Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Sodium Azide.

"Never eat anything you can't pronounce." - Some sperg on an anti-vaccination, anti-GMO page on social media.

Chemophobia, the irrational fear of chemicals and chemistry, is one of my personal bugbears. It triggers me something chronic. And like many irrational fears, it is, of course, grounded in ignorance and the cesspit of stupidity that is social media.

I have a friend on Facebook. He's a fellow headbanger and a fairly rational sort. He and his wife have just had a child recently. However, his wife and their friends are rich in superannuated hippies, several of which shit up everyone's feeds with anti-vaccination and anti-GMO and even 9/11 truthery memes. His wife is, alas, falling in their direction. She says that she hates having their child vaccinated and only has had the main ones "against her better judgement." As an aside, I think anti-vaxxers should be brought to the attention of Social Services whenever they are detected but that's because I am intolerant of harmful stupidity. She reckons that the reason children get sick so often is because their immunities have been compromised by sticking chemicals up their nose.

You may commence headdesking now.

See, everything is chemicals. This morning, for breakfast I consumed a keratinised module of thioproteins with lightly carbonised hydrocarbon-rich cellulose foam for breakfast. Other than making me drop room-clearing farts (as a result of the sulphur in the thioproteins reacting with the hydrochloric acid in my stomach to form hydrogen sulphide gas) it hasn't done me any harm. It hasn't made me grow a third arm or anything ridiculous like that. Yeah, I might be a bit of a fat bastard but that's due to my inability to keep from stuffing my face rather than any given chemical. However, tell vaccination-under-protest woman that and she'll have a right shit fit. I once called her out on this, saying that she doesn't like stuffing chemicals up peoples' noses yet just the previous evening by her own admission she'd consumed a meal with a higher than average content of oxalic acid and nordihydrocapsaicin in the form of nightmarishly hot chilli, washed down with a solution of glucoses and ethanol in water. I was told that apparently those don't count because they're natural. I told her that amatoxin, strychnine, and osmium tetroxide are all perfectly natural and you really wouldn't want to eat those, yet she likes the occasional E at a party and that's definitively artificial (unless of course she believes that the God of Massive Drugs gave unto some superannuated hippie the secret of it while he was trying to expand his mind.)

And here's the other thing they don't understand - the concept of LD50s and that the dose makes the poison. Yes, some vaccines contained thiomersal once upon a time. This is an organomercury compound and it's very, very, toxic. However, the amount of it in a vaccine is about 0.0001 milligrams. This is far below the LD50 of same of 75mg/kg. However it is metabolised into the body into ethylmercury, which is excreted fairly swiftly, unlike methylmercury which bioaccumulates. (A bit like how a glass of ethanol will get you wasted while a glass of methanol will send you blind then kill you.) But no. To your average chemophobe, as soon as they hear that anything contains even the tiniest volume of mercury, it's OMG POISON DEATH time.

Ahh, but you see, those chemicals don't count because they're not made by Big Pharma or Monsanto, both of whom are secretly trying to depopulate the planet of the riff-raff and/or don't care about ordinary people and/or the environment because they just want to buy another swimming pool to fill with banknotes and bathe in, whereas ecstasy tablets and baggies of ketamine are produced clandestinely by brave anti-corporate fighters who want to stick it to The Man. Similarly, organic food, which has been bathed in natural shit and nibbled on by non-genetically-modified disease-carrying insects, is clearly better for you than non-organic food, which will give you cancer immediately you swallow it, because organic food is produced by struggling subsistence farmers trying to make their way in a world which doesn't do the right thing and the alternative is produced by dodgy corporations whose executives probably breed puppies just to kick them.

And this seems to be the root of chemophobia. It's basically an ill-informed anti-corporate circle jerk which feeds on the fact that, to the uninitiated, chemistry is all a bit, well, otherworldly really. Rows of jars and vials with long words on them and scary-looking warning labels containing stuff that looks innocuous but is just waiting to get you, or fuming liquids of unearthly colours and even more warning labels on them. Strange looking pieces of glassware. The safety glasses. Things that set fire to concrete and sand. Metals that make you smell of rotting leeks for weeks if you touch them. Basically, you think of chemistry nowadays, you think of the classical mad scientist brewing up unspeakable substances in a basement, possibly while laughing uncontrollably, probably while in the pay of a huge multi-national corporation with ill intentions. While physics has Stephen Hawking whose work probably will lay the foundations of time travel and Brian Cox who used to be in a Britpop band and therefore is cool, and biology has national treasure David Attenborough and legions of do-gooders trying to save the Amur Tiger, chemistry has... Walter White from Breaking Bad. Chemistry is, in short, the one who knocks. And then poisons you with ricin.

Thing is, though, as evil as some chemical substances are, when used correctly they contribute massively to our lives. It is beyond dispute that vaccination has all but eliminated smallpox, polio, and those worms that burrow out your feet after drinking water contaminated with their eggs. Artificial fertilisers and pesticides have reduced starvation dramatically. Hydrochloric acid, which fumes and eats through your skin, is found in your stomach. Sodium azide, a white crystalline solid as toxic as cyanide and which has the added fun bonus of exploding if you look at it the wrong way? Used in airbags and has saved lives in countless car accidents where its impact sensitivity and ability to decompose in an explosive blast of nitrogen gas means a small charge of it can fill an airbag sufficiently to cushion your head hitting the steering wheel within milliseconds. Cadmium is a highly toxic heavy metal but finds use in orange and red paints that can resist temperatures of over 3,000 C and without it many great artists of the 19th century wouldn't have been able to deploy vibrant colours that really pop on the canvas. All these were made possible through chemistry. But no. Rather than wonder at human innovation and inventiveness and how we started with hardening pointy sticks in a fire to stab woolly mammoths, then graduated to refining iron and bronze in small quantities, then became able to customise molecules for specific tasks, producing ultra-fireproof paints, super lightweight yet ultra strong metals for construction, and substances that literally hack defective portions of the human brain, we'd rather listen to horror stories about how someone's child died after eating paint or how fluorine in water is allowing communists to steal our precious bodily fluids or bollocks about how vaccines turned some tit model's child into an autist, usually on clickbaity "news" sites like fucking BuzzFeed or Huffington Post or in ill-advised campaign emails (I had one of these from Sum Of Us which was pushing for a ban on acrylamide in food, without realising that it forms naturally in minute quantities when starch is heated.) This, combined with the circlejerk nature of social media, is responsible for feeding into peoples' prejudices that all chemists are secretly going to start cooking methamphetamine and bombs in their basements, and therefore chemicals, far from being something useful and advancing human society apace, are all evil and toxic and Big Pharma and Monsanto.

Of course, they don't realise that whenever you clean your house or cook your lunch you are, in fact, carrying out chemistry. Ever wondered why oven spray froths up when you apply it to the oven? It's sodium hydroxide saponifying caked-on fats and oils and turning them into soap, which can then be scrubbed out after a while with a wet sponge.

To be fair, there is good reason to be wary of corporate wrongdoing. But this doesn't mean that chemists and the chemical industry are all secretly trying to poison you. Nor does it mean that baseless fearmongering about chemicals is warranted. As to chemophobes themselves, all I have to say about them is, they should either educate themselves or give up breathing and eating, preferably permanently.