28 November 2008

$2.3 million bounty offered for “100% chemical-free material”

Cosmos Online
Britain's Royal Society of Chemistry is attempting to set the public straight on the exact meaning of the word 'chemical'.
Glass of water

Chemically mundane: Water, the greatest chemical constituent of the human body. Credit: iStockphoto

SYDNEY: Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) is attempting to set the public straight on the exact meaning of the word ‘chemical’.

The London-based organisation claims that the marketing and advertising industries have “misappropriated and maligned” their raison d’être to mean any kind of poison.

When “the truth, as any right-minded person will say, is that everything we eat, drink, drive, play with and live in is made of chemicals – both natural and synthetic chemicals are essential for life as we know it.”

Last straw

The final straw came, the society said in a statement, when the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently defended an advert which “perpetuated the myth” that natural and organic products are devoid of chemicals.

The manufacturers of the product in question – a type of organic compost called Miracle Gro – claimed in a TV advert that it was “100 per cent chemical-free” (watch a video of the advert here).

This fantastic claim is repeated in other forms of advertising and on the product’s packaging – despite the fact that the list of ingredients includes ‘phosphorus pentoxide’ and ‘potassium oxide’ among the extensive list of non-manufactured chemicals found in compost.

Despite the fact that viewers complained to the ASA, that body defended the advert, claiming: “when there is a colloquial understanding of a word, we can take this into account when reaching our decision.”

“Tear up the textbooks”

In response, the RSC said that if the British public really believe materials can be chemical-free, then they soon expect to be inundated with calls from people hoping to get their hands on the UK£1 million (A$2.3 million) bounty they are offering.

“I’d be happy to give a million pounds to the first member of the public who could place in my hands any material I consider 100 per cent chemical free,” said Neville Reed a director of the RSC.

“Should anyone do this, we will see thousands of years’ worth of knowledge evaporate before our eyes. We would have to tear up the textbooks, burn the degree certificates and retrain the teachers.”

In case you’re wondering, the (Collins Australian) Dictionary lists a chemical as “any substance used in, or resulting from, a reaction involving changes to atoms or molecules.” Isn’t that everything then?

“All matter is made up of atoms bonded together, so to say a something is chemical-free is to say it does not exist,” said Mark Lynch a chemist at the Australian National University in Canberra and the secretary of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute.

Silly terminology

“Silly terminology like “chemical free” preys upon the misconception of the public that man-made substances are dangerous, while natural substances are harmless.”

This is certainly not the case, as some of the most poisonous substances known to man are naturally derived. These include botulism toxin from a soil bacteria, digitalis toxin from foxgloves and wildly toxic aflatoxins from a fungus that grows on peanuts.

“Plants, bacteria and fungi defend themselves with an impressive arsenal of chemical weaponry; human chemists are mere amateurs when compared to what nature can do,” he said.

It would seem that the RSC’s money is safe then.


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