11.01.2017

Chemophobia: the silent killer


There is an epidemic that is blighting the world. However, unlike many epidemics, this one is hidden, pernicious. It’s not being covered on nightly news bulletins; it’s not on the receiving end of well-wishers and charity donations… but it’s still there, lurking in our midst. You might even be a sufferer.

What’s the epidemic? Chemophobia.

“What’s chemophobia?” you may be thinking. “That doesn’t sound like an illness.”

It’s not. Chemophobia isn’t an illness per se; it’s not a diagnosable condiiton, yet it’s still an issue that millions of people are suffering from.

“So what is it?”

As the name implies, it’s a phobia. Most specifically, it’s a phobia of chemicals. It’s an issue that has been described as “irrational but difficult to break”, a definition that is true of most phobias. However, unlike most phobias, those with chemophobia won’t even know they have it.

“How can you not know you have a phobia? Aren’t phobias pretty self-explanatory?”

Sure, most of the conventional phobias are self-explanatory; if you’re an arachnophobe, then the presence of a spider will send you screaming and running across the room. It’s pretty tough not to know you have a phobia-- but with chemophobia, it’s more of a mindset than an actual fear that provokes a “fight or flight” response that we all associate with most phobias.

“Okay-- so how does chemophobia work?”

Chemophobia is the problem behind any of the following behaviors:

  • Examining the label of any product you buy -- be it cleaning products or your facial skincare -- for any unfamiliar names in the ingredients.
  • Refusing to use products that aren’t “natural”.
  • Refusing to use medication in preference of alternative therapies or herbal remedies.
  • Having a list of ingredients you will not, under any circumstances, purchase. The most common ingredients that fall victim to this blanket ban are the much-maligned SLS, sulfates, and BPA --

“Hang on a second. SLS, Sulfates, and BPA are bad for you! It’s natural to want to be careful of those!”

As with most phobias, part of the problem with chemophobia is that it can be posited as rational. It is possible that those who are afraid of flying will die in a plane crash; there is always a chance that the snake you so fear will bite you, you’ll suffer an allergic reaction, and you’ll die. It’s incredibly unlikely that these things will happen, but they are possible-- few phobias exist where there isn’t some element of genuine threat.

“What about people that are afraid of clowns?”

There’s actually a scientific explanation for why people are afraid of clowns, but let’s not get sidetracked too much-- let’s just agree that most phobias have some basis in reality.

So, sure, SLS, sulfates, BPA… they’re not great for you. If you’re sensitive to SLS, using a shampoo containing SLS will be uncomfortable; and there’s no denying that BPA can have a horrible impact on physical health. However, the problem with chemophobia is when someone takes these possibilities and massively magnifies their likelihood and the impact they may cause.

Chemophobia that manifests in this way -- due to a misunderstanding of what chemicals are -- is increasingly common.

“Why is that?”

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While it’s popular to blame the internet for all of the world’s ills, we’re… well we’re going to need to blame the internet for this one.

The internet has meant that everyone can occupy a space and set themselves up as an authority on a subject. Let’s be clear: that’s great. People have their own voice and can make careers out of sharing their ideas, which is wonderful.

The problem comes when people use their space to spread misinformation, and it’s this that has lead to the rise of chemophobia. It’s the “wellness bloggers” that have allowed chemophobia to spread. This group preaches an idea of a “natural, healthy, alternative” lifestyle which sounds so good, but comes with a side dose of chemophobia. If you browse wellness blogs for too long, you will come away with a simple take-home message:

Natural = good.
Chemical = bad.

“What’s so wrong with that?”

Well, first and foremost, it’s wrong. “Natural” does not immediately mean “good”. Carbon monoxide, ricin, arsenic-- these are all natural, and they will all kill you at a moment’s notice.

