When it comes to what's for dinner – or breakfast and lunch
for that matter – many people suffer from chemophobia, an irrational fear of
natural and synthetic chemicals that pose no risk to our health, a Dartmouth
Chemistry Professor Gordon Gribble, whose paper appears in
the journal Food Security, argues
that low doses of chemicals in modern food are inherent, typically harmless and
often highly beneficial. He says most people don't know they are routinely
exposed to a host of compounds in non-toxic concentrations in what they eat and
drink each day.
Even the air they breathe – whether in big cities or the
countryside – is full of naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals,
including wine "aroma," flower "bouquet," perfume
"fragrance," bakery "smell" and "garbage
Gribble cites the example of halogen compounds, which many
people – even many scientists – assume are all uniquely man-made poisons found
in dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the pesticide DDT. But he says
thousands of halogen compounds are, in fact, part of our natural environment
made by protists, plants, animals and even humans for their own defensive
purposes. Some species even use organohalogens, which contain carbon along with
chlorine, bromine, iodine or fluorine, to mount chemical offensives against
'Bacteria and fungi cause more infections'
Gribble says food regulators should focus not on pesticides,
antibiotics and dioxins but on pathogens, bacteria and fungi, which each year
cause millions of cases of food-borne infections in the United States that
result in hospitalisation or death. He recommends people eat a diverse diet to
minimize their exposure to harmful concentrations of chemicals.
"Our food is peppered with natural compounds such as
organohalogens, dioxins, aflatoxins and many others," he says. "Food
is chemistry beyond our immediate control, including those synthetic chemicals
that are deemed to be artificial and should not be found in 'safe' food."
Gribble says chemophobia started in 1962 with publication of
Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and was reinforced by major chemical
accidents, such as those in Times Beach, Missouri; Love Canal, New York; and
Bhopal, India. "The word 'chemical' became a dirty word despite the fact
that everything we see, smell and touch is chemical," he says.
"While chemical scares invariably appear on the front
page, the follow-up stories that often refute the initial scares never