Chemophobia: Origins and Legislated Existence

The origins of this post, at least, and the ones I have planned to follow on, stem in the recent decision by a court to fine the ever-livin’ daylights out of a company based not on science, but the science illiteracy of a judge and jury, and the politicization of science. I’m speaking, of course, of the ruling that accused Roundup of being a cancer-causing substance, in spite of repeated studies that have shown no such thing. Science says it isn’t. The legal system says it is. Who is telling the truth, here?

I’ve touched before on the origins of chemophobia (the irrational fear of chemicals) back in the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Given my chosen career, it’s inevitable that I keep running up against it, hard, in social media encounters and in the mass media. The truth is that much of the public is woefully illiterate when it comes to science, and some of the media is willfully sensationalist and misleading about science and chemicals. I get why: it pays the bills for them. But the result of their campaigns against science is doing damage to the human race not only in developed countries, but trickling down into a flood of crap on developing countries who can’t afford to fight it. Here’s the thing: I am not opposed, nor are other scientists, to rational and evidence-based restrictions on the use (or over-use) of dangerous substances. What we find ridiculous and outrageous is the fear-mongering against stuff that is generally recognized as safe (GRAS). Finally, there is starting to be some push back against the chemophobia – the FDA recently censured the nonsensical California, for their statements (not based in real science) that coffee causes cancer. I’m hoping that we will see more of that in the coming years. Surely we can find some balance in life?

But perhaps not. It has been 60 years today since the passage of the so-called Delaney Clause, after all. In that law, any synthetic ingredient (which, by the way, included substances that originated naturally but were synthesized in labs for more consistent safer mass production) that could be shown to cause cancer in rats had to be banned.  “[The] FDA immediately had a problem on their hands. They determined that the herbicide aminotriazole (C2H4N4) could create a thyroid issue which might cause cancer in rats. And then it was detected in some cranberry shipments. Now, scientists knew that rats are not little people, animal studies can only exclude causes of cancer and never show them, and they knew that the dose it took to create the thyroid issue that might create cancer in a rodent was equivalent to 15,000 pounds of cranberries every day for the entire lifetime of the animal but the Delaney Clause did not distinguish between hazard and risk. To the law, one cranberry was equal to 15,000 pounds. A trace amount of a chemical was the same as a quantity equal to five orders of magnitude.”

You should absolutely take a look at this Holiday Menu, created in response to the absurdity of the above cranberry ban. The chemicals listed are all natural, and all have been shown to cause cancer in rats… At VERY high doses. Much higher than any human could actually consume through eating actual food containing trace amounts of the substances. The Delaney Clause is no longer law – it was replaced in 1996 – but the ripples it caused are still rocking boats and influencing the waves of chemophobia that come crashing down in unexpected places. Like the RoundUp jury, and the anti-vaxx movement, the rejection of Golden Rice, and many others that do harm to the innocent by denying them what science has determined to be healthful. Do carcinogens exist? indubitably. However, the dosage matters. Many substances classified as cancer-causing are only ‘probably’ going to cause cancer. Others merely increase the risk after high and prolonged exposure. You can’t simply look at this list and say that any of those things are going to cause cancer if you encounter them in trace amounts, rarely, or not at all.

The coffee infographic offers a good look at the groups used to categorize carcinogenic agents.

In an era when it’s big money to lobby for cancer – at least, to say that something causes cancer, whether it does or not – and chemophobia, it’s little surprise to find headlines like this one from CNN. And after 60 years of this being acceptable behavior, to the delight of lawyers and lobbyists, we might not be able to reach a point where we can put a stop to the most nonsensical claims. But at least, I can try in my small way to elevate science literacy and shine a light on the truth of the matter when it comes to chemophobia. Chemicals surround us, in everything we do, in everything we are, for that matter. Chemicals make up every substance. The division between synthetic and natural is artificial. There is risk in everything, and we cannot lower it to zero, no matter how hard we try.

41 thoughts on “Chemophobia: Origins and Legislated Existence

    1. I remember reading an article waaaaaay back (like in college) where scientists concluded that EVERYTHING causes cancer. The key is dosage (as Cedar mentions above) and whether you reach your particular toxicity limit before you die of something else.

