Would you vote to ban a substance with the following characteristics?

Recent scientific evidence has shown the substance hydrogen oxide to pose many extreme dangers to humans. Colorless, odorless and tasteless, it kills uncounted thousands of people every year. Most of these deaths are caused by accidental inhalation, but the dangers do not end there. Prolonged exposure to its solid form causes severe tissue damage. If ingested, it can cause excessive urination, and possibly a bloated feeling, nausea, vomiting and body electrolyte imbalance. At the same time, hydrogen oxide withdrawal means certain death. 

Additionally, hydrogen oxide is known to: 

  • be a major component of acid rain
  • be an important cause of erosion
  • contribute to the greenhouse effect
  • cause severe burns
  • contribute to the erosion of our natural landscape
  • accelerate corrosion and rusting of many metals
  • cause electrical failures and decrease the effectiveness of automobile brakes
  • be present in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients

If you haven't already guessed, hydrogen oxide is the chemical name for water. Surprised? Often, advertising or persuasive information causes panic and alarm. It is important to understand the facts before jumping to conclusions though. The manner in which information is presented can influence the recipient's emotions.  That is why science helps us overcome kneejerk reactions and make the best possible decisions when it is important, such as those pertaining to agriculture, pharmaceuticals and food productions, by providing data and facts. 

Lately, stories using words like chemical, organic, synthetic and natural have gained significant media attention and caused feverish consumer panic.  From a chemist's perspective, the media misuses these terms to generate interest in words which, when closely examined, mean something far less anxiety-inducing.

The word chemical appears in many media reports and in casual conversation today.  Often intonated to insinuate it is synonymous with poison, what really is a chemical?

Simply, anything made of matter is a chemical or mixture of chemicals. In second grade, we learn anything that has mass and takes up space is matter.  Just like millions of words are made from the same 26 letter building blocks, all the chemicals on the planet are made from the same 95 (approximately) building blocks called elements, which can be found on the Periodic Table. That means that water, pencils, cotton, cotton candy, vitamins, your body, the computer screen....anything made of matter is a chemical.

The word organic, from a chemist's perspective, means any substance containing carbon. All living things, including those things which are no longer alive, contain carbon. Since anything containing carbon could be called organic, all food is technically organic strictly from a chemistry perspective.

In the context of farming, the word organic takes on many additional meanings and connotations though.  Technically speaking, organic farming does not use synthetic chemicals. However, it does use more than 20 different pesticides and insecticides from  what proponents refer to as natural sources. 

While the term organic is often used to imply the organic option is in some way superior, it notably does not consider the carbon footprint of bottling, storing, shipping, refrigerating, etc., these products.  Yet, these processes produce tons of carbon dioxide.  In fact, the average American already produces 20 tons of carbon dioxide every year!

So what does synthetic mean then? If something is synthetic, that means it is man-made. Many everyday things we consume or utilize are man-made, including vitamins, medicines, vaccines, cheez whiz, candy...the list goes on and on.

Sometimes, people are surprised to find out that a molecule is a molecule no matter what the source. For instance, Vitamin C that is made in a lab is the exact same molecule that is found in an orange. Just because it is synthetic doesn't make it bad or make it different than what is found hanging from a tree.

Yet, in the context of media and commercial use, the word natural is used to imply that consumers should somehow feel better about their purchase.

Often times, natural is used as a synonym for safe.  This could not be further from the truth!  As a chemist, I recognize that there are many instances in which natural substances can be harmful. 

For example, rotenone is found naturally in roots and stems of plants. Considered natural,  it was used for years by organic farmers. Yet, scientists found that rotenone is linked to Parkinson's disease. In light of this information, the use of rotenone has been discontinued in the U.S. for organic farming, but it is still poured into water by fisheries as a piscicide, which kills unwanted fish.

Similarly, Solanine from potatoes, which is found in the green part around the edge, is both toxic and  natural.  Another example of a natural substance that is also toxic? The poison strychnine is made naturally from a tree.

The vast majority of chemicals humans are exposed to are natural but not necessarily safe. Bottom line, just because something is natural does not make it harmless. Conversely, just because something is synthetic does not make it harmful. All that the words natural and synthetic actually relate is if substance is or is not man-made.

In short, not all chemicals are harmful, but not all chemicals are harmless either. What is important is making a critical judgment based in science rather than buying into emotionally manipulative communications.  All things synthetic, chemical, or organic can be good or bad...it all depends.