The Obsession With Natural: How We Can Tackle Chemophobia

In 2013, Johnson & Johnson announced they had met their goal in eliminating the formaldehyde-producing preservative, quaternium-15, from their baby shampoo and other products. This was following a rise in people concerned with formaldehyde and its link to cancer – in 1980 its vapour was shown to be a carcinogen in the nasal passages of rats, and since then there have been many studies looking to investigate its carcinogen status. This outcry occurred despite the levels of quaternium-15 being too low to be considered toxic, and despite formaldehyde already being present in blood, and in much larger concentrations in several fruits. Nevertheless, Johnson & Johnson spent millions reformulating their products to ease the mind of the consumer.

The controversy around formaldehyde doesn’t just stop there; it is a common ingredient in many vaccines due to its inactivating properties, and thus a common target for many “anti-vax” groups. Again, the concentration of formaldehyde in a vaccine compared to blood is miniscule. So where does this anxiety come from?

Biophilia hypothesis describes our innate tendency towards nature and the natural world. It is perhaps the core factor in contributing towards the current climate of chemophobia. It’s an irrational worry that synthetic chemicals are more harmful than natural, and it’s a worry the health and cosmetic industries have capitalised on; suddenly the words “pure”, “natural”, and even “chemical free” are thrown around, enticing trusting consumers – without the scrutiny they really deserve. It has created a false dichotomy between what is natural and what is artificial (with regard to chemicals), worsened by big corporations, politicians and even some celebrities.

A key example is the development of genetically modified crops. This dispute covers a range of issues: are GM foods safe, do they pose a threat to the environment, should they be labelled, and what impact can they have on feeding a growing population? Whilst many of these concerns are valid, a significant number of the arguments are founded on misinformation and a belief that conventional, organic crops are inherently better for human health. With little evidence to support this claim, the general consensus in the scientific community state there is no substantial difference between GM and non-GM crops (that are being sold) regarding health. It is important to note there are many studies currently going on, and each GM crop must be investigated independently. In spite of efforts to bridge opinion between the scientific community and the general public, there is still a lack of successful communication.

Chemophobia in the context of vaccinations has been present since their very inception. Edward Jenner inoculating patients with cowpox, in order to induce immunity to smallpox, caused a lot of controversy not least because cowpox was originally limited to cow populations. The idea of giving people a “cow’s disease” was inappropriate and ultimately, unnatural. Although in the last century, anti-vax groups have focussed on the chemical constituents of vaccines (such as mercury-containing preservative thimerosal), the underlying fears associated with vaccinations have remained consistent.


‘Edward Jenner among patients in the Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital at St. Pancras.’ by James Gillray. 1802. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

The issue presented to scientists and in particular, science communicators, is how do we battle “chemophobia”? Many articles we see in popular science websites tend towards debunking myths and pressing the true, but ultimately unhelpful, actuality that “chemicals are everywhere”. Such a response is flawed as it only seeks to inform non-scientists that they aren’t qualified or educated enough to engage in the discussion around what we put in our bodies. It enforces the notion that scientists should not be questioned, and that science is a flawless entity; an attitude which is a product of something called the “information deficit model”. This model attributes public scepticism of science and technology to a lack of understanding and education, thus if given enough information, public opinion on said issue will change. Not only is this simplistic (many other factors, other than scientific evidence, help form public opinion), but ultimately fosters a negative and unsuccessful relationship between scientists and non-scientists.

In order to tackle chemophobia, and general public scepticism to science, it is agreed a better dialogue is needed; one in which the concerns of the public are heard and discussed. There is a need for a model of communication that integrates scientific practise (something we all do), not simply a unidirectional current of information. The scientific community should better understand the politics behind public opinion and base outreach on a discussion about issues the public, and politicians, care about. By doing this, it cultivates an environment wherein the public feel welcome to discuss and take part in science. Chemophobia itself cannot be eradicated directly, but the public image of chemistry can evolve to become more interactive, engaging, and accessible to the lay public. Ultimately, its the job of scientists and science communicators to understand and change their own perceptions of the “general public” and thus interact in a receptive manner.

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