Things You Should Probably Stop Saying – “BUT EVERYTHING IS A CHEMICAL!”

GreenChem_greenAnyone who hasn’t lived under a rock somewhere in the barren wastelands of arse-nowhere for the last half century will probably, at some point, heard about dangerous “chemicals” in our food and water supply. It’s an amazingly common trope. It isn’t just limited to food-bloggers and woo-merchants, it’s practically embedded into our language. “These nasty chemicals are everywhere, and they’re not good for us. So eat organic, avoid chemicals, or you will die!” they may cry.

“Avoid chemicals!” comes one piece of advice. “That food’s bad for you because it has too many chemicals in it” says another.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. As evidenced by the average skeptic and pro-science response, which usually goes thusly:

Silly peon! Don’t you know everything is a chemical? Water is a chemical. Air is a chemical. You like drinking water and breathing, don’t you? But you’re an idiot! You don’t get it, you don’t understand what a chemical really is! What about (R)-3,4-dihydroxy-5-((S)- 1,2-dihydroxyethyl)furan-2(5H)-one? That sounds scary doesn’t it! But that’s vitamin C! You’re such an idiot. This is nothing but chemophobia!

And fair point, to a certain degree. Chemophobia – nominally the “fear of chemicals” but is really just the “fear of chemicals whose names you can’t pronounce” – is a serious problem that interferes with scientific literacy and keeps a lot of really stupid people (*cough*Vani Hari*cough*) financially solvent with ActualMoney.

But… because there’s always a “but”… “everything is a chemical” doesn’t actually refute what our hypothetical woo-merchant is saying.

This post is about how “everything is a chemical” is a phrase and reasoning you need to stop using. It misunderstands what it’s supposed to refute, and it doesn’t help.

We know from observation that a hypothetical woo-merchant who voids “chemicals” probably isn’t against breathing an admixture of O2, N2, Ar, and CO2 and H2O in their gaseous state. Similarly, we can presume they’re not against drinking dihydrogen monoxide oxidane, nor are they scared by the concept of vitamin C being generally a good thing. Their behaviour demonstrates this nicely.

Quite clearly, these things are not in the category they are talking about when they say “we should avoid this”. They’re drawing a ring around a group of substances and saying “avoid these”. What they call that ring and that set is irrelevant, because we can clearly tell what they mean from their usage of it. Their use of the word “chemical” might be ill-defined and slightly non-technical (see below), but simply re-defining what they mean by “chemical” on only our side of the conversation does nothing to refute their claim nor their fundamental errors.

They have a set of Things they call chemical. We have a set of Things we call chemical. They say one thing about their set, we say something different about our set. The only thing uniting those arguments is their common label, nothing more.

RefutSustainability_greening a claim based on operating an argument over a completely different set of Things isn’t technicality, and it isn’t nitpicking nor pedantry. It’s just plain fallacy.

It would be as if Person A said “look at those 99 red balloons go by!” and Person B declared “FALSE! There are only 45 red balloons, the remaining 54 are pink!” and concluded that, therefore, Person A was lying completely and no balloons of any colour went by. Or, if on being told that your friend was in hospital following  car crash, you decided that they couldn’t possibly be in hospital because, technically, it was a hatchback not a car. Such skeptical dismissals ignore the point of the argument, ignore the uses of the words that form the argument, and focus instead on a trivial mismatch of labelling, mistaking it for actual content.

Someone arguing to avoid chemicals very clearly use “chemical” to refer to a sub-set of all substances. They know that, and – get this – we also know that. We must, because we’re so eager, apparently, to correct their usage to “but everything is a chemical”. That’s something we couldn’t do if we didn’t at least understand their own meaning. So it’s almost as if the typical “everything is chemical” response actively acknowledges that skeptics don’t really want to engage with the argument, but want to claim superiority in terminology.

It also reduces things to a sound-bite that convinces only the already-converted: “Hey, you told that Food Bitch that everything was chemical! High-five skepto-dudebro!! Haha LOL!”

