Are all chemicals bad and all natural things good?

I was asked this very interesting question by a reader in response to an earlier blog, “Let’s celebrate a Chemical Free Day.

If I were to speak literally, our human body itself is a huge chemical soup, 70% of which is made up of H2O molecules!!  So we don’t need to balk at the word “chemicals” as though it’s a dirty word.  Chemicals exist in Nature as much as they do in laboratories, so we need to know what we are talking about.

If there is an underlying assumption that Chemicals = bad and Natural = good, then I would like to put that in context.

There is definitely a rising awareness about the dangers of toxic synthetic chemicals, the ones which are created in the laboratory from artificial or natural sources. These have a harmful effect on human beings, and on the environment by polluting the air and water, impoverishing soils and wreaking havoc on food chains.

During the last 50 years or so, there has been an explosion of synthetic chemicals in our environment, many of which have been linked to the increasing occurrence of hormonal disruptions and cancers in human beings, even in low doses.

These chemicals are everywhere and occur in the form of agro- pesticides, fertilisers and fungicides. Synthetic chemicals in our food appear in the form of preservatives, flavourings and colourings.  Chemicals are routinely used in plastics, fabrics, furniture, electronics and household products such as cleaning solutions, detergents, polishes as well as personal care products like cosmetics, shampoos, soaps.

Scientists are only just beginning to understand the effects of toxins in the form of pthalates, parabens, alkylphenols like Bisphenol-A,  brominated flame retardants, chlorinated paraffins and the artificial fragrances that are incredibly pervasive in our day to day products.

David Ewing Duncan, a reporter for the National Geographic points out in an excellent article called “Journey of Chemical Self-Discovery” where he finds out his chemical body-burden :

From the early 1980s through the late 1990s, autism increased tenfold; from the early 1970s through the mid-1990s, one type of leukemia was up 62 percent, male birth defects doubled, and childhood brain cancer was up 40 percent. Some experts suspect a link to the man-made chemicals that pervade our food, water, and air. There’s little firm evidence. But over the years, one chemical after another that was thought to be harmless turned out otherwise once the facts were in.”

All over the world, there are over 100,000 synthetic chemicals, with around 1700 being added every year. The problem is that many of them are being released into products, and into the environment, and also into the human body, without sufficient testing or review or restrictions.  Therein lies the problem. We often don’t know the effects, till it’s too late.  It took many decades, for example, before scientists estabilished the link between smoking and cancer.

Are all synthetic chemicals bad?

Our lives have been considerably enhanced by several products made with synthetic chemicals. Some are harmless no doubt, but there are many more whose effects on our health and the environment, we are only beginning to understand and unravel.

1. We don’t always know whether the synthetic chemicals we use are totally harmless. They are so many new ones being introduced every year, and yet we don’t know for sure the safe limits estabilished on them, and whether they have been tested at all.  Only a fourth of all the 82,000 chemicals used in the US, for example, have been tested for toxicity.

So if you are in a position to find a natural alternative that is safe and non-toxic, it’s a better option. Look at this report to see how hard Greenpeace is working to convince companies to reduce the extent of toxic chemicals in our household products (as they do exist rampantly), because even well known brands have several synthetic compounds which are harmful to human health and environment.

 2.  It depends  An individual synthetic chemical known and estabilished to be non-toxic may be harmless, depending on the usage. Let’s take synthetic vinegar for example. It’s an excellent alternative to many commercially available household cleaners (which contain a range of toxic chemicals such as sodium laureth sulphates and formaldehydes linked to cancers, and which also affect the rivers and seas they eventually reach).  So is baking soda which is a synthetic chemical, it’s harmless and biodegradable, and is a great alternative for harsh bleaches for clothes.

If you were to repeatedly use the same synthetic vinegar as a preservative or salad dressing, it would probably kill the good bacteria in your stomach too! So a better alternative would be a natural vinegar such as apple cedar vinegar, which has important anti-bacterial properties, apart from being good for your blood pressure, PH balance and potassium balance.  Similarly, baking soda if ingested regularly is not great for the stomach.

There is an added reason to go for non-toxic natural ingredients. Synthetic chemicals invariably use petroleum resources in their manufacture. Home made products are even better, as it saves a lot of packaging and carbon footprint. If you had to use a ready made synthetic face pack for your face, that comes in a plastic tube, and uses at least 5-10 ingredients, and has travelled thousands of miles to reach your supermarket shelf, choose a natural home made one, say of bananas and honey.

However, this is not always practial and we may not always be able to live without processed products.

How can we really assess the toxicity ratings of a product or a brand?

We can look into the Cosmetics Safety Database painstakingly compiled by the Environment Working Group which ranks cosmetics and personal care products and brands on the basis of their toxicity. You can directly search the database for any product or company or brand to get a ranking.

For other products, you could compare the ingredients in your bottle or can, with the list of chemicals listed in this index along with their effects.

  3. It adds up Even if synthetic chemicals in small doses are by themselves safe, we have the problem of “bioaccumulation.” Once toxic substances enter our bodies, they tend to linger in our adipose fat tissues and accumulate or build up over time.

As in the article by David Ewing Duncan of the National Geographic, his blood sample showed evidence of exposure to DDT and PCBs from decades earlier. Though David is fit and healthy, we don’t know the likely future impact of these past residues and the ones building up every day.

