State of Fear of Chemicals Hits Hometown in Face


How many remember the “dihydrogen monoxide” hoax thrust upon the populace in the 90’s? Chemophobia, the “fear of chemicals”, usually goes with the assumption that “chemicals” are harmful, but “natural” things are good. Chemophobia normally originates from incomplete knowledge, or a misunderstanding of science. Every substance in the universe is a chemical.

A major factor of chemophobia is increasing sensitivity of analytical techniques that can now detect extremely low levels. Typically, media only reports a chemical has been detected, not that it has exceeded harmful levels.

In 1997, “dihydrogen monoxide” [DHMO] was feared among the populace. The DHMO Hoax was nothing but water, if called by its common name. Unknowingly, “chemophobes” believed chemicals would be our downfall.

Just within the past two weeks, Greenpeace broke into the local Progress Energy Plant. Sixteen people entered, and 5 climbed a 300ft smokestack and unfurled their banner: “Duke and Progress Energy, Stop Destroying Mountains”. CEO Jim Rogers, the lead fundraiser for the Democrat National Convention (Charlotte), lent the Democrats $10 million for that convention. Greenpeace actually claimed Duke Energy is responsible for 951 premature deaths, 1,447 heat attacks, and 15,714 asthma attacks caused by his power plants every year.

One wonders how Greenpeace came up with such exact numbers. If one looks at the typical pollutants from coal-fired plants, one sees [CO2], [SO2], [NOx], [CO], and methyl mercury [“monomethylmercuric cation”].

[CO2] is a non-pollutant, and is necessary for life on earth. Concentrations of the others are negligible compared with their Threshold Limit Value [TLV]. Methyl mercury can be dangerous in high concentrations, but volcanoes are responsible for half of all mercury emissions. Eruptions usually result in a 4-6x increase in atmospheric mercury.[77]

The EPA TLV for mercury is 0.02 mg/m3 (~0.02ppm), but it also lists mercury as a Class A4-Not classifiable as a human carcinogen.

In the last few weeks, EPA has leveled the local CTS Plant in Arden, NC, at a cost of millions. This Superfund Site spread fear through South Asheville. The main chemical was trichloroethylene (e.g., TCE, Trilene, Trike), and “chemophobes” came out of the woodwork. Bulldozing the now ‘flat’ CTS plant by the EPA, did not improve TCE in the groundwater.

An EPA-sanctioned soil-vapor extraction system has been operating there since 2006. In that system, any TCE-laden groundwater is aerated, where TCE is removed from the water.

Why do so many forget TCE was used extensively in the 50’s and 60’s for extracting vegetable oils from palm, soy, and coconut? Typically used in coffee decaffeination? Worst of all, most forget it was used as a gas anesthetic. Millions have breathed 1% TCE through self-administered analgesia (i.e., childbirth difficulties). It’s TLV stands at 50 ppm. The ACGIH lists it as: Not suspected to be a human carcinogen. In California alone, there are over 73 facilities that have used TCE. Of the millions that have used it, there is no known case of a human getting cancer because of TCE.

In the most noted “chemophobe” case in history, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane became viewed as the most feared synthetic chemical ever made. Most remember it simply as “DDT”. DDT FAQ shows many countries were pressured to eliminate DDT.

Silent Spring (1962) caused a technical uproar, and a ban of US DDT manufacture (1972). Even DDT – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, now admits although DDT use had almost completely stopped, eggshell thickness remained thinner before DDT was first used.

John Stossel accused USAID of not funding DDT, because it wasn’t “politically correct,” Anne Peterson (USAID) replied “I believe that the strategies we are using are as effective as spraying with DDT.

In 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated almost 1,000,000 deaths due to lack of DDT not killing malarial-infected mosquitoes. Malaria remains a major public health challenge in Africa, India, Brazil, and Mexico, where 69% of all reported cases of malaria occur. DDT has been called a “miracle weapon like Kryptonite to the mosquitoes, and serves as one indicator that repellency is very important in preventing indoor transmission of malaria.”

In the most absurd posturing of chemophobia in the 1960s, population control advocates blamed DDT for increasing third world population. WHO actually believed the only alternative to overpopulation was to assure that up to 40% of children in 3rd world countries would die of malaria. [Desowitz, RS. 1992. Malaria Capers, W.W. Norton & Company]

DDT has a current Permitted Exposure Level (PEL/OSHA) of 1 mg/m3 ( ~1 ppm). In the billion or so DDT-exposed people, there is no confirmed case of cancer-ever.

As a Chemical Engineer, the writer knows some chemicals can be dangerous in certain amounts. Being cognizant of that fact should alleviate any unwarranted fears.

There are over over 250 known phobias, and chemophobia seems to be the most common fear. If people can be afraid of water called by a different name, what power does the fear of the unknown really have?

A former Chemical Engineer, Kevin Roeten enjoys riding the third rail of journalism: politics and religion. He is a Guest Columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times, and the Independent (Ohio), writes for numerous blogs, is an amateur astronomer, and delves into scientific topics.