
I agree wholeheartedly with Oransky about the need for a clear-eyed scientific outlook when you're considering new medical information, especially when it comes from popular media sources. [So is Reuters Health basically responsible for all the stories on the news at 10:13 (or 11:13) pm that say things like "Is pizza responsible for your impotence? Find out next, after this break."]

My personal hobbyhorse is chemophobia, i.e. the blaming of bad "molecules of the moment" for whatever bugaboo disease is around. For a wonderful example, check out this comment (from Oransky's blog!) about what causes autism:
"Without being a conspiracy theorist, I have wondered if the vaccine scare was funded by firms that have a vested interest in preventing epidemiological or clinical evidence from emerging about their products, like pesticide makers. Cigarette companies certainly spent decades funding groups to try to push the blame elsewhere, and continue to use money to sell story that cigarettes aren’t a significant contributor to cancer and lung disease.

The realist in me says, though, that the millions of synthetic chemicals to which we are exposed constantly in food, water, and air in unexpected and untested combinations likely are part of the root of all kinds of health issues."
$#$#$#^%%$#%$#! Now we're just fishing: pesticides, cigarettes, synthetics. While I'm as big a fan of the precautionary principle as the next guy, I think these statement are just about as scientific as blaming yesterday's bad reaction on demons. Why, the temperature probe read 66.6°C!

If I were to offer some things to keep in mind, here they are:
  1. Dose makes the poison
  2. S--t happens; you're going to die of something.
  3. I don't know what caused your cancer and neither do you (except your cigarettes, maybe.)
  4. Your liver is really, really good at removing things that don't belong in your body. (Yes, sometimes the metabolites can be the issue themselves.)
  5. If you hear the terms "millions of synthetic chemicals", "toxins" or "body burden" or any of the other weasel words, the person is punting.
  6. Listing acute MSDS symptoms is a scare tactic. I'm looking at you, Environmental Working Group.
  7. A molecular mechanism is the start of good science on the effects of chemicals on the body; an epidemiological study is the start of a media scare.
  8. Dose makes the poison.
Readers, doubtless I'm getting carried away here. Tell me I'm wrong in the comments. (Or list your chemophobia warning signs.)


  1. In regards to your question about Reuters Health: no.

    I'm totally with you on the chemophobia thing. It seems like "synthetic" has become the new "chemical" for dirty word of the day. Some of the most toxic substances on the planet are "natural," meaning they're made by plants or animals. But maybe that's our fault. Do we chemists just need to be better at communicating?

  2. Re: the first part of my comment above: I do want to point out that it's to the best of my knowledge, and I certainly don't speak for Reuters Health.

  3. CJ
    Don't know if you saw this post from Deborah Blum.
    Also ... I blame Leigh for all of the pizza=impotence articles. She seems like a likely culprit. ;)

  4. There is a commercial on the local radio station for a new sports drink that touts the healthiness of their drink compared to Gatorade because they use natural fruit dyes rather than synthetic dyes. An actual line from this commercial:

    "It's just not natural to have chemicals in a sports drink."

  5. "weasel words!" I love it! You accurately described with two words what I have been internally ranting about for years.

  6. I like "If I can't pronounce it, why would I want it in my body?" (usually said of food labels).

  7. Dose makes the poison was science if you can call it that of 500 years ago referring to toxicity of substances considered non toxic at low or medium levels.

    Mercury, lead, uranium, plutonium used by the military and or industry are toxic down to any level.

    Thimerosal for example is a teratogen and has the same or similar effects on cells and nerves as thalidomide, organophosphates and even living things like the rubella virus.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20