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Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

Posted September 01, 2016 12:00 AM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: chemistry chemophobia food

Last week I ran across a post by a well-known food-industry critic warning that beloved snack crackers Cheez-Its are toxic. Cheez-Its contain soybean and palm oils treated with tertiary butylhydroquinone (tBHQ), a fairly common preservative. According to the post, tBHQ is “one of the worst additives to be avoided” because it’s “created from butane (a highly toxic gas)” and it’s banned in Japan. The post was shared almost 150,000 times on Facebook, and most of the 10,000 comments shared either profound gratitude for the information or rage at the FDA and our current food production system, both of which are actively trying to kill us.

Most of the information in the PSA is BS, of course. Butane is a precursor of tBHQ, but ingesting the preservative is not remotely close to drinking lighter fluid. It’s like stating that eating bread is hazardous because raw eggs might contain salmonella. tBHQ is an extremely effective antioxidant, so the amounts found in food are miniscule and far from the amounts known to cause health problems. While the original blogger is widely considered pseudoscientific and discredited, she remains a stalwart promoter of chemophobia: the irrational fear of chemistry or chemicals.

Outrage over food processing and preservatives has been newsworthy for some time. Opponents of food chemicals usually invoke the “back to nature” argument, claiming that ingesting food with long, difficult to pronounce names can’t possibly be good for us. Given that universal nutrition labels have only been standard in the US since 1990, it seems like the outrage over chemical names might be a bit hysterical. Do enough research in this area and you’re bound to find jokes about the lethal dangers of sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride, and even dihydrogen monoxide. (Conversely, natural-sounding ingredients can often be more hazardous or negative to our health than they sound. For example, the benign-sounding brown rice syrup, a common leading ingredient in granola and energy bars, has a glycemic index value significantly higher than table sugar, belying how sweet a product actually is.)

To be sure, continued investigation and testing of what goes into our food can’t be a bad thing. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, for example, boric acid was widely used as a food preservative, but regulatory agencies banned it shortly following World War I for being a little too toxic for general consumption. Given the evolving nature of scientific understanding, a little more analysis sounds great to me.

But many food chemists are quick to point out that our food has never been safer, and that many if not most additives improve its safety. Sodium nitrate has been used in sausages and cured meats for centuries, and the additive has recently been linked to elevated risk of cancers of the colon, stomach, and esophagus. Despite these risks it’s highly effective at inhibiting the growth of botulinum toxin, the most acutely toxic substance known to science (which is incidentally naturally occurring). Eating botulism-tainted meat kills, and kills quickly. Given the choice between an elevated risk of a single type of cancer vs. certain death from botulism, most people would probably choose the former.

Looking past the ongoing food wars, broader chemophobia has existed in some form since the earliest days of chemistry. To the public chemistry seems to represent everything artificial, toxic, and hazardous about society. While chemophobia is usually irrational, it’s sometimes inspired by legitimate fears about chemical warfare or industrial disasters. A 2013 article posits that modern chemophobia began in the mid-1960s with the publication of Silent Spring and kicked up after the chemical-related disasters in Times Beach, Missouri and Bhopal. But our current fear-based media culture does little to help, and some believe that the carcinogenic effects of many substances are exaggerated. Well-known physicist and science writer Philip Abelson was particularly critical of injecting lab animals with massive doses of substances to test for carcinogenic aspects, seeing even positive correlations as “phantom hazards” that distract from the real hazards to our health.

Of course, most people are blind to the fact that everything on earth is chemical. As knowledge of chemistry advances, more and more chemicals will be discovered, and there will probably be fear-mongering about those as well. And most will probably feel better about buying or ingesting natural substances rather than synthetic ones.

Image credit: Mike Licht / CC BY 2.0

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#1

Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/01/2016 3:44 PM

Some of the less innocuous chemicals in our common environment have been known to induce chemical hypersensitivity syndrome. Think of like an asthma attack, hives, and indigestion all rolled into one.

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#2
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/01/2016 5:21 PM

Just the thought of having a regular job and needing to get up early for it gives me that reaction.

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#8
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/02/2016 1:52 PM

It is kinda like burning tires when you don't have to.

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#9
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/02/2016 1:58 PM

What? There is no such thing!

As long as someone is charging to get rid of them there will always be a reason to burn tires.

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#12
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/02/2016 2:05 PM

That got your attention. LOL

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#3

Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/01/2016 10:59 PM

Here's a true story, We had a very radical person speak at our Town Council Meeting last year. She made a list of things she thought should not be allowed at our local landfill. I know she didn't create the list herself and I think she went to some web site and copied the list. Don't laugh too hard when you hear some of the things on this list - there were some legitimate items, but she actually put these items on her list:

Acetone

Carbon Monoxide???

Ammonia

Boron

Chlorine

Chromium

Hydrogen Sulfide

Ethylene Glycol

Hydrogen Fluroide

Formaldehyde

Kerosene

Gasoline

Hydrogen Chloride

Hydrogen Fluoride

Iodine

Iodizing Radiation???

Nitrates

Propylene Glycol

Radon

Tin

Tungsten

When I told her that there was no way to keep some of these items out of a landfill, since residents throw the stuff in the trash, she told me I was wrong. When I told her that some of the items are gasses, she told me she vetted the list and there were no gasses on the list. I then told her that Ionizing Radiation is energy and she then said, So it's okay if we let radiation into our landfill?

She tried to scare the rest of our board with her list of long named chemicals. The board voted 8-1 against her list. She sits on our board and was the only vote for her list. She now tells people that we plotted against her.

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#4
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/01/2016 11:01 PM

She lost all her credibility when she did this. One of our board member told me later that he knew she was wrong, because his wedding band is made of Tungsten.