      So, quite literally, California is on track to ban ALL the things!

        1. You’re being funny… even on the worst air quality day since getting back to VA, has been bettter than an average day in L.A.

      1. Take a look at what is needed to require a Prop 65 warning on any given product that might be sold in CA.
        They’re almost there now.

    2. That reminds me of George Carlin’s hippy-dippy weatherman routine, where one line was, “News flash! Saliva has been found to cause cancer… but only when swallowed in small amounts over a prolonged period of time.”

  1. As a Navy Nuc we learned ALARA: Risks are As Low As Reasonable Achievable, and commensurate with the other risks in a modern Industrial Society.

      1. For years I did my part to battle radiophobia. Here are a few of the lessons learned:

        – Far too often, the experts battling radiophobia were incapable of relating to their audience and would talk way over their heads. Know your audience is the number one rule in presenting the counter-case against radiophobia (or any other debate item). Relate all of your science to everyday things the audience experiences.
        – Bring the science down to an 8th grade level and relate it to everyday events. There will always be someone who will challenge you when you make the science simplistic, but this gives you the opportunity to show your bona fides if you are properly prepared. Just don’t go too far into the weeds, but just enough to show the scare monger expert is off base. The following point is the best way to do this.
        – If debating a radical fear monger, have zingers prepared that simply demonstrate the foolishness of the scare mongering, e.g. “You like seeing large numbers of people die because there is an off-chance DDT may cause a cancer?” This is the individual’s risk versus the societal risk debate. For example, low dose studies of radiation clearly show an improvement of average life span with low doses, though any one individual may run a risk. Scare mongers rarely know how to debate this issue and most folks will go with that which produces the best odds, i.e. low doses, when given the choice.
        – Have a long list of relative risks which shows where the scare mongering lays. Invariably the scare will be far down the list ( radiation risk is way down at the bottom of any relative risk list – as would be the chemo risks you are battling). In other words, the risk perception versus reality needs to be hammered. Folks will say, “Okay maybe it is not all that risky, but I still don’t know…” This is when you hammer the relative risk again and again. It takes a little time so have patience, but eventually these undecided folks will dismiss the issue. Studies have shown that 80% of folks fall into the undecided category, and these are the ones who need to be convinced that the scare is not what it seems. Get folks to dismiss the scare and subsequently, without an audience, the scare mongers fade into history. Trying to convert the 10% who are believers is fruitless, always aim for the undecided or indifferent.

        If the above opens a dialogue, I will be happy to continue with lessons learned. Here’s a link to an article I wrote where I employed the above lessons: Note who the audience is – readers in a town connected to a Marine Corps base. Hence I employed my Marine Corps corpsman connection to establish a relationship with the reader.

        1. Thank you for this, is a good checklist to use when constructing essays. And I very much appreciate the link – I am not a nuclear scientist, but the scare tactics surrounding nuclear power make me angry, and having solid rebuttals is a nice tool to keep in my pocket.

      2. (Cedar: if this is a duplicate post, please delete. My original post is not showing.)

        For years I did my part to battle radiophobia. Here are a few lessons learned:

