Chemophobia (or chemphobia or chemonoia) is an irrational aversion to or prejudice against chemicals or chemistry. The phenomenon has been ascribed both to a reasonable 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.
Definition and uses
There are differing opinions on the proper usage of the word chemophobia. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry defines chemophobia as an "irrational fear of chemicals". 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.
Despite containing the suffix -phobia, the majority of written work focusing on the treatment of chemophobia describes it as a non-clinical aversion or prejudice, and not as a phobia in the standard medical definition. While the treatment of phobias is generally focused on therapy, chemical education and public outreach seem to be effective ways of treating chemophobia.
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. 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. 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.
Causes and effects
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 and in genuine concerns (such as those over chemical warfare and industrial disasters). Professor Gordon Gribble has written that the start of chemophobia could arguably be attributed to Silent Spring, and that subsequent events such as the contamination of Times Beach and the disaster at Bhopal, India only exacerbated the situation.
According to the American Council on Science and Health, chemophobia is a growing phenomenon among the American public and has reached "epidemic" proportions among the general public. 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. 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.
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.
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.
Efforts have been made by chemists to counteract chemophobia, particularly with regard to educating consumers on the safety of food additives and prepackaged foods.
- Chemical free
- Hazardous chemicals
- Organic food
- Natural food
- Dihydrogen monoxide hoax
- Genetically modified food controversies
- Multiple chemical sensitivity
- List of phobias
- Phobias as a term for prejudice
- Vaccine controversies
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- "Chemonoia: the fear blinding our minds to real dangers". BBC News. 25 February 2016.
- Laszlo, Pierre (2006). "On the Self-Image of Chemists, 1950-2000". International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry 12 (1): 99.
- Shim, Soon-Mi; Seo, Sun Hee; Lee, Youngja; Moon, Gui-Im; Kim, Min-Shik; Park, Ju-Hee (July 2011). "Consumers’ knowledge and safety perceptions of food additives: Evaluation on the effectiveness of transmitting information on preservatives". Food Control 22 (7): 1054–1060. doi:10.1016/j.foodcont.2011.01.001.
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- Entine, Jon (18 January 2011). Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health. American Council on Science and Health.
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- Francl, Michelle (2013). How to Counteract Chemophobia (Thesis). Nature Chemistry.
- 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.
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- "Consumer Education Group Hosts Call to Discuss Evidence of Growing Chemophobia Among American Public" (Press release). 17 January 2011. Retrieved August 2013.
- Entine (January 2011), p. 38.
- 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.
- "Science for Celebrities" (pdf). Sense About Science. Retrieved August 2013.
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- James Kennedy. "‘Chemophobia’ is irrational, harmful – and hard to break".