My Chemically Fueled Life

Rebranding “Chemical-Free”

The title of this post is potentially dangerous. If I were to see “My Chemical Fueled Life” on a shelf in a bookstore, I would immediately assume that the book was an autobiography of someone like Timothy Leary or Jerry Garcia. This could, certainly, be a book about the role ATP and mitochondria play in our existence. It could be a reasonable subtitle for Peter Atkins’ wonderful book, Atkins’ Molecules (side note – I love how Atkins stakes ownership of the molecules in his book). But given the context of seeing this title in a general bookstore, I would immediately presume that it is about drugs or toxins or industrial additives. I think this even though I am a scientist. I think this even though I’m a chemist, for-crying-out-loud!

This is my confession for the day. I am a product of my environment. I am affected (to a degree) by people who tout the dangers of chemicals. And, it’s rather embarrassing to admit this. You see, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying several efforts that are railing against marketers who use the phrase “chemical-free”. The JAYFK first alerted us to the insanity that is the “chemical-free chemistry set” (originally reported on here by C&E News). And fnochemicalfree is a new site, started by Mary Carmichael, devoted to shaming the chemical-free movement. This site, which is crowdsourcing its examples, has some laugh-out-loud examples of the horribly wrong usage of the term “chemical-free” (chemical free mineral powders – via the New York Times, chemical-free Burt’s Bees sunscreen, chemical-free fertilizer, and many more).

This use of chemical-free is so ridiculous because I can only think of a few examples of things that are not chemicals. IUPAC (the International Union of Applied Chemistry) has a standard definition of a chemical substance, which is not entirely helpful and doesn’t shed much clarity to the issue. So I’ll give you my definition, which I think is pretty good (do let me know if you disagree):

A chemical is any substance that is composed of the elements listed on the periodic table. A chemical can be as simple as a hydrogen ion (H+) and is often much larger and more complex (i.e. a protein). In more direct scientific terms, a chemical is anything that contains a proton (p+)

So, what can actually be listed as “chemical-free”? Electrons aren’t chemicals. Photons aren’t chemicals. Quarks, muons, neutrinos, gluons, and all of those other fun, particle physics entities are not chemicals. A vacuum (not your vacuum cleaner … but the void it creates) is not a chemical because, well, it’s nothing, empty space. Almost everything else that you can touch or see is made entirely of chemicals.

Take, for instance, the apple I just ate. That apple is made up of cells. Those cells are both made of and are continuously making all sorts of chemicals that allow us to enjoy the taste of that apple. Sugars like glucose or fructose obviously bring a sweetness to the apple. Methyl butyrate and pentyl pentanoate give apples their fruity aromas. Apples have lots of water (most definitely a chemical) in them. Apples also contain some pesticides. Acequinocyl is one of many industrially produced pesticides used on apple crops. But apples also naturally produce their own pesticides, one of which is pyrethrin. And, just because a chemical is natural, doesn’t mean that it can’t also be synthesized in a lab (synthesis of pyrethrin). There is nothing in the way (other than economics) of farmers using lab-manufactured pyrethrin on their apple trees. Also, there is no reasonable argument that can be made for pyrethrin being more safe to humans than acequinocyl just because it is produced by Nature. There are lots of naturally produced viruses and toxins that I’d rather not have anywhere near me.

The chemical-free rage came to a boil two weekends ago. I was visiting my in-laws and happened to be drinking a Burning River IPA from Great Lakes Brewing Company whose label promises a commitment to flavorful, fresh, chemical-free beer. This was very upsetting to me (even though I love their product). And, I let my feelings be known to my family re: the topic of just how ridiculous this label is. My mother-in-law, bless her heart, calmly looked at me and said, “Well, I suppose it depends on what your definition of chemical is.” I calmly looked right back at her, upon which my face may have exploded. I’m not sure because I lost consciousness for a couple seconds. My mother-in-law is very well educated, specifically in the world of literature. And while her science may not always be up to snuff, her acuity in communicating and comprehension is spot-on.

Deborah Blum, in a recent post on her blog – Speakeasy Science, wrote of her frustration with a New York Times article that described a line of chemical-free make-up. After chuckling along at her story (you should really read it), I decided to have a look at the comments portion of her post. On commenter, Andrew said:

… words have more than one definition and can be used in more than one way … Just because you learned a particular definition does not mean that everyone uses the same one. Effective communication relies on the ability to take into account the in-preciseness of language, and the variety of use.

Then, yet another Andrew (this time Andrew Maynard who is a professor of risk science at Michigan, specializes in communicating the risks/benefits of nanotechnology, and who hosts a terrific blog of his own) commented:

… from the science community’s side, we need to look beyond getting irritated by a misuse of what we consider our language, and both be big enough to realize we don’t own the language, and more importantly deep enough to look beyond the words to the meaning/concerns that are behind them.

