Chemophobia

Chemophobia is a term, often used pejoratively, to describe an unfounded and generally unnecessary fear of “chemicals.” The quotes are necessary because anything with physical substance is a chemical. The phobia is really just a fear of the unknown or the not well understood. Concern should be about the risk of exposure to those that may be toxic, mutagenic, or harmful in in some way, not all chemicals.

After that leap, it makes more sense as different chemicals or mixtures thereof have different potentials for harm, and those potentials are directly related to the dose. Paracelsus (1493-1541), the father of modern toxicology, coined the phrase “everything is toxic, nothing is toxic, the dose makes the poison.” We are bombarded daily by toxic and even carcinogenic substances but the vast bulk of these are present in such small amounts, that the toxic or carcinogenic dose is immeasurable and no harm can be detected.

Historically there are lots of substances which one should rightly fear and lot of them are natural. A class of compounds known as cyanogenic glycosides can release deadly hydrogen cyanide. Lima Beans contain these compounds but at low enough concentration to have no toxic effect whatsoever. Cassava, a annual root crop in tropical parts of the world, also contain cyanide. Generally consumption is not a problem, but when consumed as a significant portion of the diet the cyanide intake can be large enough to cause paralysis in the extremities, blindness and even death. It’s OK to eat tapioca pudding made from cassava just don’t try to live on it.

People are more often fearful of synthetic materials, as if they’re some how automatically toxic regardless how much or how little one is exposed to. Modern chemical analysis can now measure substances down to concentrations unheard of just a decade or two ago. Just because a synthetic compound can be measured in the body doesn’t necessarily mean that it is causing any harm.

Another contributing factor to chemophobia is the “one small study” problem. A small study will show the harmful effect of something, then the press runs with that as a confirmed truth. Often however, small studies are just plain wrong. The beauty of science is that over time we usually get it right. Larger, more well controlled studies can disprove the purported harmful effects.

The Food and Drug Administration was created at a time when there was a clear and present danger to our supply of food and drugs. The scientific consensus is that they currently do a commendable job of protecting us from harm.

Ironically on area of real risk comes from so called natural nutritional supplements. An exception in the law prevents these agents from oversight by the FDA. Whereas most nutritional supplements are harmless (and by the way useless), some have been found to be adulterated with dangerous levels of natural and synthetic compounds. Illness and even death have come from these unregulated agents.

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