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For the fear of chemistry classes, see Chemistry education.

Chemophobia (or chemphobia) is an irrational fear of chemicals, a type of specific phobia.[1] The phenomenon has been ascribed both to a well-founded concern over the potential adverse effects of synthetic chemicals, and to an irrational fear of these substances because of misconceptions about their potential for harm.[2]

Definition and uses[edit]

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry defines chemophobia as an "irrational fear of chemicals".[1] According to the American Council on Science and Health, chemophobia is a fear of synthetic substances arising from "scare stories" and exaggerated claims about their dangers prevalent in the media.[3] Michelle Francl has written: "We are a chemophobic culture. Chemical has become a synonym for something artificial, adulterated, hazardous, or toxic." She characterizes chemophobia as "more like color blindness than a true phobia" because chemophobics are "blind" to most of the chemicals that they encounter: every substance in the universe is a chemical.[4] Francl proposes that such misconceptions are not innocuous, as demonstrated in one case by local statutes opposing the fluoridation of public water despite documented cases of tooth loss and nutritional deficit.[5] In terms of risk perception, naturally occurring chemicals feel safer than synthetic ones to most people. Consequently, people fear man-made or "unnatural" chemicals, while accepting natural chemicals that are known to be dangerous or poisonous.[6]

Causes and effects[edit]

Chemistry professor Pierre Laszlo writes that historically chemists have experienced chemophobia from the population at large, and considers that it is rooted both in irrational notions (deriving from fiction and religion) and in genuine concerns (such as those over chemical warfare and industrial disasters).[2]

According to the American Council on Science and Health, chemophobia is a growing phenomenon among the American public[7] and has reached "epidemic" proportions among the general public.[3] In a book published by the Council, Jon Entine writes that this is in part due to the propensity of people to show alarm at the reported presence of chemicals in their body, or in the environment, even when the chemicals are present in "minuscule amounts" which are in fact safe.[8] Elsewhere, Entine has argued that chemophobia is linked to a precautionary principle in agricultural policy, which could jeopardize the world's ability to feed its ever-expanding population.[9]

In the United Kingdom, Sense About Science produced a leaflet aimed at educating celebrities about science, in which it said that humans carry only small amounts of "chemical baggage" and that it is only because of advances in analytical chemistry that we can detect these traces at all.[10]

Philip Abelson has argued that the practice of administering huge doses of substances to animals in laboratory experiments, when testing for carcinogenic potential, has led to public chemophobia by raising unjustified fears over those substances' effect on humans. He sees an opportunity cost in the "phantom hazards" such testing conjures, as it distracts from attention on real hazards posed to human health.[11]

Industry response[edit]

The chemical industry has regarded chemophobia as a problem. In 1980 James Sites gave a speech on behalf of the Chemical Manufacturers Association in which he described chemophobia as a threat to the nation: "It is part of an anti-science, anti-technology, anti-growth mood which, unless checked, could have devastating consequences for our nation and our future."[12] More recently, industry figures have proposed more rigorous certification of products as a "reaction" to the chemophobia and the "outrageous claims" made;[13] by embracing "some kind of third-party verification" the industry could claim increased credibility with the scientific community, the media and the public.[14]

Targeted science education can reduce anxiety in people with chemophobia.[15] People are primarily afraid that agrichemicals will cause cancer, and they are reassured when they learn how rigorously pesticides are tested and the unfeasibly high levels of pesticides a human would need to accumulate before coming to harm.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "IUPAC glossary of terms used in toxicology (2nd edition)". International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. Retrieved June 2013. 
  2. ^ a b Laszlo, Pierre (2006). "On the Self-Image of Chemists, 1950-2000". International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry 12 (1): 99. 
  3. ^ a b Entine, Jon (18 January 2011). Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health. American Council on Science and Health. 
  4. ^ Michelle M., Francl (7 February 2013). "Curing chemophobia: Don't buy the alternative medicine in 'The Boy With a Thorn in His Joints'". Slate. Retrieved 27 March 2013. 
  5. ^ Francl, Michelle (2013). How to Counteract Chemophobia (Thesis). Nature Chemistry. 
  6. ^ Ropeik, David (2010). How risky is it, really?: Why our fears don't always match the facts. New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 92–96. ISBN 978-0071629690. 
  7. ^ "Consumer Education Group Hosts Call to Discuss Evidence of Growing Chemophobia Among American Public" (Press release). 17 January 2011. Retrieved August 2013. 
  8. ^ Entine (January 2011), p. 38.
  9. ^ Jon Entine (16 April 2011). Crop Chemophobia: Will Precaution Kill the Green Revolution?. Government Institutes. p. 72. ISBN 978-0-8447-4363-9. Retrieved 21 August 2013. 
  10. ^ "Science for Celebrities" (pdf). Sense About Science. Retrieved August 2013. 
  11. ^ Abelson, P. (1990). "Testing for carcinogens with rodents". Science 249 (4975): 1357. doi:10.1126/science.2402628. PMID 2402628. 
  12. ^ Sites, James N. (1980). Vital Speeches of the Day 47 (5): 151.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  13. ^ Reed, David (2003). Urethanes Technology 20 (3): 8.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  14. ^ Hunter, David (1993). "Verification vs. chemophobia". Chemical Week 152 (15): 4. 
  15. ^ Shim et al. (2011). "Consumers’ knowledge and safety perceptions of food additives: Evaluation on the effectiveness of transmitting information on preservatives". Food Control 22 (7): 1054. 
  16. ^ University of Nebraska, Lincoln, article on chemophobia.[dead link]

Further reading[edit]