Some similar sentiments were shared in a recent icanhasscience post about the usage of the term “organic”.

So, my mother-in-law wasn’t so off-base in her assessment after all.

Still, I feel that this is a terribly important topic. It is readily apparent that there are many outside the world of chemistry who are, sometimes justifiably, chemophobic. Marketing experts very naturally pick up on this fear and have helped to integrate terms like chemical-free into the general lexicon. And they do this knowing full well they are being untruthful, while not taking any responsibility for their actions. (See this 2006 Guardian article by Frank Swain, aka the Science Punk.) Chemists and the chemical industry certainly share a good portion of the responsibility for the ease at which this phrase has come to use. However, the term chemical stands for such a basic, fundamental building block of our existence. Chemicals affect our lives in innumerable ways – mostly for the better (we certainly wouldn’t be alive without our proteins and DNA and cell membranes and the nutrients we eat) and sometimes for the worse (those pesky toxins that I brought up earlier, although our bodies produce their own toxins that help to stave off infections). An agreement as per the definition of this word is necessary for the chemistry community to be able to have constructive communication with non-chemists. If BPA is a chemical and water isn’t, then what exactly is water? I also believe that the (seemingly simple) conversation about what is and what is not a chemical can have a huge effect on how non-chemists view our field. (As an aside, there is an impressive Supreme Court opinion where the justices use all sorts of chemical terms – correctly – to describe the different forms of cocaine. It’s really gratifying to see the Supreme Court struggle with and adopt the language of chemistry for this very chemically-related topic. Hat Tip to Ray Burks for the link)

How do we start this conversation to remove “chemical-free” from popular use? I suppose I could run around the streets of DC saying, “Water is a chemical! Water is a chemical! Water is a chemical” over and over again. Although I doubt anyone would pay much attention to me, I might inspire a few compassionate souls, thinking that I’m a crazy-person, to give me some spare change. And, a quick search through the science communication literature yields no hits for the topic: Most Effective Methods for Communicating Against Chemical-Free Marketing. What I have tried to pay attention to recently, however, is an approach to communicating science that is not geared toward “science-literacy”. (The science literacy approach basically holds that when you give people information that they are deficient in, “the world will be a better place” – definition horribly paraphrased by me. In other words, it is information given from very “professorial” point of view.) Alice Bell writes brilliantly on this topic and describes the pitfalls of approaching science communication in such a way. Unfortunately, I can’t help but feeling that trying to convince people what chemical-free actually is will require a lot of literacy-centric approaches.

I was fortunate enough to meet Alice the other day (she’s finishing a too-brief stint of time here at American U), and I asked her about this problem. I’ll paraphrase her answer here (I hope that she’ll correct me if I’m wrong):

The problem with literacy-based approaches is that those who adopt them assume that in “correcting” people’s understanding of the problem, this problem will just go away. What it seems that you are doing (in the ownership of the term ‘chemical’) is that you are fighting for the definition of this word. Language changes. It’s OK to want a single definition for ‘chemical’, especially when that definition has such important implications. Just see acceptance of a definition as the start to an ongoing process. And … pay close attention to how your attempts are being received.

OK. So how do we go about re-branding/removing the term “chemical-free”? I think that one of the best ways to do this is by playing the marketing game ourselves. If chemists can come up with an alternate phrase that is as powerful AND also happens to be correct, we just may be able to phase out “chemical-free”. Important to note: no corporations are going to be willing to adopt language that doesn’t bring in as much money as “chemical-free”. And, it seems as though that job is going to fall to us. (Besides it’s fun to pretend like you’re in a different profession every now and then.) I started to crowdsource ideas for a new marketing phrase on twitter this past Friday. I’m going to list them below. I hope that you’ll add your suggestions in the comments section. (Also, let me know if you’ve got any other ideas for how to approach securing the definition of chemical.) Carmen Drahl (of C&E News fame) has taken the highlights from a lot of the conversation leading up to and during the anti-chemical-free rants and formatted a timeline using storify. You (yes, YOU!!) should really check it out!

There appear to be two main approaches to this challenge. 1) Just call chemical-free something else that we know people will respond well to. And 2) Figure out what the “essence” of chemical-free actually is and try do redistill that in some new marketing phrase.

My favorite tweet came from Leigh Krietsch Boerner:
Then how about “we’ll feed off your fears to sell you shit”? That would be accurate, at least.
As Leigh says, this is certainly accurate and it is the point of “chemical-free”. Unfortunately, although something maybe labeled “chemical-free” it certainly doesn’t mean that their product contains no harmful chemicals. I think that we can all agree that drinking alcohol (i.e. ethanol) is a hazardous chemical. By listing their product “chemical-free” Great Lakes Brewing Co. doesn’t make their product any more safe.

