13 Comments

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