Chemical Paranoia

Stereotypical chemical stuff

It may just be that I’m surrounded by weird people, but there seems to be a growing paranoia about chemicals, “unnatural” things, and science in general. People who freak out because their ice cream happens to contain a compound that contains an element that is used in antifreeze. Guess what, that water you drink all the time? It contains an element that is used to blow things up. Hydrogen is extremely volatile…until you connect it to oxygen in just the right way.

This fundamental misunderstanding of basic chemistry is evident in many fraudulent or just plain deceptive articles I’ve read. These people seem to think that the definition of a chemical is “some unnatural substance created by scientists, that you should definitely not ingest”, as in Don’t drink the city water, it’s loaded with chemicals. But water itself is a chemical.

Generally what people are trying to say is harmful chemicals. But even that phrase is misleading. The effect of a chemical on your body depends on the amount you take in. In fact, water poisoning is actually a thing. It is actually possible to drink so much water that it harms you. Does this mean water is a poison? Of course not—which raises some interesting questions about how you classify something as a poison if small amounts of it aren’t poisonous at all.

The amount isn’t the only thing that factors into whether or not the chemical will kill you. As we see with water, combining an element or chemical with another one in a certain way can create something entirely different. Oxygen, for example, is the main purpose of breathing. You need oxygen. But ozone—which is nothing but three oxygen atoms linked together—is poisonous to breathe.

Does this mean that ozone is unnatural? Absolutely not. The ozone layer is rather important. Baking bread gives off ozone (it’s part of the distinctive smell). It’s a very natural thing that also happens to be poisonous in large amounts. So what do you do? Stop baking bread? No, you avoid breathing large amounts of ozone.

Sometimes it’s just common sense that you don’t do something like drink two gallons of soda every day. But it should also be common sense that the effects of a chemical on your body can easily be far different if you consume sixteen times more than a reasonable amount. In small doses normally it’ll go right through you without causing problems. It’s only when you consume too much, too often, that it builds up and overloads your body’s capacity for dealing with it…kind of like what happens when you get drunk.

Fear-mongering articles often present the worst-case scenario as what will happen to you if you ingest any of it at all. This is comparable to using a case of ozone poisoning as an example of what happens if you bake bread, or arguing that the result of drinking one bottle of hard cider will be passing out, vomiting, and a hangover. Drinking thirty bottles of hard cider in one afternoon is a whole lot different than drinking one each day for a month.

It would be nice to see more attention given to the bad habits people form (such as guzzling soda), rather than trying to freak people out with misleading information about the chemical composition of their food. Because in most cases it’s immoderation, not the chemical itself, that’s to blame.

Now go study some science, people. It’s pretty amazing stuff.


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