Monday 30 January 2006

Chemical stories can make you blind

A new report washes away some of the myths about ‘potentially deadly’ chemicals.

Do you know what ‘E-numbers’ are? Like me, you may have been led to believe that they are hazardous food additives that should be avoided at all cost. But at the launch of a new report Making Sense of Chemical Stories, by the charity Sense about Science, the dietician Ursula Arens explained that E-numbers merely ‘communicate that [the food additive] has been approved for its intended use across the EU’.

Many E-numbers are found naturally in foods and may include essential vitamins, such as ascorbic acid (vitamin C, E300) and tocopherols (vitamin E, E306-309). ‘The paradox’, said Arens, ‘is that many will try to avoid E-numbers while at the same time taking vitamin supplements’ (many of which, incidentally, have not been through the same testing procedure).

Making Sense of Chemical Stories is a welcome corrective to the abundance of misinformation about chemicals. Chemicals are often presented as substances that are harmful to our health and the environment and should be avoided. But the idea of a chemical-free existence is absurd: the world is full of chemicals, both natural and manufactured, and we could not exist without them.

Today, it is especially the ‘man-made’, ‘synthetic’ or ‘industrial’ chemicals that we are encouraged to avoid. ‘But how do we explain the fact that we are living longer and healthier lives?’ asked Andrew Cockburn, director of Toxico-Logical Consulting Ltd, at the launch of the Sense about Science report. In the UK in 1840 the average life expectancy was only 40 years of age; today it is nearer to 80. ‘That makes us the healthiest hypochondriacs that ever existed’, said Cockburn.

In the late nineteenth century the population was indeed exposed to a number of hazardous chemicals. In 1871 the Royal Sanitary Commission noted that the water in Bradford Canal was so contaminated that a dropped lamp could set it alight. Chemicals used in hat-making gave off mercury vapour, causing muscle tremors, distorted vision and slurred speech. Hence the origin of the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’. This chemical, and many more, are now carefully regulated, allowing us to live better and healthier lives.

But that does not stop some people from fretting. Not many of them end up as red faced as the Californian city councillors who in 2004 took steps to protect the public from the ‘potentially deadly’ chemical, dihydrogen monoxide. A hoax website had warned that this ‘odourless, tasteless chemical’ kills thousands of people every year, mainly through accidental inhalation. The website pointed out that dihydrogen monoxide causes severe burns in its gaseous state and severe tissue damage through prolonged exposure in its solid state. City officials considered banning foam cups after they learned the chemical was used in their production. But dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, H2O; in other words, water.

The chemical terms for certain substances may sound ominous. The research scientist Derek Lohmann asks: ‘If someone came into your house and offered you a cocktail of butanol, iso amyl alcohol, hexanol, phenyl ethanol, tannin, benzyl alcohol, caffeine, geraniol, quercetin, 3-galloyl epicatchin, 3-galloyl epigallocatchin and inorganic salts, would you take it?’ Maybe not. But if they offered you a cup of tea - a chemical mixture containing the above chemicals - you may not be as reticent.

Making Sense of Chemical Stories has shed some much-needed light on a murky debate. It clearly spells out that whether a substance is manufactured by people, copied from nature or extracted directly from nature, tells us nothing about whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for us. The old rule that it is the dose that makes the poison still holds: everything is potentially poisonous, depending on the quantity. Rather than fear synthetic chemicals we should recognise that flame-retardants, cleaners, disinfectants, anti-bacterials and DDT have helped to save millions of lives and improved the quality of life for many more.

See Making Sense of Chemical Stories on the Sense about Science website.

First published by spiked