Continuing to Battle Chemophobia

By Elizabeth Baldwin

Previously I introduced you to James Kennedy in Australia who is doing his part to fight chemophobia…now here’s a British teacher doing the same. The article is well worth reading—it covers everything from setting classrooms on fire to hiding gold from Nazis.  I hate to spoil it for you.  So I won’t copy his stories here, but just in case you’re not inclined to click over to read what he thinks of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, let me make sure you get this part:

…The very word chemical is often synonymous with toxin or poison. We use phrases like “it’s chock-full of chemicals” to imply something is artificial and bad for you.

Meaningless slogans like “chemical-free” pop up on products in health food stores and billboards. And nobody seems to mind, least of all the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). I know – I’ve complained to them and they told me that consumers clearly understand that “chemical-free” really means “free of synthetic chemicals”.

I don’t get the distinction. Why are synthetic chemicals worse than natural ones? Why is the synthetic food additive E300 bad, while the vitamin C in your freshly squeezed glass of orange juice is good? (Even though they are both the same thing.)

How powerful can chemophobia be?  Here’s an article about Johnson & Johnson removing formaldehyde from baby shampoo.  Bet folks are nodding “darn right they should.”  Well we’re talking microscopic amounts—apparently it would take more than 40 million baby shampoo baths in a single day to reach the formaldehyde levels set by California’s Proposition 65.  I kinda think the kid would have a bigger problem than formaldehyde before hitting even the millionth shampoo… Here’s another way to consider it:  “You would need to drink 15 bottles of shampoo to get the same exposure to formaldehyde that you get from eating one apple.”  (By the way, since most of you folks are adults, you might want to read the article to learn more about formaldehyde in adult cosmetics and other beauty care products…) 

The story asked why Johnson & Johnson changed their recipe.  The answer:  “The company’s job is not to combat misconceptions in the public; it’s to sell products.”

That is true, but we’re not helping the world by encouraging misconceptions and fear.

And it’s not just Johnson & Johnson—how about General Mills’ cereal?  They’ve been advertising recently how Cheerios and other items are GMO free.  But, if you dig into it, apparently they always have been—it’s just now that they are being advertised as such.  The VP of marketing explains that “Original Cheerios has always been made with whole grain oats, and there are no GMO oats…”  He said this isn’t an issue of safety, but that “we think consumers may embrace it.”   This is one consumer that doesn’t—I don’t like them giving into chemophobia of course, but more significantly, I consider it misleading because they really didn’t change a thing.

This article talks about the above two cases and a third one as well, where Subway was so afraid of people being irrationally afraid of chemicals that it changed a dough recipe based on a single online complaint.

How does this relate to us?  Well the wood industry is under a lot of pressure to go “formaldehyde free” right now, when as discussed many times before, formaldehyde itself is not evil.  Furthermore, if you do have concerns, it is best to focus on what is coming out rather than what we put into the composite wood products.  I am just hoping we don’t succumb to pressure like Johnson & Johnson or take misleading advertising positions like General Mills.

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