Why do we fear what we fear?

So I’ve been chit-chatting with Australian science teacher James Kennedy about our common interest in fighting chemophobia and he offered this insight:

Interestingly, the “feared” chemicals vary in different countries. MSG is feared in the UK but not at all in China. Dimethicone is feared in China but not in the UK. GM crops are feared in the UK far more than they are in the US. The reverse is true for trans fats. I’ve been wondering why the chemicals that people fear are so specific by location.

Now why is that? What chemical do you fear and why?

As a related question, do you ever find yourself being trendy about chemophobia? Buying something marked “gluten free” just because that sounded better, even if you aren’t absolutely sure why gluten might be bad for you…? Do you ever get swayed by a marketing stamp even if you don’t understand it…or should know better about its importance? (An example of knowing better in our industry is buying a finish because it’s “formaldehyde free,” when as a wood professional you know that formaldehyde is virtually never an additive in finishes!)

And also what would it take you NOT to fear something? Would you believe news reports or scientific studies or statements by the government? If the common knowledge suddenly stated that formaldehyde was considered only a temporary irritant with no long term health risks, would you accept that? What type of statement from what type of person or organization would get you to change your mind?

These are real questions and I’d be delighted if people took the time to send in a comment. I’m really curious about how specific chemicals get into the common consciousness of fear, how those fears play on you, consciously or subconsciously, and how you might lose that fear. Because if you are not able to understand how we become afraid and how it impacts our decisions, and more importantly, aren’t able to lose a fear in the end, then we’ll never be able to progress forward using science.

Elizabeth Baldwin is Environmental Compliance Officer for Metropolitan Hardwood Floors. In her 25 plus year career in the wood industry has visited over 70 countries and hundreds of facilities of all sizes and types. She describes herself as a “jack of all wood trades.” Familiar with jungles of all sorts–having camped out along the Amazon and walked the halls of Congress–she blogs for the NWFA on both environmental and regulatory issues for educational and informational purposes only. Her blog is not intended and should not be construed as legal advice. Persons seeking legal advice on compliance with CARB, TSCA, the U.S. Lacey Act or any other law, regulation, or compliance requirement/claim should consult with the regulatory agency directly and/or a qualified legal professional.

3 thoughts

  1. It’s not a chemical per se … I noticed some of my facebook friends were up in arms that the EPA re-authorized the use of asbestos containing panels for high rise buildings. Personally, I think the fear is overrated and the result of the personal injury atty’s TV advertising for clients on every other station break. My opinion probably arises from having grown up in a house where the boiler and pipes were wrapped in asbestos. Add to this, I was sanding a gym floor when the local school districts were spending hundreds of thousand of dollars ridding their schools of any product (I.E. VCT) that may contain asbestos. When I overheard a school district’s high ranking official saying they could save a lot of money by encapsulating the offending products. That district went on to encapsulate and not spend those hundreds of thousand of dollars.

  2. Thanks for the thought, Matt. I agree that controlling exposure is the key, not automatically limiting the use, of any one material. Like with formaldehyde in wood products–it’s about emissions, not content. You can use it, just control it. Same with a lot of things. And if we approach things scientifically, we’ll be able to get the benefit of the material and control any exposure that might be deemed a risk.

    I remember when I was in high school in Pennsylvania, we went through the Three Mile Island situation…it was about 30 miles from my house. (You young folks can google that.) So I saw first hand the fear of radiation exposure. A few years later in an advanced science class, we were handling radioactive chips that would emit alpha, beta and gamma particles and experimenting with them…. I experienced both controlled scientific approaches and fear from the unknown. It was much better to understand and control…

  3. endocrine disruptors and hormone affecting chemicals that are seen in Vinyl products, LVP, WPC, VCT etc. Overlooked and ignored most likely due to profits.

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