Chemicals are Your Friends-Well Most of Them Anyway

As a chemist, one of the hardest things that I deal with is the fact that most people HATE chemistry. It seems to be the most hated of all the sciences. And of all of the chemistry classes people take in university, the one they hate the most seems to be organic chemistry. This adds to my heartbreak because that is the type of chemist I am. I love chemistry and I really love organic chemistry. You don’t spend 11 years in university studying something that you only have tepid feelings about. So when the first thing people say to me after they find out I am a chemist is “ugh, I hated chemistry,” I start to feel defensive. “Oh ya, well…I hate your chosen profession…you…accountant.” This is of course made worse by idiots who have no clue what chemistry is and want to scare you with “chemicals” and making them sound like something nefarious that Snidely Whiplash is pouring into your water supply.

Here’s the thing: not all chemicals are bad. Actually most of them are great. In fact, you sitting there, reading this, you are a giant, walking, talking chemical reactor. Your cells use chemical energy to function. Your food is all chemicals. Your body is doing some pretty complex chemistry just to make your heart beat. The chemical bonds in fats, proteins, and sugars are broken down and put back together in important ways that allow you to survive. Chemistry is life.

There are some chemicals that are terrible for you, both man made and natural. Strychnine comes to mind as a chemical that is not so good for you. Botulinum toxin, produced by the bacterium C. botulinum, causes botulism-not a good chemical, unless you’re the bacterium. Man made chemicals are an interesting mix: we make them to solve certain problems, but they might also create a few problems of their own. Here’s a quiz for you: name the chemical that you think has saved the most lives? I am talking of hundreds of millions of lives. What did you guess? Did you guess DDT? That’s right, the pesticide DDT has actually saved the most lives. It is the most effective chemical in killing malaria-carrying mosquitoes. It is also inexpensive compared to alternate pesticides, which is matters greatly, since the vast majority of people impacted by malaria are in the developing world. Now, I am not advocating for the use of DDT. Its environmental impact is severe. But I do think it highlights some of the complexities regarding what makes a chemical “good” or “bad”.

Now when people hear chemical names, they sometimes get scared because they think “well that sounds like a toxic compound I do know, so this must be bad too”. I remember hearing a woman say that the traces of tertiary butylhydroquinone in fryer oil was harmful to human health because “butyl” is like the lighter fluid “butane”. These two compounds are so different, it is kind of like saying Michael and Michelle at your office are practically the same person because their names are so close. I hear variations of this argument a lot. “This chemical is ALMOST the same as a really bad one, therefore it must also be bad.” The thing is, when you look at the periodic table, the different between each type of element (all 118 of them) differ only by one single proton. But that proton makes a huge difference. Just like changing one proton in an atom changes the element, changing one atom in a molecule can drastically change that molecule.

Take a deep breath in, let it out. Are you still alive? Great! That is because what you breathed in was mostly nitrogen gas (and some oxygen of course, but mostly nitrogen.) The nitrogen in our atmosphere is comprised of two atoms of nitrogen bonded together with three bonds (triple bonded). That nitrogen floats around not killing anyone, perfectly happy and inert. Now, let’s change one of those nitrogen atoms to carbon. So instead of two nitrogen atoms triple bonded together we have one carbon atom triple bonded to one nitrogen atom. Take a deep breath of this compound and now you’re dead. See one carbon atom triple bonded to one nitrogen atom is cyanide.

So the moral of this post is that not all chemicals are bad. Don’t believe anyone who says they have something for you that is “chemical-free” because they are lying. If you have questions about chemicals, especially additives and preservatives, send me a message: thecuriosityscience@gmail.com I would love to answer your chemistry questions, especially if your source is food babe, Gwyneth Paltrow, or Dr. Oz: you deserve someone who actually knows what they are talking about.

I love chemistry!

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