Perspectives: Chemicals and the Public

Just about any person who heard that there were chemicals in their food would probably try to avoid it.

Just about any person who heard that there were chemicals in their food would probably try to avoid it. Well, they may as well avoid all food, since everything is made up of chemicals. Why are people so fearful of chemicals? Who or what has scared them into thinking that chemicals are evil?

Dr. Joseph Schwarcz, Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Office of Chemistry and Society of McGill University presented a humorous yet thought provoking lecture entitled “Sense, Nonsense and Science.” The lecture, presented at “Best Practices for Communication of Science and Technology to the Public” and sponsored by NIST, focused on Dr. Schwarcz’ adventures with the public and how much confusion there is when it comes to chemicals.

His first example is a doctor who is on a television show talking about a variety of foods set out on a table. The hostess and doctor were reading the labels. The doctor stated, “If you can’t pronounce the word, it’s a chemical, and I don’t know how many people want to be eating chemicals.” She went on to say, “When you talk about chemicals, even moderate use is too much.” Well, sure, if you are talking about cigarettes or sniffing glue.

Also, people do not seem to understand the difference between different states of chemicals. You would have to be quite foolish to dip your hand in a nickel plating bath; however, does that mean it is dangerous to carry around nickels in your pocket or have nickel chromium plated bumpers adorning your car?

How about this underwear ad that Dr. Schwarcz noted. The underwear suggested that it is made from a fabric that “breathes.” It breaks down sweat (H2O) into H2 and O, making evaporation occur much more quickly. Dr. Schwarcz noted that if this were possible, we could solve the energy crises simply be rubbing our underwear, since H2 is an extremely effective fuel.

What is important about Dr. Schwarcz’ observations is how difficult it is to communicate with the public about science. If people don’t understand it, they are afraid of it. Also, information can be processed much the same way as gossip progresses through the grapevine. It changes just a bit each time it is passed on. People do not go straight to the source for their facts; they rely on “other” people, groups, and clubs to decide things for them. And most of these “others” have much louder voices than the finishing community.