Why the internet annoys chemists

Here are some of chemist’s pet peeves chemists about discussion on social media and the internet in general. The list is from the article  5 simple chemistry facts that everyone should understand before talking about science posted on the blog The Logic of Science.

Everyone who has attempted to discuss issues like vaccination or fluoridation with opponents will have come across these arguments which the author describes as “based on a lack of knowledge about high school level chemistry.” This ignorance doesn’t seem to prevent the perpetrators of these arguments presenting with extreme confidence and fervour. When challenged they often question the scientific credibility of their critics and urge them to “do some research!”

1: Everything is made of chemicals

chemical free

The article points out:

“This seems like a simple concept, but many people seem to struggle greatly with it, so let’s get this straight: all matter is made of chemicals. You consist entirely of chemicals. All food (even organic food) consists entirely of chemicals. Herbal remedies consist entirely of chemicals, etc. So, when someone says something like, “I don’t vaccinate because I don’t want my child to be injected with chemicals,” they have just demonstrated how truly uninformed they are, and you can be absolutely certain that they don’t know what they are talking about because all matter is made of chemicals.”

Yet these arguments and terms like “chemical-free” seem to have gripped public consciousness. The only thing “chemical-free” is empty space!

A particular peeve of mine is the attitude advertisers seem to have that by declaring their product “chemical-free” they can get away with not identifying the real chemicals in their product. Recently at the supermarket I searched in vain for an indication of the chemicals in a package of sea salt. Genuinely intrigued to find what other salts were present, together with the majority sodium chloride, all I could find was the description that the product was “chemical-free!”

2: The dose makes the poison

sense-about-science

“There is no such thing as a toxic chemical, there are only toxic doses. Let me say that again: all chemicals are safe at a low enough dose, and all chemicals are toxic at a high enough dose. This is a fundamental fact that people in the anti-science movement routinely ignore.”

Yet look at how the anti-science movement ignores this simple fact. Anti-fluoridationists who seem to think that have a foolproof argument by waving Material Safety Data Sheets for water treatment chemicals like fluorosilicic acid and sodium fluorosilicate. Such sheets supply information for people manufacturing, handling and transporting the concentrated chemical. They have absolutely no relevance for the person drinking the water coming out of their tap.

A little more sophisticated (although only a little) are the arguments based on scientific studies of rats administered chemicals at concentrations far higher than confronted by the ordinary consumer. Anti-fluoridationists spout so  much hot air citing studies of rats administered 100 ppm F or more in their drinking water to claim that drinking fluoridated water which has an F concentration of 0.7 ppm is harmful!

“The importance of this fact cannot be overstated. No chemical is inherently safe or inherently dangerous. So, the next time that someone tries to scare you about the “toxic chemicals” in your food, medicine, vaccines, detergents, etc. ask them for two pieces of information:

  1. What is the toxic dose in humans?
  2. What is the dose in the product in question?

Those two pieces of information are absolutely crucial to evaluating the safety of the product. You simply cannot know whether that chemical is dangerous without knowing the dose in the product and the dose at which it becomes toxic.”

3: There is no difference between “natural” and “synthetic” versions of a chemical

“I often hear people claim that “synthetic” chemicals (a.k.a. chemicals made in a lab) are not as good for you as their “natural” counterparts. The reality is that this represents a misunderstanding of literally the most fundamental concept of chemistry. The most basic unit of matter is the atom, and there are several different types of atoms known as elements. We combine these elements to make various molecules, and the combination of elements determines the molecule’s properties. The process by which those elements were combined is completely and totally irrelevant to how the final chemical behaves.

For example, water (a.k.a. dihydrogen monoxide) consists of three atoms: 2 hydrogens and 1 oxygen (hydrogen and oxygen are both elements). There are literally thousands of different chemical reactions that will produce water. In other words, we can make water thousands of different ways, but water always behaves in exactly the same way no matter how it was formed because it always consists of the same three atoms. Further, if given a vial of pure water, there isn’t a chemist anywhere in the world who could tell you how that water was produced because it would be completely identical to all of the other water everywhere on the planet. So, as long as the chemical structure is the same, it doesn’t matter if the chemical was extracted from a plant or synthesized in a lab.”

Yet, how often am I told that fluoridating chemicals are bad because they are “industrial,” “manufactured” or “synthetic.” The implication being that if we just dug these minerals out of the ground and dumped them in the water things would be quite OK. Of course, these people ignore the impurities present in “natural” ores and chemicals. Purification to a standard suitable for use in foods and drinking water requires chemical processing. Does treatment converting an “unsafe” ore or chemical to a safe (for consumption) chemical somehow make the chemical unsafe because it is now synthetic?

4: “Natural” chemicals are not automatically good and “artificial” chemicals are not automatically bad

“I often encounter people who will claim to agree with everything that I have said thus far, but they still insist that “artificial” chemicals (a.k.a. chemicals that simply are not found in nature) are bad for you and shouldn’t be consumed, injected, etc. There are several critical problems here. First, remember again that all chemicals are dangerous at a high enough doses and safe at a low enough dose. That is just as true for artificial chemicals as it is for natural chemicals. Second, this claim is nothing more than an appeal to nature fallacy. Nature is full of chemicals such as cyanide and arsenic that are dangerous at anything but a very low dose, so there is no reason to think that the “naturalness” of a chemical is an indicator of its healthiness.

