Making Sense of Chemical Stories

The disconnection between lifestyle commentary and chemical realities.
A guide for the lifestyle sector and anybody with questions about chemical stories.

Published: 19 May 2014 (2nd edition)
This guide was first published in 2006. It was reprinted in 2014 with minor changes. Some of the information in the guide may need updating. If you seek to rely on it, please contact us: hello@senseaboutscience.org

Download Making sense of chemical stories

It is worth noting that, although it’s popular to complain about ‘all those synthetic chemicals’, this contrasts with increasing demand for them in and around the home e.g. oral contraceptives, mouthwash and decorating materials, and for gadgets which are manufactured using them, like mobile phones, computers and CDs

Prof Andrew Cockburn

Toxicologist, University of Newcastle

Did you Know?

Cocktails don’t make you any more drunk than the equivalent alcohol in other drinks like beer. The mixing process has no effect.

Background

Scientists are worried about the growing disconnection between the lifestyle view of chemicals and the chemical realities of the world. They are worried not just because people are likely to misunderstand what chemicals are and do, but because of the consequences for decisions about lifestyle choices, family health and social policies. In lifestyle commentary, chemicals are presented as something that can be avoided, or eliminated using special socks, soaps or diets, and that cause only harm to health and damage to the environment. The chemical realities of the world, by contrast, are that everything is made of chemicals, that synthetic chemicals are often much safer for human health than so-called ‘natural’ ones, and that unfounded anxiety about chemicals is encouraging people to buy into ideas and ‘remedies’ that make little scientific or medical sense.

Partners

The new 2014 edition was printed with support from the Royal Society of Chemistry.

What is the problem this guide is addressing?

Anxiety about chemicals is a big part of the discussion about lifestyle and modern living. Lifestyle commentary – health, food, family, and environment – has grown enormously in the past ten years, with increased TV coverage, the expanding internet, and publications by retailers and producers swelling the ranks of the magazine markets. In the daily papers too, lifestyle columns, supplements and advice fight news content for space. With this rise in lifestyle commentary, misconceptions about what chemicals are and what they do have increased and spread. So much so, that the facts about chemicals seem surprising and counter-intuitive. Do people know that nothing can be ‘chemical free’? How many know that ‘E-numbers’ simply denote approval for food use and include some essential vitamins? Did you know that your body functions in exactly the same way whether you follow a ‘detox’ regime or just a normal diet? Or that the idea of the ‘cocktail effect’ in relation to alcohol is an urban myth? When it comes to chemicals, there are so many misconceptions that people are often scared and anxious when they needn’t be, and complacent when they shouldn’t be.

Impact

Newspapers responded well to Making Sense of Chemical Stories; with write-ups in the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. Lifestyle magazines like Cosmopolitan UK also wrote articles. Many specialist publications covered the guide such as Chemistry World, CAMcheck and Compound Interest.