On those lines, my silly idea was:
Won’t cause cancer or autism

Of course a lot of people suggested phrases along the lines of:
Not toxic
This implies that there are no harmful substances in the product. Unfortunately this is never the case. All chemicals can be harmful when given in the right dosage. Water (or dihydrogen oxide) is certainly to be blamed for a large number of deaths. Oxygen, while we need it to breathe, is also half to blame for many explosions. Safety, in any case, is entirely relative. Given a large enough dose, I’m sure that almost all chemicals would be found to increase the risk of cancer. But are those dosages relevant to the products that you are consuming? Is that dosage worth worrying about? Ever? What corporation would even think about putting this kind of info on their packaging?

Many people also suggested:
Not synthetic
But, as we discussed above, a chemical is the same whether or not it was made in the lab. Also, using a non-synthetic material does not mean that the product is going to be any safer for the end user or the environment.

And, there was the most market-worthy example from Agilent ChemAnalysis:
FINE: Found in Nature Exclusively

My best idea is:
Made with your safety in mind
This mimics what companies are “trying” to say with “chemical-free”. The one thing I really like about this is that it would hold a company to a much higher standard than “chemical-free”. Slogans like this may even work their way into a more robust industrial ethos (… or something like that). But, I don’t think it’s as strong. And it certainly doesn’t play at the fear factor as much. The other aspect that “chemical-free” has is that consumers feel that they have control over what they are purchasing/using. Even if this control is a mirage, it seems real. The slogan I’ve proposed here is more amorphous, in terms of consumer control, than “chemical-free” and won’t give the consumer as much confidence in the product.

The winner thus far comes from Ray Burks:
Safe for use as intended (SUI)
This captures everything that the marketers are trying to say while also being accurate. However, it entirely lacks the marketing cachet that “chemical-free” has.

So, we’re still at it. I’d love to keep hearing more suggestions (either in the comments box or on twitter – use the hashtag #altchemicalfree). I’ll keep a running count of them here.

Thanks for all your help! And … in the words of Smoky the Bear: “Only you can prevent the use of ‘chemical-free!’”


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30 Responses to My Chemically Fueled Life

  1. Paul says:

    I like the FDA’s “GRAS” list = “Generally Recognized as Safe”

    If you want to convince me that something (say, sunscreen) is especially non-toxic, then make (and label) it edible. “So safe you can eat it” has some marketing cache. In your commercials, you could have Tom Green squeezing a bottle of your product into his mouth:

  2. Mary Canady says:

    What about “no harmful chemicals”?

    Nice piece!

  3. sciencegeist says:

    One more quick note … Jeopardy is going to have some chemistry-themed “answers” on tonight’s show in honor of The International Year of Chemistry. So, check it out!

  4. sciencegeist says:

    Thanks, Mary!
    That’s a good one. I still worry about the key-demographic for the “chemical-free” marketers (the over-worriers) and a slogan like this not being enough for them. I may be wrong tho ..

  5. sciencegeist says:

    I also like this one from @artologica:
    Contains nothing unpronounceable

  6. This whole thing has me starting to wonder how the term ‘chemical-free’ really came about. Was it companies trying to cash in on the popularity of ‘organic’ label? The FDA has legally-enforced guidelines on what can be called ‘organic’ so was ‘chemical-free’ a kind of meaningless dodge to have the same type of message, but without those pesky legal hassles, since ‘chemical-free’ is not (yet, let’s hope) regulated?

    Nice post Matt, although you left out the RSC’s voice on the subject.

    And don’t forget about their £1,000,000 reward for a substance that’s truly chemical-free:

  7. sciencegeist says:

    Thanks, Leigh.
    And great catch on my oversight of the RSC’s efforts.
    As I said to you earlier, its amazing that organic (which seems less specific) is regulated and chemical-free is not.

  8. Simon says:

    The idea that words have multiple usages/meanings is probably not beyond junior high/ high school students. It might even be a good opportunity to introduce the challenges of science communication to the general public and vice-versa.

    Still, I can see how some students might open their first chemistry textbooks and be confused at the introductory paragraph (“chemistry is all around us…”).

    I do personally cringe when I see scientific terms “misused”, though.

  9. @sciencegeist – I hate ‘contains nothing unpronounceable’, because it clings to the concept that chemical names are bad.

    I posted this before [regarding fear of chemicals and unpronounceable names] on one of Deborah Blum’s earlier chemical free rants but it bears repeating and is my favourite example:

    “If someone came into your house, mixed you a cocktail of unknown chemicals – and offered you a drink – would you take it? Of course not. You wouldn’t want untested chemicals in your home, your drink, or your body. You don’t want them – but shockingly – they’re already there.” Chemicals out of Control section, Greenpeace International website

    But…”If someone came into your house and offered you a cocktail of butanol, iso amyl alcohol, hexanol, phenyl ethanol, tannin, benzyl alcohol, caffeine, geraniol, quercetin, 3-galloyl epicatchin, 3-galloyl epigallocatchin and inorganic salts, would you take it? It sounds pretty ghastly. If instead you were offered a cup of tea, you would probably take it. Tea is a complex mixture containing the above chemicals in concentrations that vary depending on where it is grown.”

