Science is so often misunderstood. When a title like “chemical” enters common parlance, many people become alarmed. If it’s “chemical”, it’s toxic, right? Expert marketers know how to cater to these views. How often do you see “chemical-free”, “all natural”, etc on a label as a badge of honor? Just walk through Walmart and you will see how these claims are lauded. In particular, I saw this product: “Climb On! Bug Drug 100% Pure, Chemical Free Insect Repellent”. This name is inappropriate from a scientific standpoint. Click on the link if you’d like to see for yourself.
Chemistry is the study of matter, its composition, transformations, and properties. All matter is made up of chemicals. Water is a chemical compound, no matter what unpolluted mountain stream it came from. With this label, the marketer is attempting to portray the product as safe and reliable. When we think of chemicals, we think of spills, and toxins, and horrible side effects. By labeling the product as “chemical-free”, the bug spray is separated from all those negative associations, even though, technically, it is not chemical-free.
So what should we call these things? The bug spray may be free of synthetic concoctions, but it surely isn’t chemically free from a scientist’s perspective. Perhaps a more appropriate label would be “free from certain chemicals”, or “no extra chemicals”. “No extra chemicals” sounds like a good name. This would represent the product as free from certain commonly added chemicals, but also acknowledge that the product itself, as matter, contains chemicals.
It is amazing how these little tricks of language affect our daily lives. What we buy at the store is often influenced by our own ignorance and the marketer’s ability to play off the fads of the day. I’d like to end with an anecdote by David Foster Wallace about understanding the world around us: “Here are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?'”
So often we are unaware of what surrounds us. In that quote, fish are oblivious to water. For us, we are swimming in chemicals without even realizing it. They are in everything, and being aware of that fact can help navigate our daily lives; we don’t have to be afraid of chemicals they way so many are, especially when it comes to buying bug spray.