Perceptions of chemical products: When is a chemical not a ‘chemical’?

by Julia Diebol on June 10, 2011

The noun ‘chemical’ refers to any substance produced by the processes of chemistry.  This means anything that was ever created by a chemical reaction (natural or man-made), and in reality means all matter.  Your breakfast, your clothes, your computer, and your body are all made up of chemicals.  However, most people would not identify their waffles as a ‘chemical product.’

Hal Sosabowski discusses an example of this variance in classification in an opinion piece for the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Chemistry World magazine:

“Last month, the Daily Telegraph ran a short article about the use of ozone to preserve food. The line used was ‘ozone can now be used to allow the preservation of food without the use of chemicals’. This is exactly what I mean; chemicals that harm us are termed ‘chemicals’, chemicals that help us are termed something else. I wonder in a subsequent issue if ozone is then relegated to the status of ‘chemical’ when its harmful effects are discussed.”

The word ‘chemical’ does indeed seem to have negative connotations for most people. A recent public opinion survey conducted for the European Commission found that Europeans were far more likely to perceive ‘chemical products’ as ‘dangerous,’ ‘harmful to the environment,’ or ‘unhealthy’ than as ‘useful,’ ‘effective,’ or ‘natural.’

Sosabowski argues that these kinds of perceptions should not be denied or dismissed, but should be “diplomatically but firmly” corrected by chemists, to “ensure that the public perception of chemistry and chemicals reflects the reality.”

In a contrasting opinion piece, David Ropeik argues that social science has shown risk perception to be inherently subjective.  He discusses findings from risk perception research that show some chemicals (for example, those that are not naturally occurring or those that cannot be detected with our senses) have characteristics that can cause more worry than others.

Ropeik argues that by acknowledging a basis for people’s  “inherent wariness of ‘chemicals’ or anything associated with them” and considering what the science of risk perception has to offer, “the conversation about both chemistry’s benefits and its risks can become more of a search for common interests than the battleground it currently is.”

Previous Posts by Julia:

Proposed U.S. Chemical Control Legislation: The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011

How Do We Filter Risk Information?

What Makes Communications About Chemicals Useful, Helpful and Satisfactory to People Who Receive Them?

Related posts:

  1. Proposed U.S. Chemical Control Legislation: The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011
  2. Professional societies to regulators: Let us help you handle chemical risks

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