Follow Jeff Sayre on Twitter

It’s Chemical Free and Not Tested on Animals!

By

As a trained scientist, there are two phrases that stir up my ire every time I see them in marketing copy: “chemical free” and “not tested on animals.” I know that may seem odd, but with our woefully-gullible and science-challenged populace, this is a real issue to me.

I was planning to post an article this morning about the Semantic Web and Web 3.0 but this gnawed at me as I just ran into these phrases once again. So, I decided to write a quick rant. I’ll post the more serious stuff in a week or two.

Okay, my rant is now officially beginning…

«rant»

I Am Not an Animal

Contrary to the Elephant Man’s insistence, he was indeed an animal. So was his mother. So were all the people who mocked him. So is every human being that has ever lived or is currently living.

People–our species, Homo sapiens–are in the Kingdom Animalia. We are animals just like the birds and squirrels outside my window; just like the butterflies that I enjoy watching in the summer; just like the mosquitos that I don’t enjoy nearly as much as the butterflies; just like the fish I had for dinner last night, which I enjoyed more than the mosquitoes who seem to enjoy me.

Get over it people. We ARE animals. If you think otherwise, then go back to school and take a basic science class.

People = humans = Homo sapiens = animals

animals = {people; fish; flies; gnats; beetles; cats; dogs; mice; lions; aardvarks; sloths; worms; snakes; frogs; turtles; sharks; bees; and many more species}

So, the next time you want to write about the difference between humans and animals, instead think about writing about the difference between people and non-human animals.

Case closed.

Universe in a Vacuum: It’s Chemical Free

We’ve all seen advertisements for chemical free skin-care products, or all “natural” chemical free laundry detergent, or chemical free organic lawn products.

To these amazing claims, I ask, Oh really?

Chemical free. Contains no chemicals. These are idiotic claims that many “natural” products companies use in their marketing copy. (Now, before you think that I’m against natural, organic products–I am not, I use them all the time–please read on.)

To make my point, let’s look at two simple examples of everyday chemicals.

  • Water: Yep, it’s a chemical
  • Oxygen: it’s one of the 117 (or so) known elements, also called atoms. But guess what? It’s also a chemical just like the other 116 (or so) elements

That’s right. Even the base elements–those funny little guys that comprise the Periodic Table of Elements–are considered chemicals, although they are often referred to as chemical elements. Why do you think it’s called Chemistry Class?

Speaking of water, not only is it a chemical, it is also a molecule composed of two different bonded species of atoms—hydrogen and oxygen. Thus, it is composed of two different chemicals and is therefore often referred to as a chemical substance or chemical compound.

So, when I buy a product that is claimed to be chemical free, I expect to have just purchased something that contains absolutely nothing. No, that’s not sufficient.

NO CHEMICALS are used at any time. Really? Aren't enzymes chemicals?

When I buy a product that is claimed to be chemical free, I demand that it contains absolutely nothing. It better not contain a single atom of anything or I will sue for misleading advertising.

When I buy a product that is claimed to be chemical free, I want a tube, a bottle, a jar, a box whose contents are guaranteed to be absolutely void of any matter whatsoever. It should be a microcosm of the vacuum in deep space.

Of course, deep space is not even a perfect vacuum. The vacuum of deep space is not even chemical free. So, how do these “natural” products companies create a chemical-free product? You have to wonder. It must be magic.

It’s “Natural” and Organic, So It Must Be Good!

Have you noticed that I keep qualifying the word “natural” by putting it in quotes? Why is this?

Well, natural means absolutely nothing special. It simply refers to something that occurs in nature, is naturally occurring, or is produced by natural processes.

Well, plants growing surely must be a natural process; so peppermint oil is natural. Bees building their hives surely must be a natural process; so beeswax must be natural.

What about people–in particular chemists–who create unique chemical substances that are highly toxic to insects? Is that natural? Well, sure.

Since people are animals, we are part of the natural world. Therefore, everything that humans do is part of the natural process and all of our creations can be considered natural. I know that aliens consider us as puny little, natural organic animals messing up the rest of nature.

What? Are you kidding me?

Not at all…Oh, you’re not asking about the aliens, are you.

Natural is not the appropriate word for separating humankind’s activities or creations from the rest of the ecosystem. Instead, manmade, human made, or artificial should be used.