        – Know your audience! Far too often, science experts talk over the heads of their audience and use far too many technical terms. For general audiences always bring the science down to an 8th grade level. There will always be someone who thinks they know the science and will challenge simplified science statements – even your fellow experts! However this provides the opportunity show one’s bona fides. Don’t get too deep into the weeds; just keep it relatively simple based on the audience.
        – Know your foe. Study your foe’s arguments and prepare simple but devastating counter-arguments. I would prepare 3-4 zingers for each of my foe’s arguments. Using the argument of societal risks versus an individual’s risk can be very effective. For example: low dose radiation studies clearly show that low doses increase the average life span, though in a few individuals it has a low probability of causing an increased risk. A chemo example is DDT and using the question, “Would you rather kill millions of folks on the off chance that DDT might, and I emphasize ‘might’, cause an individual harm?”. Your foe will bluster, sputter or change the subject. Prepare zingers that point out the lack of common sense in your foe’s arguments – because there is always a lack of common sense in alarmists’ arguments. See the next point why these two tactics are effective.
        – Studies show that 80% of folks are in the undecided or don’t care category about the so-called risk. This is your target audience. The 10% radical alarmist believers are not the target audience. The eighty-percenter might listen to your argument, but then follow it up with, “Well maybe your are right but I still am not sure…” This is where you follow the next point and hammer it in.
        – Have a long, long list of relative risks and have fun with it. My list starts out with, “one of the most risky thing to do/be is to be a male between the ages of 18-25”, which is a truism. I would ask the females in the audience, “Are men stupid in that age group or what?” The roars of approval immediately connected that half of the audience to me, and the men sheepishly agreed with me. It is about the perception of risk versus the reality. Most people will side with reality if it is hammered in. We all willingly take risks if the benefit outweighs the risk. If you properly present the reality of the risk versus benefit most folks will eventually (it often takes a little time) become dismissive of the alarmists’ claims. Without an audience, the alarmists eventually fade into history. You just have to be patient – haven’t seen lot of hysterical radiophobia lately have we?

        To demonstrate how to use the above tactics here is an article I wrote for a small town newspaper which served a community next to a Marine Corps base. Note how I know and connect with the audience using with my Navy/Marine Corps service. Note how I keep the science simple and use common sense analogies.

    1. Sub Spike: the NucNav rocks! That said…

      After the Navy and college, I made a career in Health Physics (you will know what an HP is), so I’d like to comment on the ALARA concept. It is a useful concept, but it is flawed in that there is no limit on what is reasonably achievable and no definition of what is the cut off point from exposure to radiation. Plenty of my fellow HPs went along with the idea that there is no lower limit – which ensures job security for them. I disagree because thousands of studies show that low doses have a positive effect on most biological entities.

      The ALARA concept is rooted in the philosophical question of benefit-versus-risk. This is always a tough question to answer. Would I as an individual spend a million bucks to reduce a risk from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in a million? The answer is no; I neither have the money, nor do I see a 1 in 10,000 risk as being something to fret about. Should society spend that much if the risk is spread over the entire population? A debatable question and both sides of the debate quickly devolve into seeing who can count more angels on the head of a pin. Being pragmatic, I recognize that the greatest single factor – by far and away – in raising humanity out of squalor and reducing risk is relatively inexpensive energy sources. The irony is that nuclear energy is right at the top of inexpensive and efficient energy. However, there have been vast sums of money spent by following the flawed ALARA concept that should be used to create more inexpensive sources of energy where it is needed. This will do more for our fellow mankind. I argue the same points for other inexpensive and efficient energy sources (solar and wind are neither).

  2. Hooray, you added another qualifier!

    “Cedar Sanderson, a well-known anti-chemophobic paleomicrobiologist…”

    Warning: I took this idea and ran with it.

  3. I recall, once upon a time (waaay back in the 1980’s even!) that some chemical, found in gasoline, was found to cause cancer in male rats. Not mice. Not female rats. And nothing for-sure about humans… but there HAD to be warnings on gas pumps (and not just the sane one regarding fire hazard). And someone went looking. Why, sure enough, that chemical was in another place. BUt there weren’t (at least not then) any labels on those bottles of orange juice – which had a much higher amount of the very same thing, intended for direct ingestion.

    Yeah, drinking gasoline is a Bad Idea. But sheesh. That’s just silly.

  4. I dislike the assumption that the science is settled (which happens on all sides of the arguement). If I had a penny for every time someone produced a study that contradicted a previous one I’d be burried in pennies. Everything is bad for you in some form, doesnt mean that its not safe to use.

    But yes, the massive response of “OMG CHEMICALS” drives me nuts.

    1. The science is never ‘settled’ but often there is a heckuva lot of data on something and we can safely state that it is… whatever. Replication of previous studies is never wasted effort, though.

  5. Roundup works, cyclomates are harmless, but anything fed to rats causes cancer. Also coffee used to cause cancer before it didn’t. And, OMG, chem-trails! vaccines!
    The problem with democracy is demos that don’t know come here from sic em.

