Chemical-free alternatives (as seen on TV3)

By Grant Jacobs 09/10/2010 13


Campbell Live has last night featured a presentation by Wendyl Nisson offering ’chemical free’ alternatives to various products, promoting her recent book.

Of course, they are not ’chemical free’. As Alison wrote in a recent post‘Natural’, perhaps, but definitely not ‘chemical-free’.

This story repeats the ’chemical-free’ theme throughout:

’The chemical free lifestyle.’

’How to replace chemically-based products with time-honoured alternatives.’ (book title apparently, but I can’t find it on the ’net.)

’So many ways to avoid bringing chemicals into your home.’

Don’t get me wrong.

I’m not against people using ‘household remedies’, when effective and used appropriately.

But these remedies are not ’chemical free’.

The reality is that everything around us are chemicals.

Robert McCormick expressed similar thoughts in a post back in May: ’Everything in the universe is a chemical, whether it be an element, a molecule or a compound. So water is a chemical, oxygen is a chemical, […]’*

We’re chemicals too. You, dear reader, and me, both.

A cynic might say that the ’chemical-free’ line is a scare-tactic marketing strategy from ‘natural solutions’ companies, trying make out the competition’s products are ’dangerous’. (Related ones are that because they are purified or manufactured makes them ’bad’.)

What makes something good or bad is not that it is a chemical – everything is chemical – but the properties of the particular chemical, in the amount used, in the setting used.

Most of the ideas shown probably have something to them.Chemicals from natural sources have chemical properties just as all chemicals do.

It is the chemicals in all of the products shown on the show, ‘alternative’ or not, that make them work. (Or not, as the case may be.)

Wendyl Nisson starts out with baby wipes: ’They’re a day old and you wipe their bums with chemicals.’

Great sales pitch (seriously), but – and sorry about this – but Wendyl’s solution would have parents wiping their new-born’s behinds with chemicals too. Whatever is used will contain chemicals. There’s nothing bad in that.

(With my poor hearing I’ve had to repeatedly replay the video to get what she’s saying,** but I’m pretty sure she says recommends a mixture of witch-hazel and rose water.)

Likewise, she recommends a mixture of water + white vinegar + essential oil + lemons in cleaning rags for dusting. That’s OK, if that’s what you prefer: it’s only a dusting rag, after all. But to claim this as ’chemical free’? Nope. The reason this might work better than a damp cloth, if it does, is the nature of the chemicals in the mixture.

Ditto for the other recipes she provides.

She offers a sun screen, providing a list of ingredients with the last as zinc oxide.

It seemed so incongruous to me. Isn’t zinc oxide one of the ’chemicals’ she talks dismissively about? I wonder if she has checked how it’s produced. More relevant is that it’s an ingredient used in commercial sunscreens. (Get those sunscreens out of the bathroom cupboard and check their labels. Not all will contain it, as there are other options such as titanium dioxide.) It seemed silly to me to point fingers at commercial sunscreens, only to use one of the same active ingredients in your alternative.

(As an aside, you could suggest the ’best’ natural sunscreen is to limit your time in direct sun and to wear long cotton clothing topped with a hat (or scarf). This is the traditional approach in sun-baked countries. (Another is to use mud, like the workers in the fields of some Asian countries do, but that wouldn’t go down well in Western countries!) You could argue the main reason we ‘need’ sunscreens is our insistence of staying out in the sun as much as we do.)

So. Advice to TV3 after seeing them present what is becoming a procession of documentaries with pseudo-science content?***

GET A SCIENCE ADVISOR.

Seriously.

I have for some time now been speculating if a key missing component in science communication is a lack of editors/producers with a solid-enough understanding of the material they are presenting, or enough care to their audience to serve them well.

The role of editors or advisors is to assist in creating a better product.

There’s a better story there without the ’chemical-free’ pitch.

As one example, they could have tried to present why household goods can sometimes be used to good effect and when they can be put to use. Explain the basic chemistry involved.

I have a copy of Reader’s Digest’s Household Hints and Handy Tips, bought from the locally-famous 24-hour book sale. It’s what you buy when you have just bought your  first house! Scattered throughout it are the sort of things that Wendyl Nissen might present as ’what our grandmothers used’, as alternatives to another trip to the supermarket. Baking soda as a scouring agent and so on.

Basic chemistry explains why these work.

That’s the real pity to me. You could push the pseudo-science out and end up with a better story.