I prefer people remember that they are part of the natural world instead of abstracting themselves from it. That way, they are less likely to get swollen heads and think that they are separate from all the other animals, that they are not part of the ecosystem. (NB: That is why I think that the phrase anthropogenic climate change is brilliant. It keeps humankind in the climate as part of the ecosystem. See my other rant, The Hot Air About Global Climate Change.)

Okay, what about organic products?

Wow, now this is just becoming too long of a rant. But, since you asked.

The phrase “organic” is another co-opted word used by product marketers. Why? Because most chemical substances can be broken down into two categories—organic and inorganic.

If a chemical substance is primarily comprised of carbon and hydrogen atoms, it is usually classified as being organic. Thus, DDT is organic and, by the way, since it is a human creation, it is also natural. But that does not mean it is safe to eat DDT. It is also best classified as being a highly toxic, artificial chemical substance.

How about plant-based chemicals? Surely they must be safer to use than human-made chemicals. Not necessarily. Some plant-based chemical substances are highly toxic to human animals.

How Can This Get Better?

Well yesterday, when I was looking for a healthier alternative to petroleum-based lip balm, I came across this description on a “natural” products company’s website. I just about lost it when I read this:

Our all natural chemical free lip balm… is not tested on animals.

Holy Cow! I got to get my some of that!

The second thought that came to mind is that I actually should avoid that product at all costs. Why? Because when I use it, I will be the first person to have ever tested the product. I will in fact be the company’s guinea pig. I mean, if it has not been tested on animals, then it cannot yet have been tested on any person.

But then I realized that they might actually be telling the truth. Since the product is chemical free, it contains absolutely nothing. So, it cannot be tested on anything—animals, plants, protozoans, fungi, bacteria, inanimate objects. You get the point. There is nothing to test because they are selling a product which has had all the chemicals removed. So, they can’t even test it on us human animals.

It’s Just a Marketing Message

I realize that phrases such as “chemical free” and “not tested on animals” are meant to convey the message that the products are natural, safe to use, and politically correct to purchase because no non-human animals have been forced to use the products. But, let’s be clear. Natural does not imply safe anymore than organic implies edible.

Lead, arsenic, and benzene are all naturally-occurring chemicals that are quite toxic to people. I don’t know about you, but I try to avoid using any of those natural chemicals when washing my hair. Water, a natural essential chemical substance for all life (as far as we know), can even be lethal under certain uses.

Here’s an interesting article about the toxicity of avocados to some non-human animal species. Once again, “natural” does not necessarily connote edible, healthy, or safe.

Finally, the uninformed usage of the word animal occurs in more that just marketing copy. I see it all the time in news reports, popular articles written by scientists, and many times in letters to the editors. Every time I see someone removing humans from the animal zoo of life, it irks me just a little.

Am I being unreasonable? Well, of course I don’t think so.

In our science-illiterate culture, expressions such as “chemical free” and “not tested on animals” simply add to the disconnect between science, nature, and our view of humanity’s place in the world. I think it is inexcusable and irresponsible.

Okay, end of rant.

«/rant»

I bet you are now entirely confused about all natural, organic, chemical-free products that have not been tested on animals. I’m glad I could help.

Disclaimer: This natural rant is chemical free and has not been tested on any animals (other than organic humans). However, a few plants of multiple species were severely masticated as I sat at my computer writing—yummy all natural organic rolled oatmeal with locally-grown organic blueberries, organic raisins, freshly-ground organic flaxseed, and local genotype native, organic pecans. Oh, I also imagine a number of organic-based bacteria lost their natural lives as well.

Updates:

Here’s a great editorial on the foolish-popular thinking about good chemistry versus bad chemicals: Where are the champions? Viewing requires registering for a free Nature.com account.

Article Comments

  1. Gina says:

    I think I just fell in love with you a little bit. I’m currently working toward a degree in molecular biosciences. My first year in school, I was surprised at the number of my peers who were not prepared for the chemistry that is involved. Many of them hard a hard time comprehending that a chemical could be natural. I wonder how so many of them made it to university level science courses without knowing that water was a chemical?

Leave a Reply

Share on Twitter
Share on Facebook
Share on FriendFeed
Share on LinkedIn
Share on StumbleUpon
Share on Digg
Share on Delicious
Share on Technorati
Add to Google Bookmarks

Archives