Chemicals are killing us. At least that is the message that’s constantly being pushed to us at the moment. Take a walk down the aisle of your local supermarket, or turn on commercial TV and watch the ads.
If you’re feeling really brave, Google “chemicals are killing us” and take a browse through some of the articles.
The message is clear – everything we are eating or using is full of “nasty”, “toxic” or “poisonous” chemicals, and they are all making us sick.
Of course the solution is equally clear – we should buy products that are somehow free of these nasty, toxic, disease-causing chemicals. Then we can be healthier and happier.
“Chemical” really has become a dirty word. The thing is though, everything is made of chemicals. Our world is made of chemicals. The water you drink, the food you eat, the air you breathe – it’s all made of chemicals. You, all your friends, your dog – all full of chemicals.
Someone on Facebook actually tried to sell me “chemical-free” cleaning products once. That “chemical-free” cleaner? Full of chemicals. Everything is made of chemicals.
The chemicals found in our natural world couldn’t be harmful, could they? Just take another look around that supermarket and another message stands out: anything that is “all natural” is good for us. So we should buy products that are organic, natural and chemical free!
Of course, natural does not equal healthy, even when it comes to chemicals. Arsenic and cyanide are two great examples. They’re both naturally occurring chemicals, but I’m sure everyone will agree that they‘re not really good for us.
Even water, one of the simplest chemicals that we find everywhere in nature, can be harmful if we have too much of it. And we all know that ethanol (alcohol), another natural chemical, is good fun in small doses, but lethal if we have too much.
On the flip side, just as natural doesn’t equal healthy, synthetic or artificial doesn’t mean harmful. Aspirin and ibuprofen are synthetic chemicals used widely around the world as painkillers.
Most of the pharmaceutical products we use to lead longer and more comfortable lives are made in laboratories, not found in nature. But without chemicals like these our lives would be far less pleasant.
Some chemicals are harmful, that’s true. But chemicals are in everything. So let’s stop treating “chemical” as a dirty word.
Dr Mary McMillan is an Associate Lecturer at the University of New England’s School of Science & Technology.