When a three-year old likes a movie they like to watch it over and over and over. Then they watch it again. Recently I’ve been watching The Lorax with my three-year-old son. There is a line in the opening dance number, in which the citizens of Thneedville exhort the spender of their lives in their plastic-based town: “In Thneedville, we don’t want to know where the smog and the trash and the chemicals go.” Then a little boy hops from a swimming pool and says “I just went for a swim, and now I glow!”
As a chemist I recoil at the object of my studies be lumped with smog and trash (though I admit there is much good science in studying both smog and trash). More to the point, this is just one more example of chemical phobia. Some of the worst cases of chemphobia have been the “Chemical free” chemistry sets, the Jamba Juice campaign “Don’t drink the periodic table” and Nicholas Kristof’s anti-chemical tirades, expertly called out by Deborah Blum.
We chemists have to reclaim the word chemical from those who use it as a pejorative term. Rather than trying to avoid the word chemical or reason with those misusing it, we should use it in ways that point out that all matter around us consists of chemicals. We should show that “chemical” is different from “toxin”, that chemicals do not make children glow, they help sustain their health starting moments after birth when antibiotics are smeared in their eyes and they are wrapped in warm cotton blankets.
I am campaigning for a Twitter meme of “There’s a chemical for that.” For example:
Need a pick-me-up? There’s a chemical for that. #caffeine
Have a headache? There’s a chemical for that. #aspirin #acetaminophen
I am attaching the name of the common chemical name as a hashtag. Some may prefer the IUPAC name, but, well, good luck with that.
Attitudes change slowly of course but there is no reason we chemists shouldn’t make an attempt at changing them for the better.