Secondly, it’s a worrying train of thought that can lead to incredibly bizarre conclusions. Take smoking. We all know smoking is bad and that we shouldn’t do it-- but in some ways, smoking could be seen as natural. After all, the thing being smoked is tobacco leaf; a plant, and the wellness community love plants. This is, obviously, a terrible conclusion. Smokers run the risk of a huge number of illnesses and would be better to head to a vaping supply store and shop the catalog for products that suit them rather than choosing “natural”, conventional cigarettes. So if we can see that natural has the potential to be wrong in this case, it’s not that much of an extension to see that natural can be potentially worrisome in other cases, too.

The wellness community, and the chemophobia that they inspired, can lead people into traps of trusting “natural” when it has the propensity to cause them harm.

Also, chemicals aren’t all bad. In fact, chemicals are incredibly useful; it’s only due to the existence of chemicals that human life expectancy has been able to increase almost exponentially over the last 50 years. To turn away from the potential of chemicals is very dangerous-- for example, chemotherapy, as the name suggests, is a compound of chemicals designed to treat cancer. Rampant chemophobia has lead to people choosing to treat their cancer “naturally”, which has -- inevitably -- led to their demise. Chemicals can be the good guys!

“But chemicals are also bad guys…”

It’s tough to shake this way of thinking when it’s got into your mind, so it’s fair to want to reassert this point. Yes, chemicals can be bad guys. That’s inevitable; it’s effectively the rule of duality. When something has the potential to be good, it also has the potential to be bad.

The key point is to learn to examine chemicals with critical thinking, rather than just dismissing them out-of-hand.

“How is that done?”

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It’s not easy, especially if you have frequented wellness blogs for a long time. There’s no doubt that it’s easy to fall into a trap of seeing chemicals as the enemy, and that it’s equally as difficult to shake that thinking.

One of the best examples of this is seen with the anti-vaccine movement. Anti-vaxxers love to point out that vaccines contain formaldehyde, a chemical most of us associate with the embalming process. How can that be something that you want injected into your skin? Formaldehyde sounds like a bad chemical, so people assume that its presence in vaccines is extremely worrying. After all, formaldehyde is classified as a carcinogen.

Here’s the thing; you know what else contains formaldehyde? Humans; it’s naturally produced by the body. Furthermore, formaldehyde is found in a variety of different fruits and vegetables. There is more formaldehyde in an apple than there is in a dose of a vaccine. So while the chemical sounds scary -- and we all associate it with a rather macabre purpose -- it’s not a bad guy.

“You just said formaldehyde is a carcinogen!”

Which it is, in significant quantities-- quantities you’re not going to obtain from using cosmetic products or vaccines. It’s simple fact that almost everything is fatal in high enough quantities, including water.

So while cosmetic products, foodstuffs, and packaging materials contain traces of scary-sounding and carcinogenic chemicals, that doesn’t mean there’s enough of these chemicals to do any harm.

“So wellness bloggers have lied to people?”

Not at all! A lot of this requires research, which bloggers might not have direct experience of. Then there’s also the fact that a lot of the “natural” remedies are genuinely beneficial, so people see them work and don’t have their chemophobia challenged. Honey, for example, has long been touted for its health benefits, health benefits that science has been able to confirm actually exist.

On the flip side, there are problematic chemicals in everyday life, chemicals that wellness bloggers are right to focus their ire on. There are chemicals in cleaning products which are damaging human and environmental health; SLS in shampoo genuinely can irritate your scalp; and plastics are best avoided. What is dangerous is the absolute dichotomy of chemicals/bad; natural/good. There are two sides to every story, after all.

It’s fair to say that the best answers to this issue are balance and objective thinking.

  • Understand the chemicals you use and eat rather than demonizing them because the name sounds problematic.
  • Don’t assume that because something is natural that it’s necessarily better for you than a chemical-containing product.

If you keep these in mind, then you can conquer your own chemophobia and ensure that you live the healthiest life possible-- one that includes chemicals, but takes advantage of what the natural world has to offer as well.

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