Chemicals are EVERYWHERE!!

I’m a chemist by practice, so of course my first blog post is on chemistry.

Chemistry tends to scare people, partly because it’s difficult – there are journals dedicated to chemistry education that do research on this, among other things – and partly because it’s the study of chemicals. *jarring chord*

There is a term for this: chemophobia, the fear of chemicals (there are other related terms like chemonoia that mean pretty much the same thing). People have concluded that chemophobia may come from the way chemistry and chemicals are portrayed in the media. There is something about the word ‘chemicals’ that raises a lot of red flags for people, but it’s not hard to see why. The word ‘chemical’ is usually associated with ‘explosion,’ ‘spill,’ ‘pollution,’ and other nasty-sounding words. Anything that sounds like a chemical compound already sounds like a bad thing, with the right presentation. One of the best examples of this occurred in 1997. Nathan Zohner, a junior-high student, made a compelling argument for the dangers of a chemical called DHMO, or dihydrogen monoxide. He presented a list of dangers to ninth-grade students that included (source: http://www.snopes.com/science/dhmo.asp)

-contributing to the “greenhouse effect”

-causing electrical and brake malfunctions/failures

-corrodes metals

-other scary stuff

Shocking. I’m not talking about the dangers of DHMO, but the fact that people believed it. This was actually part of young Nathan’s study, called “How Gullible Are We?” You probably would not be surprised to find that people may still believe it. I can’t prove that, though.

I’m in the middle of reading “100 Chemical Myths: Misconceptions, Misunderstandings, Explanations” by Kovacs, Csupor, Lente, and Gunda (it’s really quite good). They go over a lot of general and specific ways that people generally get inaccurate information on chemistry. A lot of it is actually on food and medicines. You get the distinct feeling that the authors could have written MASSIVE books on just those two topics, but that’s because a lot of things that have to do with chemicals that the public is exposed to is usually connected to food and medicine. After all, in the United States, we have a Food and Drug Administration. The authors believe that it’s likely that a lot of the ‘chemophobia’ is more like a fear of artificial or synthetic chemicals. That’s not too hard to believe. We’ve seen some rather nasty things in the news regarding chemically-contaminated food. We know of medicines that were great at first, then it turns out that it was a really bad idea (thalidomide comes to mind). However, not ALL ‘artificial’ chemicals are bad, especially if they’re made in a lab in order to make more of something that is hard to come by naturally. Kovacs et al. (‘and others’ – that how we researchers abbreviate multiple authors) bring up a good example: vanillin. This is what gives vanilla its flavor, and it turns out most vanilla flavoring that we use does not actually come from vanilla beans (even then, you don’t just grind or squeeze the beans to get the vanillin, it’s MUCH harder than you think). Most of the vanillin is synthetic. Artificial. Oh, dear. Bad words.

However, one must remember this: the way a molecule is (its properties) has nothing to do with where it’s from. It has everything to do with what atoms are in it, and how they’re arranged, but not where they’re from. Vanillin from vanilla beans and vanillin from a test tube are identical. Why? Because of the atoms that make up ‘natural’ vanillin are the same as those in ‘artificial’ vanillin. In other words, vanillin is vanillin, end of sentence.

Here’s a good chemical term that gets thrown around, often incorrectly: ‘organic’. We’ve seen this quite a bit. Some are even trying to put that label on water. I’m totally serious. (http://organic.about.com/od/organicindustrybasics/f/Can-You-Certify-Organic-Water.htm) Anyone who’s reading this that has taken organic chemistry is probably banging their heads against their desks, unless they’re on their phones, then they’ll start banging their heads on the nearest solid object. If you’re doing that, get your eyes back up here, we need you to keep your cool. There’s something about the word ‘organic’ that is more natural, more connected to the earth. Not ‘synthetic’ or ‘man-made’ or anything industrial-sounding like that. Not ‘chemical’. The thing is that for chemists (and really anyone in the sciences), ‘organic’ doesn’t describe where a molecule is from. It describes what’s in the molecule. In this case, something organic contains carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and other atoms but mostly the first four. This means that water is not organic (H2O means no carbon), but gasoline (octane, C8H18) is.

(Real quick: if organic = good and chemical = bad, then what do you get in organic chemistry? Is that what it’s like to divide by zero?)

As I’ve mentioned earlier, it doesn’t matter where a chemical came from, all that matters is what the chemical is (which sounds like a really good way to see yourself: what matters is what you are, not where you’re from). If it’s good coming out of nature, it’s good coming out of a lab. If it’s bad coming out of nature, it’s going to be bad anywhere. Here’s an example; alpha-amanitin. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alpha-Amanitin) It’s natural; it occurs in nature, and to my knowledge, no one has tried to make some of it in the lab. It’s organic; it’s mostly carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and one atom of sulfur. So, using the social definitions, it’s natural and organic, so it’s good right? Time to go out and get some alpha-amanitin supplements, yes?

NO! NO NO nononononononono. NO! This will literally kill you! The names of where you get alpha-amanitin from should be a massive red flag with skulls and crossbones on it. They come from Amanita mushrooms, which include two infamous members; the ‘death cap’ and the ‘destroying angel’. Those are probably the names of really hardcore death metal bands, but they are the names of those mushrooms.

So what’s the lesson here? Chemicals are everywhere, some good, some bad, some natural, some artificial. What makes a chemical ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is not where it’s from, it’s what it is. It’s not possible to live without any kind of chemicals, otherwise you’re not allowed to drink water. Or eat food. Or breathe. Now, it may be possible to live without ‘artificial’ chemicals, but that means you don’t get a lot of the benefits of centuries of research, like most medicines, construction materials, and virtually all electronic components.

Think about that the next time someone talks about the evils of ‘artificial’ chemicals on social media and the fact that they likely had to use a laptop or smartphone.

 

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0, user WarX/Manuel Strehl)

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3 Comments

  1. So as I love to bake and I love to use vanilla. Would I expect that both natural vanillin from vanillia and lab created vanillin to behave the same way as I heat my cupcakes in the oven? From a science point of view, do they have the same molecular bonds? Or do cupcake factories bake in a more delicate way to preserve the lab vanillin? These are the questions that keep me up at night. (Also sweet blog, no pun intended)

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    1. Do they have the same bonds? Short answer: yes. Long answer: still yes, but the way extract itself is going to behave depends on what else is in the extract you’re using. I don’t know off the top of my head if/how vanillin undergoes thermal decomposition at typical baking temperatures, but I’m guessing storebought extract probably has things in it that could help stabilize vanillin so you don’t lose so much while baking.

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