Isn’t *Anything* I Can’t Pronounce Dangerous? (or Critical Thinking About Science)

IMG_2425In short? No. Think about that. First of all, everything on earth either has a chemical name or is made of things that have chemical names. Yes, some have common names as well, but the fact is that everything in our world is made up of chemicals. Have you ever seen the warnings for dihydrogen monoxide (aka water)? “Breathing it in or drinking too much can kill you.”

Many of these chemicals aren’t so scary in appropriate quantities as found in nature. Some are found in nature in dangerous quantities, and those are the ones we have been told to watch out for. And some synthetic chemicals are perfectly safe. When it comes down to it, “natural” and “pronounceable” have no bearing on “safe.” Some people have more experience in chemistry and can pronounce all of these chemical names anyway.

It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon when someone says a chemical is dangerous and points to a study published somewhere, but you’re relying on someone who may or may not have any understanding of what they’re talking about. If you read the studies and make the decision for yourself, you’ll be sure you’re making the right decision for you. When deciding if a chemical is safe or unsafe to use, we need to look at a number of things:

  • Who gathered the information? Was it a study done by independent scientists, the government (who may have an agenda), a journalist (who may have an agenda), or the industry (who definitely have an agenda)?
  • How were the tests done? Was the chemical tested on cells in a petri dish, or tested on living beings (human or otherwise)?
  • How was the chemical administered during the test? Was it a large, single exposure (acute), or exposure over a prolonged period (chronic)? Was it given orally, breathed in, injected, or administered some other way?
  • How much of the chemical was required to cause negative effects?
  • Is it considered toxic? In what quantities?
  • Does the chemical accumulate (get stored and build up over time)in your body? Which kinds of exposure (inhalation, absorption, injection, ingestion) cause it to accumulate? How long does it stay in the body?
  • Is the chemical considered carcinogenic (causes cancer/causes cells to change or mutate)? What kinds of exposure make it a carcinogen? What levels of exposure make it a carcinogen?
  • Does the chemical cause reproductive issues?
  • If there are case studies, were the peoples’ exposures acute (a large dose all at once) or habitual (smaller doses over a period of time)? Was it a workplace exposure or a home exposure? How does the exposure tested compare to what the average person can expect to contact or accumulate?

Red Cups may contain BPA and thus be DangerousAnother thing to consider is common sense.  In the same way as our justice system, where we are innocent until proven guilty, we can’t prove a chemical causes a symptom until it is directly correlated in a study that makes sense.  Common sense is key here.  There needs to be a direct correlation, not just two trends that are unrelated but seem to match up.  For example, just because people who use more toilet paper per bathroom visit might experience more food allergies (I just made that up), it doesn’t mean toilet paper use causes food allergies.  Check out this site ( which shows how well unrelated trends can seem to match up and support each other until you inject some common sense.

Finally, hearing, “X molecule is only one atom away from Y (supposedly dangerous or undesirable) molecule,” doesn’t really tell us anything.  Seeing two similar names or chemical formulae is definitely a good reason to do more research and see if the two substances behave in similar ways, but it doesn’t confirm any connection.  One atom can make all the difference.  Even which way the atoms are arranged or which direction they spin or rotate light (chirality) can change their nature completely.  Dihydrogen monoxide (water) is just one hydrogen atom away from trihydrogen monoxide (hydroxonium ion), which is the most acidic species (pKa -1.7) that can exist in water.

After all that, we still can never be 100% sure. Very few people were worried about BPA until suddenly they were. Lead paint was considered normal and safe until the day studies determined it wasn’t. There’s now debate over vinyl (polyvinyl chloride, or PVC). All we can do is use the best scientific information we have available to assess risks and choose a course of action. The entire world, including our own bodies, is made of chemicals. Choosing the right ones to include in our lives is an ongoing process, and one you shouldn’t take lightly, especially when you have chemical allergies.

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