7 Jul 2017

It’s Chemical!

By Adrienne Montgomerie

In advertising and in popular writing, especially about health concerns, chemical is used to mean harmful. As science writers and science-literate people, we know that chemical isn’t a synonym for harmful. Not all chemicals are harmful, and besides, everything is a chemical. So how can we, as science communicators, help readers understand the message by using more accurate language?

What writers mean by chemical

When we read chemical, the writer often means
  • harmful
  • unnatural
  • artificial

The truth about artificial chemicals

Some chemicals are good and some are harmful. And some are good because they are harmful. Think of chlorine bleach, for example. It is deadly in large doses, and that’s what makes it useful for disinfecting drinking water. Chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite) is an artificial chemical.
There is a common perception that artificial or manufactured chemicals are more toxic than natural ones. You don’t have to look beyond the periodic table to find natural chemicals (or elements, in this case) that are highly toxic: lead, plutonium, and mercury, for example.

The truth about natural chemicals

Yes, natural substances are chemicals. Everything is a chemical! Water is dihydrogen oxide and salt is sodium chloride. The difference between an artificial chemical and a natural one is that the natural one can be found in nature, without anyone making it.

To those who tell me “It’s natural, so it can’t hurt you” (I swear, people really say this to me) I respond, “You mean like poison ivy and peanuts?”

Of course they know that these natural things are quite harmful to some people. But they’ve gotten caught up in some rhetoric and need a little nudge to remember the truth they know.

Even arsenic is a natural chemical. It’s made in Earth’s crust and often makes its way to the surface because of mining operations. Arsenic is a deadly natural chemical. So is the botulism toxin. In fact, botulism is more than a million times more toxic than arsenic.

Synthetic forms of natural chemicals

What! Enter the grey area: chemicals we find in nature but that are manufactured in larger quantities than it would be reasonable to get from the natural sources. Vitamin C comes to mind. So does alcohol. Most synthetics are chemically identical to the natural form.

Some synthetic forms are actually safer than the natural form because of the natural source is prone to being bound up with some less desirable “by-products.”

Better terms

When we are writing or editing, let’s steer toward using terms that promote a better understanding of science, and of the world around us. Avoid using chemical when synthetic or harmful are the intended meaning.

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