  6. Some animal behaviorists at Texas A&M were training rats to play basketball when the NBA was able to stop the research. Their thinking was that if one of those rats contracted cancer, then there goes professional basketball. 🙂

  7. We select neither law makers nor judges (and those that are both) for intelligence or any technical ability. One has to actually hire experts to testify about things neither the judge nor jury understand and simple have credulous faith in whichever expert has the best suit. We’d be as well off to hire thugs to do trial by combat.

    1. Take a look at Roe v Wade. Whether you are pro- or anti-abortion, the decision itself is based on really bad science. And they had to search far and wide to find “experts” that would testify as the plaintiffs desired. And then, in order to maintain “fairness” or “blind justice” or some such, the justices in the majority basically put all critical thinking and own knowledge on the shelf and whatever that handful of “experts” said was what was written into the opinion.

      1. My training is in Forensic Science. The bar for admission (or exclusion) of science in the courtroom is mildly horrifying. Hence my quixotic attempts to elevate scientific literacy. At least someone should have a half a clue, be they judge or jury!

  8. Old Chevy Chase Weekend Update line, “Scientists at the CDC have discovered the primary cause of cancer…..white lab rats”.

  9. The division between synthetic and natural is artificial.
    Not entirely. One of the possible difficulties with synthetic anything is it lacks (sorta by definition) all the impurities in the original. In some cases those impurities act as buffers or catalysts or something else, and are necessary. We’re figuring some of these things out, but we don’t really know what we really don’t know.
    Another is when the artificial is only-part-of-the-natural – like “sugar alcohols”. Yes, it’s true those little bits provide the taste buds what you want. But nobody bothered to explore what other effects than taste they might have before throwing them into all sorts of “diet” this-and-that.
    The problem is not usually in the chemical, itself, but in the act of “isolating the source”.

    Not a chemophobe. But certainly not as trusting as many are when it comes to Science!. Especially in food, where I know what the body was designed to ingest and process. (And I personally know that ~my~ body doesn’t like sugar alcohols – while not having a problem at all with either sugar or alcohol in their ‘natural’ forms.)

    1. In the context of the article, the barrier really is artificial. And I see it a lot in social media memes and the like. So while yes, you can use chemicals to add into the diet and it’s not necessarily a wise decision (we don’t know what the long-terms effects of artificial sweeteners are, for instance). The absolute best way to get the chemicals you need in your diet – and we do need them! – is to eat them in your food. I’m not a fan (mildly, really really not a fan) of the supplement and vitamin industry, which is delusional at best and snake oil at worst.

      It’s not chemophobia to be conservative over the idea of switching up the nutrients we ingest. Biochemistry is very much still a black art, as I well know. But my experience is largely in pharmaceuticals, and there, I’d rather have the synthetic and quality control and know precisely what’s going into my drug doses. I forage for wild foods, and herbs for medicine are great, but not what you’d call accurate and precise.

      1. Concur on the pharmacology and precision. (Is there anyone out there who provides quality consumer analysis on contents of OTC pharmaceuticals, btw?)

        As a tangent, I’ve often wondered: how hard (and risks, etc.) would it really have been to switch our opioid manufacture from synthetics back to the real thing? Because it seems like buying up the poppy crops in Afghanistan might have had a positive effect there (rather than trying to eradicate one of the few things that grows in that place).

            1. Per the USP (the United States Pharmacopeia) the manufacturer must label the medicine with the active ingredient(s) and that label must be accurate to (+/-) 10%. The FDA takes these things seriously, and does test randomly for API (active pharmaceutical ingredient) as well as auditing labs – and an FDA audit is nothing like an IRS audit, it’s a lot more down and dirty. I can actually speak to how the US pharma handles this – seriously. It’s literally the difference between staying in business or hemorrhaging money trying to fix screw-ups after the fact, not to mention the potential PR nightmare. Not sure this directly answers your question, but I can say that I’ll take a generic OTC happily, I don’t need to pay for the name brand to be sure I’m getting what the label says is in it.

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