Further, remember that chemicals are nothing more than arrangements of elements. There is absolutely no reason to think that nature has produced all of the best arrangements or that we are incapable of making an arrangement that is safe or even better than what nature produced. I constantly hear people say that we cannot improve on nature, but that is an utterly ludicrous and unsupportable claim, and I would challenge anyone to give me a logical syllogism that backs it up. Really think about this for a minute, if you are of the opinion that artificial chemicals should be avoided, try to defend that position. Ask yourself why you think that. Can you give me any reason to think that they are bad other than simply that they aren’t natural (which we have just established is a fallacy)?”

This nature = good, articifial=bad,  argument may appeal to the emotions of the chemo-phobic consumer, but it is just not rational.

5: A chemical’s properties are determined by the other chemicals that it is bound to

This is so obvious to anyone who has a rudimentary understanding of chemistry – but surprisingly it still gets challenged. How often have I come across anti-fluoride campaigners referring to fluorine containing chemicals like sarin gas (a chemical weapon), Prozac (a drug), hydrofluoric acid (a corrosive acid) – or even to fluorosilicates (used to treat water but decomposing on dilution) as if their properties were relevant to the fluoride in drinking water.

“Chemical compounds are made by combining different elements or even molecules, and the final product may not behave the same way as all of its individual parts. Sodium chloride is a classic example of this concept. Sodium is extremely reactive and will literally explode if it contacts water, and chlorine is very toxic at anything but an extremely low dose. Nevertheless, when we combine them we get sodium chloride, which is better known as table salt. Notice that table salt does not have the properties of either sodium or chlorine. It does not explode when it contacts water and you cannot get chlorine poisoning from it no matter how much of it you eat. The combination of those two elements changed their properties and it would be absurd to say that “salt is dangerous because it contains sodium.” The sodium in salt no longer behaves like sodium because it is bound to the chlorine. Therefore, when you hear a claim that something contains a dangerous chemical, make sure that the chemical isn’t bound to something that makes it safe.”

And therefore:

“So, claiming that “mercury is dangerous and vaccines contain mercury, therefore vaccines are dangerous” is no different from claiming that “sodium is dangerous and salt contains sodium, therefore salt is dangerous.””

Most dangerous and toxic  chemicals contain hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and/or nitrogen. That doesn’t make pure water toxic because it contains oxygen and hydrogen. Proteins, starches and sugars toxic because they contain hydrogen, oxygen carbon and nitrogen. Or the air we breath toxic because it contains oxygen and nitrogen.

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4 responses to “Why the internet annoys chemists

  1. In addition to the points you make is sect. 2:
    1. What is the toxic dose in humans?
    2. What is the dose in the product in question?
    3. Does it accumulate in the body or is it passed through?

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  2. About item 3 that states no difference between natural and synthetic…
    There are some authors that make a distinction between D and L molecules (also called Cis/Trans. Imagine left and right handedness), and say that you will/more-likely recieve the correct one when you eat natural (and uncooked!) foodstuffs.
    For example:
    1. With vitamin E: And its even mentioned on wikipedia (well, for now anyway): “In general, the unnatural l-isomers of tocotrienols lack almost all vitamin activity”
    2. Also found statements about glutamic acid as well (MSG).
    3. And of course the dreaded TRANSfats which form when you overheat oils during the production process (some oils need distilling due to the toxicity of the plant, or because you apply some process to it) – however distilling does not really qualify as “artificial” to some purists (although i think margarines are “artificial” regardless what point of view you take).

    And by the way for the other points:
    point 4: mercury is toxic whichever way you want to look at it, in a vaccine, in (old) paint, or dumped on farms in pesticiedes does not automatically make it “healthy”. the potency of Sodium is balanced by the potency of chlorine and is very hard to separate them unless you do it with electricity (a very poor example). Mercury has no molecule or element that wants to stick to it indefinately.
    point 2, i have drunk like 7 litres of water within the space of an hour (all going in sweat). if you have residues in it, the residue most certainly can build up (increase the concentration) in the body (which is why you cannot drink much molasses water in the stead of water – even if you DESPERATELY need water).
    point 1, once molecules get classified by chemists they are chemicals – there’s no way out. the old days technically had no chemicals.

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  3. Yes i know, i got the “point” numbers messed up.

    and yes i know that there is a good chance of finding elements that will stick to mercury indefinately – until an acid is applied or something that can occur in the body (body is partly electric – esp the brain). molecules and mercury? ionic bonded? another ion in the mix can separate that mercury ion easily.

    and there is probably other things i missed – obviously. But such a provocative post needs a rebuttle.

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  4. Charlie – interesting you consider my post “provocative.” For a chemist it is just common sense – nothing provocative about it at all.

    Mercury exists in a number of different compounds – it is quite incorrect to think it exists only as the metallic element. Elemental mercury is not added to vaccines.

    Chirality is a fact of chemistry – but just because we can synthesise a compound as different stereoisomer does not violate this principle. They are, after all different chemicals. A synthetic D-glucose is exactly the same as a natural D-glucose. L-Glucose is different – but it is a different chemical.

    Chemicals are chemicals – and were chemicals long before humans existed. Maybe we needed humans to give them names – but they are chemicals quite independently of humanity.

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