In honor of this year's "eat healthier" resolution, my teenage son and I drove over to a local bakery in the first week of January. On the shop's window, someone had painted the words "Whole-grain bread." So far, so good. The next line read "No preservatives." And the third — I did a double take — "Chemical-free."
My son, slouching next to me, heard me inhale and hastily looked for the cause. "Mom," he said urgently. "Mom! Let's just leave quietly."
Of course, he was remembering — and who could really forget? — my discovery of "chemical-free" honey at the weekend farmers market last summer. On the way home from the bakery, breadless, my son returned to the now-familiar subject of having a hopeless geek as a parent, and I found myself trying, once again, to explain why I find the phrase "chemical-free" so exasperating.
I date my crusade to about two years ago. I'd just finished a book on the early history of poison detection, and it had left me brimming with questions about the way we navigate our chemical world.
I use the word "navigate" because I tend to think of the chemical world as an unfinished map. Our universe, our planet, even we ourselves comprise a complex chemical terrain. Scientists have so far tallied some 60 elements in the human body, from the iron that stains our blood red to the calcium that builds our bones. I've always liked the idea that the primary elements that make up our bodies were created long ago in the blaze of stars around us. We and everything that surrounds us are, in effect, cosmological chemistry, what the late astronomer Carl Sagan liked to call "star stuff."
Yet, if I Google the term "chemical-free," I get 209 million hits in 0.19 seconds, a carnival of links to chemical-free mattresses, carpets, cosmetics, nail polish, hair dyes, mosquito repellents, bed bug killers, chemical-free cigarettes (a personal favorite) — and a recent news story about a Virginia couple breeding "chemical-free bees," a species apparently destined to make that chemical-free honey they sell at the farmers market.
Honey, all honey, is actually a chemical stew of sugars, acids, enzymes, proteins, vitamins, minerals and more. I'd list them, but it would take all of my allotted space here. Of course, when people advertise chemical-free honey, they don't really mean it. They mean a product free — so far as they know — of industrial or synthetic chemical compounds. It's a concept invented by a marketing genius to sell products, and embraced by consumers looking for products that are extra-safe.
But let's not fool ourselves into believing that a product free of industrial chemicals is necessarily harmless, or that the word "natural" is equivalent to the word "safe." The cosmic origins of our planet provided the elements necessary for life, but the process didn't stop there. It also brought us a list of naturally occurring elements that include arsenic, mercury and lead. Some of the most dangerous toxins on Earth are natural, including plant poisons such as cyanide or nicotine, snake and insect venoms, and poisons produced by the bacteria that cause tetanus and botulism.
And let's not fool ourselves either into thinking that "chemical-free" is just a harmless little slogan. This simple-minded equating of "chemical" with "evil" is an invitation to chemophobia. We read it a lot more often than we read up on the actual ingredients of the things we consume, and daily exposure can muddy our understanding of legitimate risks.
You may remember that about five years ago, when discouraging residents from using bacteria-infested public swimming pools, the city of Louisville, Ky., put up these misguided warning signs: "Water contains high levels of hydrogen." And people heeded the warning, seemingly unaware that water wouldn't be water unless it contained high levels of hydrogen. We're still trying to figure out how to teach science well, but we've done an excellent job of teaching fear of chemicals.
If you wonder if this fear actually exists, consider that last year the Elenco Electronics company introduced a chemistry set, the Chem 60, that cheerfully features an extra safety feature: "60 fun activities with no chemicals." Or that one of our more prestigious research journals, Science, last summer ran a story about a new process for creating fibers out of milk proteins, which noted: "The best part? The process uses no chemicals or pesticides."
So yes, spend just a couple of years writing about chemistry and this will start to bother you. You'll wonder why we can't just say something more precise like "additive-free" or "synthetic-chemical-free." You'll worry about the way our current usage blurs reality, about how it makes the chemical map seem even fuzzier. And if you focus, particularly as I do, on toxic compounds, then you'll worry that it promotes a way of thinking that makes us less safe rather than more so.
It also cheats us, on a regular basis, of enjoying the fantastical nature of the world around us. At least so I think as I write this article on a winter day here in Wisconsin, fueling my work with that intricate alkaloid caffeine — eight atoms of carbon, 10 of hydrogen, four of nitrogen and a mere two of oxygen (C8H10N4O2) — and procrastinating by watching a dazzle of snow dance past the window, lacy frozen crystals of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen (H2O).
Of course, when I try these conclusions out on my son, it brings us back to that hopeless geek discussion. As far as I can tell, he's focused on the downside only, the annoying fact that we had to drive miles out of the way to find a bakery that would admit to using chemicals in its bread. But that's another problem.
Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, is the author of "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York." A link to her blog, Speakeasy Science, can be found at deborahblum.com