I think there is a general perception that natural is good and man-made is bad. And if that man-made thing is overtly ‘chemical’, then the first instinct of many people is to avoid it.
The general public’s view of ‘chemicals’ has evolved over many decades, if not centuries. And we have to assume that the historical view of chemicals is rooted in some form of legitimate concern.
But does today’s perception of ‘chemicals’ actually reflect modern reality, especially the way it is portrayed in the media?
I think many of us would say no, so it is good to see an organisation called Sense About Science, which is trying to set the record straight.
Sense About Science is a charitable trust that equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion.
One of their approaches is to debunk some of the most common chemical misconceptions, and present a confident and realistic view of chemicals today and their importance to our quality of life, including:
- You can’t lead a chemical-free life
- Natural is not always good for you and man-made chemicals are not inherently dangerous
- Synthetic chemicals are not causing many cancers and other diseases
- ‘Detox’ is a marketing myth.
- We need man-made chemicals
- We are not just subjects in an unregulated, uncontrolled environment, there are checks in place
Their Making Sense of Chemical Stories guide was originally created in 2006 and has recently been updated. When originally conceived it was intended for the media – especially journalists and lifestyle writers in mind.
But since then it has been used far more widely: by helpline workers, midwives, GPs and many others who deal with the questions people have about chemicals; as well as people with questions getting in touch themselves.
I think the work of organisations like Sense About Science and others is really important. The longevity and consistency of their efforts to bring about a change in perceptions is essential if initiatives like this are to succeed.
I’ve previously stated that we should be more pro-active with the media and take every opportunity to explain all the good things that result from chemical engineering.
People need to understand that the production of energy, materials, personal products, pharmaceuticals cannot be achieved without ‘chemicals’. And by and large these ‘chemicals’ are produced safely, do little harm to the environment and improve our quality of life.
These are important messages and ones we should share more often. And of course it is naive to think we could ever lead a chemical-free life. Why would we when most can be harnessed as a power for good?