Footnotes

I’m not alone in making the point that ’chemical-free’ is nonsense. Fellow sciblings Alison Campbell and Robert McCormick have previously written about this. (Their articles are linked on their names.)

* The only environment that would be truly chemical-free is a true vacuum, i.e. nothing at all.

** Her face is away from the camera at times, and in any event video quality is too poor for lipreading to help me out. TV3 really, really needs to improve the quality of video in their streaming. (Yes, I have it set to ‘high’ quality, which isn’t high at all.)

*** I’m referring to the Vitamin C, swine flu, media, lawyers documentaries and one follow-on documentary I took notes for, but never wrote an article on.


Other articles on Code for life:

Finding platypus venom

Vitamin C, swine flu, media, lawyers

Thoughts towards a human brain neural connection map

It won’t be by taking sugar pills…

Autism – looking for parent-of-origin effects


13 Responses to “Chemical-free alternatives (as seen on TV3)”

  • Thanks. Complements are always welcome :-)

    I’ve left a comment on the Campbell Live page that shows the video of the presentation, referring to my commentary here. It’s been 3+ hours now and it hasn’t passed moderation; guess they don’t moderate in a hurry over there!

  • Neutronium is also chemical-free. However it is not stable at pressures available to us and has never been produced on Earth.

  • You are quite right, of course – it’s all chemistry, one way or another – but I think that clearly misses the point of what is being said by Wendyl and others like her. She is clearly not arguing for an absolutely chemical-free world (as that would make no sense), yet her audience understands something that is different to the literal interpretation you have provided here.

    There is an assumed (but important) word that is usually missed out here – “harmful”. Obviously not all synthetic chemicals are harmful, nor are all natural chemicals harmless, but short of having extensive chemistry experience (and perfect science, which does not exist) us normal humans have to make a call about what to use, or ingest, or expose ourselves to. And that decision (like most uninformed decisions) is based on trust.

    So the real issue is that many people don’t absolutely trust science on the score of determining what is good for us. Why? Well, for one thing there have been several nasty mistakes on the part of science, that have had very visible and unpleasant consequences either on our physical or economic well-being. Sure there have been some successes, but in this game you’re only as good as your last mistake. And as I’ve pointed out before, the prevailing science culture does not tend toward humility. Or even acceptance of fault. And precaution toward future risk sometimes seems completely out of the question.

    So, many of us (quite sane) people take a slightly cynical view of modern advances in chemistry (which is somewhat of a johnny-come-lately in the grand scheme of things too), and prefer a degree of caution about what we leap headlong into. And I’d have to say this approach is further validated when we read nonsense semantic arguments by the pro-chem lobby, that completely overlook any possibility of harm!

    Perhaps the approach should be to provide public-access science education that explains to the common person why Zinc Oxide (or Aspartame, or SLS/SLES, or Bisphenol-A, or Thiomersal, or GMOs, or statins, or …) cannot be harmful. Or perhaps, while acknowledging that we don’t really totally understand human biology, prove that modern meds always offer the best and safest approach. No?

  • Well, no. That cannotbe harmful is surely a bit of a red herring, since as has been said elsewhere on this site, dose is important. After all, many people would say that vitamins cannot be harmful, but ingest enough vitamin A & you’ll come to a rather unpleasant end. In fact, the same could be said for water… What’s needed is a system of science education that makes folks aware of important points like that. And that helps them to become more aware of how science operates, & to get some sense of things like relative risk.

    I disagree that the word ‘harmful’ is missed out in arguments such as those made in the program Grant critiqued. The missing word is ‘natural’, and the implication throughout is that ‘natural = good’ & ‘synthetic/artificial/manmade = bad’. As you say yourself, that’s not necessarily the case (after all, ricin & tetrodotoxin are both natural – & both lethal), but if folks are going to make decisions based on that false dichotomy then they are not necessarily going to be doing themselves any favours.

  • “but in this game you’re only as good as your last mistake”

    Ummm, which “game” are you referring to. I also prefer a degree of caution but nothing in life is absolute or absolutely safe. This is one of the challenges of science. Another is explaining this level of uncertainty to a public that prefers black or white answers.
    I’m not sure that I agree that the prevailing science culture does not tend towards humility. Having said that as science is required to compete for funding in a business type fashion this is hardly going to encourage humility when to get funding you may be required to “hype up” your proposals.

  • I’m really not that stupid :-)

    (Oh dear, I’m so slow in replying I’ve been overtaken by two others!)

