The baseless, superstitious fear of chemicals has certainly gripped our supposedly advanced population in a haze of inchoate panic akin to the residents of 17th century Salem, or Europeans of the Dark Ages.
Sadly, science ignorance pervades our populace, largely because the perception is "Who cares?" or “How do I know what to believe?” And perhaps even more important: "Do I really need to know that?” Yes, you do.
Here's why: when charismatic charlatans and quacks—and there is hardly a shortage of them— purvey miracle cures and "nutritional supplements" to supposedly support healthy bodily functions, only those with a modicum of scientific insight will be armed to distinguish salesmanship from factual information. Those without become easy marks.
It’s even worse: we routinely are queried about chemical scares from highly educated, very bright, and open-minded people. The fact that they don’t even know who to believe is especially disturbing.
Unfortunately, all too often the snake-oil pitchmen do not appear as they did when P.T. Barnum was running the show. These days, they come all dressed up, often in scrubs and a stethoscope and do their pitching to a mass audience on popular TV shows. Some are "communications" experts with major food chains, yet their messages do much more harm than the carnival barker. For example, the latest travesty came from Chipotle, which has decided to ban GMOs from its calorie- and salt-laden menu, giving the "rationale" that the science on genetically-engineered food ingredients is as yet unsettled. Those with any scientific insight can recognize such a lame excuse for what it is: a brazen corporate attempt to pander to fearful consumers and stigmatize a nutritional miracle while doing so. Ironically, Chipotle IS using GM ingredients in their products—something they either don’t know, or, more likely, have chosen to downplay.
Major media are far from immune to the temptation to parlay these issues into “newsworthy” issues — i.e., to seduce viewers and readers — by sensationalizing scary stories about "toxic chemicals" and "endocrine disruptors" poisoning our children in the womb. Great for selling newspapers.
It is very difficult to determine whether a "science writer" is informing his or her readers based on reliable, evidence-based data, or if they have decided that garnering attention through exaggerated alarmist "sky is falling" articles, often one after the other on the same theme, will do their career the most good, despite its irresponsible ramifications.
Examples abound, and seem to be accelerating. A few years ago, an allegedly groundbreaking series of articles appeared in the "paper of record," the New York Times, alleging that the most commonly used herbicide in America, atrazine, was contaminating the riverbeds of the heartland, corn country. Atrazine is the safest chemical crop protection agent we have; nevertheless, class action lawyers (getting leaked water-level information from groups such as NRDC) were able to extort a substantial tribute from the makers of atrazine, thanks to the paper's series of articles. The actual threat to health: nil.
More recently, that same journal devoted what seemed to be a whole weekend's worth of articles to a variety of silly scare stories, on an apparent crusade to catch the Zeitgeist of chemophobia and baseless superstition surrounding chemicals, and science in general. They had a team of reporters post a page one story entitled "Commonly Used Chemicals Come Under New Scrutiny." The chemicals in question in this piece are basically ubiquitous in our world and pose no health threat. The specific ones targeted are merely related to some others used in Teflon and similar consumer products for decades; the source of the Times' concern — not so easily tracked down — was an opinion piece in a journal well-known for publishing anything remotely tarnishing any chemical, Environmental Health Perspectives.
The writers of this op-ed piece cited numerous "concerns", yet the studies they reported contained nothing that should worry anyone of any age. The paper went so far as to point out that their scary chemical target was to be found in pizza boxes! (The weekend's toll included more alarmism about formaldehyde, a health threat only to embalmers and those allergic to it, and a "Retro" report on an old flame-retardant scare. Truly groundbreaking stuff!).
How do we explain the trend towards chemophobia — the reflexive fear of "chemicals"? Well, it suits those running the vast network of wealthy "green" NGOs, whose putative goal is to cleanse our environment of "toxic chemicals," but whose real motivation is to gain regulatory power and add to their coffers via donations from folks made fearful by their propaganda and yearning to be saved from all those toxins.
Nowadays, those running our government and its metastasizing regulatory bureaucracy work in close contact with these "environmental" organizations (the incestuous relationship of the EPA and groups like the EWG and NRDC are well-known), sowing the seeds of fear and loathing against all types of chemicals, no matter how common and no matter their lengthy track record of safety and utility.
Perhaps the best example of this is BPA, a plastic hardener used in many common products, especially canned goods. Despite every scientific organization's blessing as to its safety, the chemophobic media and activists proclaim it to be an endocrine disruptor and a toxin, even at immeasurably low-dose. Yet, their suggested substitute proved no match for it in efficacy and was also less reliably non-toxic.
In sum, those desiring a "chemical-free world" will be frustrated eventually, as we are all made of chemicals, as is everything surrounding us. Synthetic chemicals are not essentially more toxic than natural ones, and the mere detection of a chemical in our bodies does not mean that it is a health threat.
The fear of GMOs and vaccines, while not exactly "chemicals," comes from the same place in our national psyche: distrust of science and, often, scientists. The only solution: a more intense focus on scientific education, starting as early as possible. Only that will enable us to ward off the agenda-based propaganda posing as "health information."