Sunday, July 23, 2006

Doggerel #29: "Chemicals"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

One of the favorite scare words that alties like to use is "chemicals." It's a very vague term, just the way the dishonest ones like it. Strictly speaking, a chemical is anything made of atoms, ions, and molecules:
Edward Elric: Water, 35 liters. Carbon, 20 kilograms. Ammonia, 4 liters. Lime, 1.5 kilograms. Phosphorous, 800 grams. Salt, 250 grams. Saltpeter, 100 grams. Sulfur, 80 grams. Fluorine, 7.5, iron, 5, silicon, 3 grams, and trace amounts of 15 other elements.
Rose: What's that?
Edward Elric: It's all the ingredients of the average adult human body, right down to the last specks of protein in your eyelashes...

-Fullmetal Alchemist, Episode 1: To Challenge the Sun.
I don't know about Ed's accuracy (though bear in mind he lives in a world where chemical bonds are easy to overcome with chalk circles), but the point should be clear: Even your own body is made of chemicals. Because of that, there's no way for us to avoid them as a whole.

The tricky part comes from avoiding the bad chemicals. First, it doesn't matter if the chemical is natural or artificial: Dihydrogen monoxide is dihydrogen monoxide, whether it's made in a plant or in a lab. Second, any chemical, even the ones we need to live can be poisonous in large amounts: Drinking too much water can lead to hyponatremia as it flushes out our electrolytes. Oxygen in large enough amounts can kill: Scuba divers learned that the hard way back when they used pure oxygen in their tanks. As we skeptics like to say, the dose makes the poison.

One thing I like to do when faced with a scaremonger abusing the term is to replace the word "chemical" with "stuff." It takes the sting out of it all, doesn't it? If you're in an argument with such a person, request that they specify which chemicals they're talking about, as well as the doses at which they become harmful.


Doggerel Index


Michael Bains said...

What?! You mean they haven't banned Dihydrogen Monoxide yet!?!? I'm callin' my congresswoman!

Great example B-Dog. {-;

Lifewish said...

"I have a sore throat."

2000 BC : "eat this root"
1200 AD : "That root is heathen, say this prayer."
1500 AD : "That prayer is superstition, drink this elixir."
1800 AD : "That elixir is snake oil, Take this pill."
1900 AD : "That pill is ineffective, Take this antibiotic."
2000 AD : "That antibiotic is artificial, Here why dont you eat this root."

Sums it up fairly well...

Anonymous said...

I cannot even tell you what a sore spot this one is for me. Ok, it turns out I can. My mother did day care when I was younger, and when she asked the mother of one of the day care kids if she wanted her to use (sunscreen||insect repellant - I forget which it was now) on her child under whatever outdoor circumstance, the answer was "No, that stuff is nothing but chemicals." This might not have bothered me so much if the woman in question was not in the process of defending her Ph.D in polymer chemistry at MIT at the time!

It seems that education is not the answer...

Bronze Dog said...

They pain! Currently dissecting a Sylvia Browne appearance, and that makes the stupidity all the more traumatic for my psyche.

You know what they say about education.