    I was well aware that she could be read as meaning that. If you read my article I gave a nod to that. I didn’t rabbit on about it, as I didn’t want to confuse the message with too many what-ifs or buts, but I do touch on it. I suggest you read what I wrote again 😉

    She is clearly not arguing for an absolutely chemical-free world

    You can read her mind? 😉 Just kidding. I was pointing out that she was using the term in wrong-headed way, one that is the same as used in scare-marketing. As you note, the alternative meaning you suggest does not take away the point I was making.

    us normal humans have

    There’s no need to try create sides by using labels. Scientists are people too. We’re not all specialists in chemistry, medicine, vaccines, virology, etc. We rely on other’s reports too. I’d like to think that most people would favour what testing is done to none.

    And as I’ve pointed out before, the prevailing science culture does not tend toward humility. Or even acceptance of fault. And precaution toward future risk sometimes seems completely out of the question.

    That’s a straw-man argument, and one that doesn’t sit with how science works. In my experience, it is politicians that struggle with this, much more than scientists. It’s not helped by simplistic media reports over-inflating “wrong doing” or even getting it completely wrong.

    Well, for one thing there have been several nasty mistakes on the part of science, that have had very visible and unpleasant consequences either on our physical or economic well-being. Sure there have been some successes […]

    Damning with faint praise doesn’t make you right 😉 As an exercise, try re-writing what you’ve written replacing science with other industries, e.g.

    “Well, for one thing there have been several nasty mistakes on the part of natural remedies, that have had very visible and unpleasant consequences either on our physical or economic well-being. Sure there have been some successes […]”

    See a point? What you’re advancing is empty tit-for-tat that can be played both ways.

    I would point out that sensible people don’t trust ‘remedies’ that haven’t been formally tested.

    and prefer a degree of caution about what we leap headlong into

    If you want caution, you look to products that have been formally tested and have strong regulatory control to ensure they meet safety standards, not look to untested products. (Bear in mind that re-branding as ‘supplements’ can be used to lessen exposure to regulatory controls and testing.)

    And I’d have to say this approach is further validated when we read nonsense semantic arguments by the pro-chem lobby, that completely overlook any possibility of harm!

    For the first part, before accusing others of that I suggest you look at the (poor) semantics of your own arguments first. For the second, it’s a straw man argument. Industries under regulation don’t get any options on that point: they have to demonstrate the product do not cause harm before they can enter the marketplace (to the level require by the regulations), and have to respond when it is shown the product does.

    Or perhaps, while acknowledging that we don’t really totally understand human biology, prove that modern meds always offer the best and safest approach.

    Erm, that’s what science does. (Bear in mind, thought, that no-one — in any industry —can ‘prove’ every last case, there will always be rare cases related to people with rare genetics, etc.) Am I to take that it that you advocate science-based approaches despite to my reading opposing them earlier in the piece?

  • I hope no-one reads my first sentence wrongly. I don’t mean it out of indignation, but a silly sense of humour later in the evening. My apologies for the overly long reply, too. Being able to type reasonably quickly doesn’t mean you should exercise it… :-)

  • @Alison – of course, but my post was long enough already. Perhaps you can see the point I was trying to make, though?

    @Michael – the game of winning hearts and minds, the failure to do so being frequently lamented around here. Sometimes sounds a bit like “why are they so unscientific?” And good point about the funding.

    @Grant – sorry must have missed it.

    The “normal humans” bit was not intended to create sides, but surely you must recognise the difference between a scientist reading something outside their area, and someone ignorant of the ways of science trying to work out what to wipe their baby’s bum with?

    Regarding caution, your point is valid for those who already have some faith in science and the scientific method. And I’m not saying I don’t – mine is just tempered with a healthy dose of cynicism when it comes to human greed and laziness – but as I mention above, this blog seems frequently mystified as to why people/media/consumers of medicine etc are so unscientific.

    And yes, my comment about semantics was a tad cheeky – but your argument does look a lot like “it’s all chemicals, stoopid”, rather than any deeper exploration of why people may make the choices they do.

  • rainman,

    And good point about the funding.

    Don’t forget conflicts of interests apply to those trying to sell products, including those in the natural health industry. (I often this line presented, pointed at only one side. Research funding doesn’t obligate a researcher to give particular results. Commercial companies, however, will be understandably reluctant to undermine the value of their product if they can avoid it. The won’t (generally!) lie, but you can understand why they might want to avoid presenting disfavourable information.)

    but surely you must recognise the difference between a scientist reading something outside their area, and someone ignorant of the ways of science trying to work out what to wipe their baby’s bum with?

