An antidote to chemophobia

Published July 1, 2002

Understand the truth about chemicals, and you’ll come away optimistic about food, nature, technology, and the future, says Dr. Alan Sweeney in his new book, Happy & Healthy in a Chemical World (1stBooks, 2001). The nearly 200-page book is a must-read and handy reference for persons confronted with anti-technology double-speak.

“This book is a guide to a new understanding of the sea of chemicals we live in,” writes Sweeney in the introduction. The book proceeds to live up to his assessment, tackling a variety of fabricated chemical scares in a manner at once thorough, concise, and easily understood.

No distinction between synthetic and natural

Sweeney begins by explaining that everything in the world is made of chemicals. There is no such thing as “chemical-free” man-made products or natural entities. Moreover, man-made chemicals are identical to their “natural” counterparts. An atom is an atom, and chemicals are merely compositions of those atoms, which are exactly the same regardless of who or what put them together. Natural vs. synthetic distinctions are meaningless.

Toxic scares usually unfounded

Sweeney urges consumers to be aware that toxicity is an overblown and frequently misrepresented issue. “One cannot, in a black-and-white fashion, define which compounds are toxic and which are benign. Rather, one can only describe toxic situations.” For example, notes Sweeney, sugar and salt—two of the most common elements in our diets—can be toxic at high doses. Indeed, even “the most necessary compound for life, water, is toxic when we drown in it.” The lesson of toxicity is “the dose makes the poison.”

Man-made chemicals are no more toxic than natural chemicals, Sweeney explains. In fact, “there are many more potentially toxic natural compounds than man-made, such as those made by microbes, plants, and animals to ward off predators.” The most toxic man-made chemicals are very closely controlled, whereas nature has free reign to produce as much toxicity as it desires.

Even man-made pesticides, a favorite target of environmental activist scorn, are significantly less toxic and safer than their natural counterparts. All vegetables are loaded with natural pesticides, many of which are far more potent than commonly used man-made pesticides. Efforts by organic farmers to eliminate man-made pesticides affect overall toxicity only at the margins. Sweeney quotes Bruce Ames, head of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley: “[T]he effort to eliminate synthetic pesticides … will make fruits and vegetables more expensive, decrease consumption, and thus increase cancer rates.”

Pollution into the dustbin of history

Of particularly good news for humankind, “industrial pollution is now a serious problem only in developing countries,” observes Sweeney. “If current trends continue, we will see ‘the end of pollution’ and have better lives for all.”

“Probably two-thirds of today’s [pollution] problems will be gone in 30 years,” Sweeney writes. One-third, he explains, will be shown to be nonexistent or inconsequential, as was the recent Alar scare. Another third will be solved, just as many past problems have been solved, with the continuing advance of technology.

A remaining third might still be with us, but will largely be purged from developed countries—not coincidentally, the very countries that have harnessed chemical engineering for the benefit of humankind.

Not only advancing technology, but also increasing wealth, make pollution an ever-receding problem in developed countries. As their incomes grow, people can afford the “luxury” goods (as compared to the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter) of technological research and costly pollution abatement technologies. A good example is the recent announcement of President George W. Bush’s Clean Skies Initiative, which would have been both technologically impossible and financially unfeasible just a few short years ago.

Applying day-to-day lessons

The long and short of it, according to Sweeney, is that consumers must take the time and make the effort to become informed on environmental issues in the face of media and activist groups often pushing a self-serving agenda.

The media are frequently more interested in attention-getting headlines than reporting the underlying science. Environmental activist groups often use scare tactics to further other goals, such as anti-globalization, socialism, and anti-industrialism. Well-meaning environmentalists often fall victim to these propaganda campaigns and oppose free-market technologies based on fear and emotion.

So how can we best live day-to-day in a world of both natural and synthetic chemicals? Sweeney offers several suggestions far more beneficial to human health than buying into the “pesticide-free,” “chemical-free,” or other misleading campaigns:

  • Eat a balanced diet.
  • Follow low-fat guidelines.
  • Eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day.
  • Don’t fall for diet fads.
  • Don’t overdo any food or supplement.
  • Avoid spoiled or tainted food.
  • Limit your consumption of salted, smoked, or barbecued food.
  • Take antioxidant supplements.
  • Take a vitamin supplement.
  • Run your water tap briefly before using it.
  • Wash your hands with soap frequently.
  • Wash fruit and vegetables carefully.
  • Avoid smoke and dust.
  • Open windows when vacuuming.

“I am, and I think most people are, willing to pay for clean air, clean water, and safe food,” concludes Sweeney, “but I don’t want to pay for excessive, nit-picking bureaucratic rules and regulations which produce minuscule or zero results.”

If this strikes you as solid common sense, then you’ll appreciate having Happy & Healthy in a Chemical World as your guide.

For more information …

Happy & Healthy in a Chemical World is available for $19.95 through,