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#6
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/02/2016 10:19 AM

Similar thing happened here in Sebastopol. We can't have Smart Meters or Public WiFi because of the radiation. Several of our board members are naked and afraid.

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#14
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/07/2016 1:02 AM

Some of the people in town have opted out of the smart meters. They actually think that they're going to get sick from it. Or head aches. Or some kind of radiation - not ionizing radiation!

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#21
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

07/14/2017 4:47 PM

OMG, how far down can we go?

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#22
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

07/17/2017 8:18 AM

You asked that question?

You ACTUALLY asked THAT question?

*facepalms and points in the direction of Washington DC*

We always have an example of Bigger Idiots handy.

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#23
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

07/17/2017 9:49 AM

Yes, and 99% of them Democrat, now that you started it.

Cease and disease!

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#24
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

07/17/2017 10:59 AM

I wasn't pointing out either party, just DC in general, so the reader could, IN THEIR OWN HEAD, fill in the details with whichever party/parties they prefer to dislike.

And then you decide to pipe up out in the open, and MAKE the issue about political parties.

I believe it is well-trodden ground; you hate Democrats, I hate Republicans. We don't need to keep bring it up at every opportunity, it's probably annoying the other people on the forum.

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#25
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

07/17/2017 11:14 AM

OH well, we can both hate both, until The People, get what we need and want out of the swamp, as far as I am concerned. This present mess is about useless.

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#5

Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/02/2016 9:48 AM

My daughter loves to throw the "Chemical" word around as the root of all evil. She now tunes me out because I, in my un-educated understanding of things, pointed out that EVERYTHING is a chemical - good or bad. I also suggested that not all natural stuff is OK to eat. (My neighbors dog came over and left some "natural" stuff that I stepped in. I did not lick iit off my shoe.) -- JHF

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#7
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/02/2016 1:11 PM

My Ex is that way. According to her my favorite butter, and our Daughters, is just "one molecule off" from being plastic therefore we are eating plastic and not real food.

She can't name the "one molecule" difference let alone the molecular structure of butter or plastic and for the most part really can't differentiate the difference between an atom or a molecule in general but that never stopped her from pushing her views on me and anyone else.

Either way me and my Daughter eat our 'plastic butter' in blissful oblivion and have happy well adjusted lives free from worry and concern over things we don't care to understand.

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#11
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/02/2016 2:05 PM

I stopped eating margarine over two years ago, and went back to real honest butter. I think I am healthier for it.

It does appear in the chemical research on these hydrogenated oils that some structural isomerism changes take place during hydrogenation that leads to ingestion of fats containing fatty acids that are simply not designed for the human body.

The list of the number of congeners of stearic acid, oleic acid, linoleic acid, linolinic acid, palmoic acid, etc. goes on and on, seemingly the list grows every time some small refinement of the HPLC techniques used for analysis comes out.

I admit freely that my knowledge on this topic is very limited, and may be erroneous in part, but the basic idea has been transmitted.

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#16
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/07/2016 1:19 AM

Someone once told me that I should eat as little processed food as possible. Butter comes from churning milk. Margarine comes from removing oil from some sort of vegetable and solidifying it (hydrogenated). I was told to keep away from hydogenated fats.

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#19
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/12/2016 9:50 AM

I think that not being thankful to God is far more hazardous, than being thankful for whatever the Lord provides. I prefer butter.

I think the larger production is the quantity of fats in our diets and the amount of salt.

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#13
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/05/2016 11:30 AM

So if someone has chemophilia, does it mean (1) they easily exude chemicals instead of sweat (has been drinking polluted Kool-Aid), (2) they really, really like chemicals (molecules on the brain in the imagination), or (3) they just want to do it with chemicals (chemical engineer types).

Goobers only need respond to this, unless they hold a peanut exemption card.

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#10
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/02/2016 1:59 PM

That was the most excellent answer and illustration of "natural stuff" I ever read.

Almost wet myself (need to go anyway)!

Tell her this one: If it were not for chemicals, she would be nothing at all.

It is a material world, and she is a material girl. There is no denying it.

Gnostics (an early Christian sect shunned by mainstream Christians in that era), believed that nothing was real, that materials are just an illusion. And because nothing is real, it is OK to sin all you want to, or something like that. This way of thinking fell out of favor fairly quickly.

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#15
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/07/2016 1:08 AM

Sounds like some of the handful of uneducated in our community. When I told them that there was no way to prevent some of the items from getting into the landfill - because people throw it in the trash, they twisted my words and said that I'm wrong. I told her that Acetone is in household items like nail polish remover. Using her great logical prowess, she said that people shouldn't let their kids near me, because I think it's okay to Drink Acetone. Huh???

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#17
In reply to #15

Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/07/2016 10:05 AM

You can't fix stupid, and that lady has swallowed too much stupidity inducing X.

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#18
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

09/10/2016 3:19 AM

She's now running for the Water Board! I sure hope she doesn't win.

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#20
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

07/14/2017 3:59 PM

Oooh, oooh, if she *IS* on the board, show her the Dihydrogen Monoxide site, and see if she tries to get the water board to ban water?

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#26
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

07/25/2017 2:06 AM

She lost by a very large margin.

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#27
In reply to #26

Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

07/25/2017 8:20 AM

Oh well.

Although, now that I'm thinking it over, "It would be hilarious if (s)he won" is the absolute WORST reason ever to vote for someone.

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#28
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Re: Chemophobia (Or, The Dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide)

07/25/2017 9:35 AM

Forget draining the "swamp." It has changed into an open fetid sewer! And they drink it in Foggy Bottoms.

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