By Dr Ian R Farrell
There are a few phrases used by journalists and advertising companies that make me mutter under my breath, but none irks me quite so much as ‘chemical free’.
The very expression smacks of ignorance: how can anything that exists on this earth be chemical free? Chemicals surround us. They are everywhere. We are made entirely of chemicals – all of us.
That bottle of shampoo advertised as ‘containing no chemicals’? I’ve got news for you: it’s all chemicals, every last drop of it. You’ve been lied to. Water from the tap, the air you breathe, the carrot you just dug up: all chemicals too I’m afraid.
You may think I’m being pedantic. The advertising men are actually trying to tell you that there are no artificial chemicals in their products. Ah, that’s OK then. Actually, no. It isn’t.
Shampoo isn’t extracted from trees or grown in fields. Ergo it is made from chemicals made by man, and is therefore artificial. “Ah,” I hear you cry. “They mean naturally occurring substances.” Well then they should say so. And even this doesn’t dig the marketing men out of a nasty hole.
The link between naturally occurring substances and health is pretty arbitrary. If we are being picky, every chemical is naturally occurring otherwise it wouldn’t exist. Furthermore, I could name a host of naturally occurring chemicals that could do you tremendous harm. Ricin is a highly toxic, naturally occurring protein. Doses weighing as little as a few grains of salt can kill a human. It’s found famously in uncooked or unsoaked kidney beans, sold in shops up and down the country. Mother Nature gets worse too: spider and snake venom all occur naturally, but I wouldn’t recommend you try any. Why then, should we trust the natural proteins in skin cream, or the elaborate bacterial cultures in yoghurts?
Likewise artificial substances (or naturally occurring substances made in factory) can do an awful lot of good, as anyone who has ever taken medicine will tell you. From a simple aspirin (a naturally occurring chemical found in willow bark) to the remarkable feats of pharmaceutical science which now mean HIV/Aids is not a death sentence, the role of chemistry in improving health is indisputable.
I am, of course, being dogmatic to get my message across, but there is a more serious point: with the public’s general scientific knowledge constantly eroded by marketing slogans, how are we – as a society – going to be able to make an informed decision on how we feed, power and resource our ever growing population? As Friends actress Jennifer Aniston once said of a well-know brand of shampoo: “Listen carefully, here’s the science bit.”
There are some huge challenges ahead of us over the coming years that will require input from chemists, biologists, physicists, engineers, social scientists, ethics experts and politicians. At some stage we will have to vote for the choices offered to us and if we base our knowledge of what makes ‘good science’ and ‘bad science’ simply on what is natural and artificial, we will be missing the point entirely.
Yes, science can be complicated. You may not have enjoyed it at school, and you may not want to read chemistry books at bedtime – and I’m not asking you to. All I want is for advertising creatives to stop exploiting and feeding the public’s paranoia towards all things chemical, and for the media to start taking their role as educators of the population a little more seriously. Because you’re worth it.