    Derek Lohmann, research chemist [from a Sense About Science document on chemicals].

  10. sciencegeist says:

    Richard, I think that the “unpronounceable” comment was entirely tongue-in-cheek and playing off the same phobias that you are talking about. You make some very good points!

  11. Sharon says:

    Fantastic post Matt! I wish I had some brilliant ideas, but this has had me stumped for a while. I guess a product label could read “No bad chemicals”, but then it seems it needs to be followed by a clarifying phrase “Only good chemicals” lest it reinforce the notion that (all) chemicals are bad. And of course, bad and good are subjective and would have to be regulated for this claim to mean anything… yeah, I’ll keep thinking.

  12. azmanam says:

    Thanks for this. You motivated me to make it my IYC2011 topic for discussion in class yesterday :)

    We all had a good laugh-so-we-don’t-cry over the chemical free chemistry set. >:{

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  14. Gaythia Weis says:

    Excellent post, Matt; and I’ll think of Richard Van Noorden’s “cocktail” next time I have a cup of tea!

  15. Tony says:

    I agree with your sentiment – I hate the term as well – but I wonder if the term “chemical” is meaningless. If everything (bar protons, electrons etc) is a chemical, there is no point to the word. We might as well use “substance” or “stuff”. We could have “substance-free” or “contains no stuff” :-)

  16. Peter B says:

    Sugar Certified Carbon Free, WTF?

    I saw carbon free sugar in my local supermarket. That package labeling broke my BS meter. And I don’t mean my FET input BS meter. The needle on my low tech Radio Shack BS meter went past 100% so fast made a spark before it broke off.

    With a little help from Google I found: “…specially marked packages of Domino® Sugar have been certified CarbonFree® by, a non-profit organization that certifies products with carbon neutral footprints.”

    What we have is a redefinition of the words meaning “does not contain carbon.” What’s next, Organic water? I have seen organic celery. Over 90% water and organic. More redefinition.

    Pet peeve:
    When I went to school collective nouns were singular. “The collection is ….” Now “the media are.” And the worst example foisted on the English language by a Latin speaking throwback is “the data are.” As used “data” is invariably collective.

  17. jenn says:

    Tangent: “Organic” dry cleaning. Uh. Right.

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  19. Horace S. Patoot says:

    Peter, I don’t believe latin plurals such as media and data are collectives; they are simply plural nouns that happen not to end in the letter “s”. A couple other examples are “deer” and “feet”. You aren’t suggesting we need to say “My feet is cold.” are you?

  20. Shri K says:

    Are we talking about USER FRIENDLY chemicals?

    Reminds me of a story I heard which talked about a chemist who discovered a solvent that dissolved everything. Could’t patent it because couldn’t store it, though!

  21. How about “Toxics-Free”? Keep the “s” on there so it’s not the issue of any chemical (or combination) has toxicity (dose makes the poison), but some subset of chemicals with bad karma association. There are still many assorted lists of alleged “toxic chemicals” that we can argue about forever, but at least it would be a smaller list than all chemicals.

    Better yet, brand the term “Toxics(TM)” and sell or give away the right to NGO’s to title their lists with it (e.g. the “SIN list” becomes the “SIN Toxics(TM) List.” ( I didn’t see it on the US PTO list!)

    The claim is then “Toxics(TM)-Free” with some label or on-line descriptor of which Toxics(TM) list they are using. That might even pull in some of the “organic”/ “natural” very toxic chemicals, too!

    Of course, often the “chemical-free” tag is used for “no petrochemicals” – but that’s too hard to spell, I guess. But I’m sure there’s some list of “toxics” that includes a the bulk of commercial petrochemicals. The “carbon-free” users should be nailed and required to use “carbon-neutral” if they must, but I wish the FTC would make them really prove it.

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  28. John says:

    The “words change meanings” argument (which is often fair enough) doesn’t work here. With something like “theory” you have a word which has reasonably well defined lay and jargon definitions, and as long as you’re clear about which register you’re using its not a huge problem. With “chemical”, you have a well defined technical definition, but there is no real definition for the lay use of the word, it means whatever a given pseudoscientist/marketer/conspiracy theorist wants it to mean. It’s not a case of a word changing its meaning, just a case of people using words they don’t understand to describe concepts they don’t understand.

  29. Dirk says:

    Another problem is that to me as a chemist “organic” mostly means it’s made of carbon. About as bad as the German label, calling food “biological” or “ecological”, which in the strict sense apply to all food ever…

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