From the other side, that doesn’t look like a convincing argument so much as people actively ignoring what you have to say, and that convinces no-one. If Person B wants to change Person A’s mind about 99 balloons going by, then their best starting point is to acknowledge the wider variety of hues within the “red” set as used by Person A.

In short: refute what the other person actually talks about, not what you want them to be talking about.

Still, I think there’s a more fundamental error going on. Something that misunderstands chemicals and chemistry, and chemists. And this is where I think I have a few qualifications to butt in and add additional comment:

Calling everything  “a chemical” isn’t even a technical definition as used by actual chemists.

This may seem odd, but actually think of the manipulations that chemists have to do on a day-to-day basis. If chemists accepted “everything is a chemical” in an absolute sense, we’d have no use for the term at all. The water running through a reflux condenser would be a “chemical”. The nitrogen running through the Schlenk lines would be a “chemical”. Our lunch would be a “chemical”. Hell, our bodies are a god-damned dangerous chemical refinery of unfathomable complexity that chemical the chemicals with the chemical chemicals.

If everything was a “chemical” to us, a simple instruction like “put all the chemicals back in the chemical cupboard” – an instruction barked at undergraduates with increased profanity as time wears on – would be literally meaningless. The only way to satisfy such an instruction would be to cram the entire universe into a loosely-defined cupboard. And then put the cupboard itself inside it, too. As, of course, everything is a chemical – including the cupboard. If we had to run a risk assessment on the chemicals used in a prep, would we need to fill in the COSHH form for water, for oxygen, for the cellulose in the wooden desks or the plastics on the chairs? After all, those would all be chemicals, and they’d all be involved.


Look at the chemicals inside a chemical surrounded by chemicals in a bed of chemical… now, fetch me the chemical.

Technically, that’s correct – you know, the best kind of correct. If you want to define it like that, of course. But that definition of “everything is a chemical” is not useful to us.

Professional chemists use “chemical” to mean just a sub-set of all chemicals in the world. We use it to mean just the substances (usually solid, sometimes liquid) that we intentionally mix together for a reaction. Often, even solvents are excluded from the category “chemical” because they’re not often part of that intentional reaction, but just a support medium. I’m speaking in terms of the common parlance, of course, as you’d use it in a daily conversation with another chemist. In a more formal setting we’d use something way, way more precise – like “reagent”, “solvent”, “catalyst” or literally name the substance instead. “Everything is a substance” is more likely to resonate with a chemist than “everything is a chemical”.

Even if we held that on an abstract level that everything is a “chemical”, we wouldn’t (and couldn’t) actually use the word that way. It’d be too broad to have a use.

So, in fact, the “technical” definition of a chemical is far closer to the woo definition than most pro-science skeptics think.

Instead say…

Well, I’d go for something like this. There isn’t a nice sound-bite, but sound-bites are for you and your revision purposes, not for anyone else.

Your definition of “chemical” is really arbitrary. You seem to put substances you don’t like into it, and ones you do like aren’t included… but you’re never really clear why. This is a problem because you ignore some really important concepts such as the dose-response relationship. A sufficiently low dose of something that you might consider dangerous (like cyanide or benzene) won’t cause harm – yet a sufficiently high dose of something you might consider benign (like water) will definitely cause you a lot of harm.

It also doesn’t take into account multiple safety studies done on substances that account for this and quantify their relative harm. For instance, formaldehyde is certainly a dangerous substance in large quantities – but because it’s a common metabolite, and such a simple molecule that you can find a higher concentration of it, quite naturally, in a single apple than in shampoos that have been forced off the shelves for containing it.

Perhaps if you were more specific about the precise substances you’re against and the dosage limits you find acceptable or unacceptable, and why, then your arguments might be better accepted by the science community. Because as it stands, your definition and usage of “chemical” is simply vague and ill-defined – so we can’t really understand what you don’t like. You only seem to be using it to import the connotations of the smoke-stacks and refineries of the peterochemical industry,  which look bad, and use them to imply that otherwise-benign substances are far more dangerous than they really are.

Feel free to copy-paste that. Add the “you’re an idiot” parts back in as you see fit.