Friday, May 30, 2014

Chemophobia and Feeding the Fear

Just a few days after my post on sun exposure, BuzzFeed decided, irresponsibly, to post a video on the "scary facts about sunscreen".  Not only are they contributing to the whole sunscreen conspiracy, but they're exploiting chemophobia to do it.  Here's one of those "scary facts" about sunscreen:

That was it, no explanation of what retinyl palmitate is, just that it's there.  With a skull and crossbones, and the word CHEMICAL.  Retinyl palmitate is a synthetic form of vitamin A, used to treat people with vitamin A deficiency.  It's added to low-fat dairy products to make up for the loss of vitamin A during the fat-removal process, and it is used in eye drops.

File:Retinyl palmitate.png  File:All-trans-Retinol2.svg
       (retinyl palmitate)                                    (vitamin A)

I guess the "scary" part about retinyl palmitate is that, in 2000, it was selected for phototoxicity and carcinogenic testing (which, in and of itself, is not a red-flag, chemicals in all products are frequently randomly selected for testing).  What was reported from the 11 studies on retinyl palmitate:

  • four of those studies showed that a combination of retinyl palmitate and UVA radiation induced reactive oxygen species
  • four other studies showed that the combination of two can be photomutagenic
  • and 3 of those studies showed that the application of retinyl palmitate on mice altered physiological levels of vitamin A.
On first glance, it makes sense that people have become afraid of this compound.  But, some of these studies were done in vitro, which means they were completed on animal cell cultures, rather than animals themselves.  That means that the whole host of antioxidant defenses present in animals, like non-enzymatic (vitamins C and E) and enzymatic (superoxide dismutase, glutathione reductase, etc.) antioxidants, were not present.  These antioxidant systems work together to counteract the reactive oxygen species that are often formed with antioxidants (like retinyl palmitate) are irradiated with UV light.  Therefore, the 8 in vitro studies really don't tell us anything.  The 3 studies on mice did not report increased skin cancer rates with the application of retinyl palmitate and subsequent irradiation.

But this points to a much larger issue in the public perception of science, and specifically chemistry.  We tend to think that chemicals are bad, and that the presence of any chemical spells danger.  This is known as chemophobia.  Between my degrees, I spent two months working retail selling face creams.  I remember vividly an exchange between myself and a particularly challenging customer: I was trying to explain to her how an anti-wrinkle cream worked, and the word chemical slipped out.  She was horrified that there were chemicals in our all-natural, organic face creams!  I backtracked, explaining that what I meant was that everything was a chemical.  She walked out, and I started substituting the word "compound" for "chemical".

A chemical is any substance with a chemical formula.  Everything is a chemical, even water.  Now, I understand that people do the best they can with the knowledge they have, but chemophobia is going way too far!  A woman in the U.S. went after Subway recently over the use of azodicarbonamide in their breads.  This compound (see, still doing it!) is a common food additive used in the bleaching of flour, and it makes dough elastic.  It is also a "chemical foaming agent" (scare quotes NOT mine) that is used in the making of yoga mats, hence its new name "the yoga mat chemical".  Well, the FDA and the WHO have not found it to cause problems in the general public.  In fact, the WHO only found that it causes respiratory problems and skin irritation in workers who handle enormous volumes of it, but your daily exposure, even if you eat a lot of bread, is not a problem.  Eating bread from Subway is not the same as eating a yoga mat!  One is food, the other isn't.  The far greater problem is not what is added to your processed foods, but what is not found in processed foods, like vitamins, nutrients, etc.

In January, Johnson and Johnson was challenged for the presence of formaldehyde in its No More Tears shampoo.  Formaldehyde is classified as a carcinogen, and its uses include disinfectant, tissue embalming, and photograph development.  The level of formaldehyde in the previous recipe for No More Tears shampoo was actually quite low.  So low that you would need to drink 15 or so bottles of shampoo to get the same level of formaldehyde present in one apple!  But consumers started comparing using No More Tears to dipping your baby in a vat of formaldehyde.

Chemophobia wouldn't bother me so much if it was just about people avoiding certain products because of the presence of "chemicals".  But the problem is, chemophobia is one of the reasons people avoid vaccines and Western medicine.  And that really puts everyone at risk.  I mean, come on:

And companies going along with chemophobia are really just contributing to the misinformation of the general public.  People assume that if you can't pronounce the name of a chemical, then it doesn't belong in your body.  But that's just because we've given a lot of "chemicals" more palatable nicknames.  The chemical name for Vitamin C is ascorbic acid (aka 2-oxo-L-threo-hexono-1,4-lactone-2,3-endiol).  What about allyl isothiocyanate?  That's gotta be bad right, it has cyanide in it!  Well, that's actually the oil responsible for the pungent taste of mustard and horseradish.  

I fully understand the desire to know what is in your food and what you are consuming.  But I think this is more of responsibility on the part of the consumer.  It's important for the public to really try to understand what is dangerous and what isn't, rather than jumping on the fear-mongering bandwagon (see picture above).

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