    Trying to cling to your argument by shifting the goalposts? 😉

    You’re trying to over-complicate it to be about ‘the scientific method’. It’s simpler than that. I’m come back to this.

    Lots of points here, but just two for you to think about. (1) As I pointed out, not all scientists know the relevant area to assess for themselves, so they’re in essentially the same position as anyone else. (2) One of the more relevant things, IMO, is that experience tells you that you don’t know enough about something, listen to those that do. You don’t have to be a scientist to know this. Knowing another area of biology does help you appreciate how much will be involved behind the scenes in other areas of biology, and hence make you more inclined than most not to over-reach based on very little knowledge, but most people get the same thing from realising that they don’t know more than the builder, plumber, electrician, etc., and apply this elsewhere.

    I (strongly) suspect the lack of willingness in some people to listen to medical advice, etc., has more to do with being ‘sold’ on the fear-mongering marketing I referred to: it encourages people not to look to those with the relevant backgrounds. The ‘natural health’ industry encourage this, too, as it pushes people towards their products. Cynicism could be applied here, too 😉

    In any event, this is getting a long way from my point, which was simply point out that the “chemical-free” ‘line’ is a bit of nonsense. It’s a pretty straight-forward issue thing.

    Regarding caution, your point is valid for those who already have some faith in science and the scientific method.

    I wrote it’s true for most people. See my previous remarks in this comment. You are making it ‘about’ “faith in science and the scientific method”, which is over-complicating it and elevating it to something beyond what’s going on here. The wider thing is simply recognising that other people are better placed to report on things you don’t know a lot about. Everyone does this. You rely on builders, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, etc., this way. It’s no different. That’s not founded on “faith in science and the scientific method” (even if it were nice to think it was), but founded on a common-sense realisation that others are better placed to know.

    If there is a difference, I’d guess it’s that you don’t see concerted efforts to scare-monger people away from advice by builders, mechanics, etc. (You do see encouragement look for formal qualification and trade certificates, etc.) There’s not ‘alternative’ building industry, etc., which is likely a key difference.

    The reason people bring the scientific method itself into these things is more related to that many of these practitioners try use anecdotes, etc., as ‘proof’ for their ‘alternatives’.

    but as I mention above, this blog seems frequently mystified as to why people/media/consumers of medicine etc are so unscientific.

    By ‘this blog’ do you mean Code for life or sciblogs?

    If you mean my blog, I’m not buying the stirring. I’m not mystified in the way you appear to be making me out to be.

    but your argument does look a lot like “it’s all chemicals, stoopid”, rather than any deeper exploration of why people may make the choices they do.

    Thank you for misrepresenting me. You’re framing my article with a tone it hasn’t got after the fact.

    I’m not obligated to present a “deeper exploration of why people may make the choices they do” either. It’s my article, it has a particular aim and it does that. It’s a pretty simple point. No article (by anyone) will be everything every other person wants it to be.

  • Grant, I’m sure if we sat down over a beer we’d find less to disagree with than happens online.

    I won’t respond to specific points (unless you particularly want to) as that will take us down a rabbit hole that will lead some distance from your original point. I don’t see that I’m shifting any goalposts. I will observe that in reading your article earlier, I missed “Explain the basic chemistry involved” – a position I entirely agree with. I apologise for not including that in my original response.

    Anyway, I’ll leave you with an article that may be of interest (even after journalistic enthusiasm is deducted):
    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/2010/11/lies-damned-lies-and-medical-science/8269

  • I’ll leave you with an article that may be of interest

    I’ve only briefly skimmed it to get the gist and ’fraid I have to say, “so?” 😉

    The Atlantic piece is recycling old news. The main research article that is the ‘seed’ for news article is from 2005. (They don’t use links in the article. Sigh. Media fail.)

    I have had this research paper in an open tab for a few days now in case I find time to write about it (& it suits my mood…) as it’s circulating about again. It’s not a call to junk all medical testing. As should be clear I haven’t read either The Atlantic piece or the research article properly — at less than a skim, that is — but my impression is that it’s mostly a call to consider prior probability and to take care using p-values.

    Here’s a three year-old take on this from Steven Novella, which might want to read as starting point for perspective: http://theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=8

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