Chemophobia literally means ‘fear of chemicals.’ It is most often used to describe the assumption that ‘chemicals’ (i.e., man-made products or artificially concentrated but naturally occurring chemicals) are bad and harmful, while ‘natural’ things (i.e., chemical compounds that occur naturally or that are obtained using traditional techniques) are good and healthy.

General chemophobia derives from incomplete knowledge of science, or a misunderstanding of science, and is a form of technophobia and fear of the unknown. In terms of chemical safety, ‘industrial,’ ‘synthetic’ ‘artificial,’ and ‘man-made’ do not necessarily mean damaging, and ‘natural’ does not necessarily mean better.

According to Neil Eisberg, editor of ‘Chemistry & Industry,’ chemophobia results from a public lack of trust—compounded by sections of the media and certain environmental groups—in the chemical industry after chemical disasters: ‘[The chemical industry’s] reputation with the general public, once extremely high, has fallen to an all-time low as a result of accidents such as Bhopal and Seveso and health scares fed by campaigns by environmental groups and encouraged by a sometimes gullible media. “But where does this lack of trust [between society and business] originate? According to Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, …the present situation originated in the ‘fabulous fiction’ of Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring,’ which portrayed chemistry as a blind and brutal enemy of birds and other living creatures.’

A contributory factor to chemophobia is due to increasing sensitivity of analytical techniques that can now detect extremely low levels of chemicals. Detected levels are usually so low as to be harmless, though media often only report the fact that the chemical has been detected in such-and-such a place and that it is harmful, but not at which levels the compound might cause harm nor the levels at which it was detected. ‘Away from the high doses of occupational exposure, a whole host of unwanted chemicals finds their way into our bodies all the time, [but the] chemical baggage we carry is very small. It is only because of the great advances in analytical chemistry that we are able to detect it’s there at all.’

Some people who may be described as chemophobic believe that all chemicals are at best untrustworthy, and at worst harmful. This is an incorrect generalization because every substance encountered in the universe is a chemical. Even benign, naturally occurring, or pure substances—including unpolluted air and pure water—are chemicals. More commonly, these people fear what they perceive to be man-made, synthetic, or ‘unnatural’ chemicals, and accept what they perceive to be ‘natural’ chemicals. The distinction overlooks both the benign nature of some man-made substances and the deadly nature of some natural chemicals. For example, there are numerous natural poisons from plants; and similarly, the percentage of natural chemicals that are carcinogenic is equal to the percentage of synthetic chemicals that are carcinogenic.

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