Although the consequences of bioaccumulation are not well understood in humans, it is suspected to cause various cancers, immune system problems, learning disabilities, and birth defects.

Bioaccumulation has an impact on the environment as well. For example, Japanese and Russian scientiests published a study in 1997 reporting high toxic levels of polychlorinated biphenyls(PCBs) in fish in Lake Baikal, Siberia as well as in the Baikal seal that eats these fish. While the process of bioaccumulation  is very important for the accumulation of vitamins and minerals, it can be really disastrous with harmful chemicals.
4. Cocktails may behave differently  As different synthetic chemicals are being introduced every year, there is no way to really tell how they interact with a plethora of other synthetic chemicals entering our atmosphere, water, and human bodies. 

We don’t know how different chemicals may combine in our body and impact it. For example, how will the  chemical from the furniture polish that we inhale, combine with the pesticides in the fruit we’ve eaten, and the minute particulate matter in the air when we go for a walk, and the chlorine in our swimming pool?


Learn more about our Chemical Body Burden, and how chemicals enter our body and their impact.

Can there be green chemistry?

Is it possible to create green chemicals that are completely non-toxic? Terry Collins, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Green Oxidation Chemistry, certainly thinks so as he tries to create chemicals that don’t pollute in the first place. He’s among the leaders of green chemistry, an emerging technology that makes new molecules that are safe by design.

According to him, toxicity is a problem because we are putting elements that do not occur commonly in the biosphere, such as lead and mercury. In green chemistry, you try to use only those elements that are encountered naturally in the environment and in the exact manner they are used in biochemistry.  

Hopefully this will usher in a future of less toxic synthetic chemicals. Read Terry Collins’ interview with Bioneers here.

This brings me to the second part of the question I was posed:

Are all natural ingredients good?

1. Poisons exist in Nature There are all sorts of poisons created by plants and animals, primarily for self defence.  Think of it as a massive chemical warfare occuring every day, and over millions of years by Nature, where all kinds of toxins are manufactured as a repellent for predators. 

It might surprise you to know even common foods we have contain toxins, e.g. the stones and pips of apricots, plums, cherries, peaches, apples and pears all contain glycosides which if eaten release potentially lethal doses of cyanide. Every part of the tomato plant is poisonous except the fruit!

How does this knowledge help us?

When we talk of natural alternatives to synthetic chemicals, it is equally important to understand what these ingredients are and their effects. Usually the ones that have been used for generations in various cultures, as hand-me-down recipes are safe even though there is no formal testing. We have to accept as valid, the trial and error over the generations combined with ancient wisdom.

With the increasing availability of herbal powders, mixes, pills for medicines, diets and cosmetics, at times with natural ingredients we are not very familiar with, it is important to research and understand the herbs we may be ingesting or applying on our skin.

In Nature, a leaf may have over 500 compounds all of which are meant to be taken synergistically by animals. Extracts isolate a compound and in concentrated form may have a different effect.  Even though a health or diet pill or herbal extract may be “Natural,”  it should be taken with proper guidance. For example, Ginseng is a powerful natural substance, but should be taken with guidance as it is a blood thinner.

2. Proper guidance is important Many poison plants such as jewelweed, poison oak, poison ivy are purified and used in Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Homoeopathy and other traditional therapies. Given the right dose for the right length of time under the proper guidance of a good doctor, such alternative medicine are very beneficial without the side effects of allopathic medicine. It is equally important to obtain “natural” ingredients sources you can trust.

3. Beware of green washing “Natural” or “Herbal” or “Organic” may still mean that there are some synthetic chemicals, which may or may not be toxic.  Even if the product is entirely “Natural” it is important to do your research on what the ingredients are and their impact. Here are some resources to help you.

- Understand your natural ingredients 

 - Assess toxicity of cosmetics which are “Natural” or synthetic using EWG’s Cosmetics Database

 - Understand the meaning and effects of synthetic chemicals in Personal Care products 

That Nature is not necessarily safe, is no excuse to condone synthetic chemicals which are toxic or whose effects we don’t fully understand. Interestingly, the fact that Nature makes dangerous chemicals was a line used by detractors of Rachel Carson, author of “The Silent Spring” and who often credited with starting the environmental movement.

Having said that, not all chemicals are bad and many have considerably enhanced the quality of our lives, but as Deborah Ortiz, chair of the Senate Health Committee and the author of a bill to monitor chemical exposure (and as quoted in David Ewing’s article) says:

The key is knowing more about these substances, so we are not blindsided by unexpected hazards. We benefit from these chemicals, but there are consequences, and we need to understand these consequences much better than we do now.”


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Posted by on Apr 7 2009. Filed under Chemicals. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

4 Comments for “Are all chemicals bad and all natural things good?”

  1. hey Bhavani, thanks for taking the time to write this article. :)

    I guess at the end of the day, what’s more important is whether the substance has been tested and verified to be safe, not whether it’s natural or synthetic.

    The message is that don’t automatically assume all natural substances to be safe, and all synthetic substances to be toxic.

    btw, you mentioned this: “It took many decades, for example, before scientists estabilished the link between smoking and cancer.”

    The link was established very early by the in-house scientists of the manufacturers. But these and other findings were suppressed and challenged at every turn, hence the long time taken.

  2. You’re right about that Hun Boon, it is important for the ingredient to be tested and verified regardless of whether it is natural or synthetic. Though I do have to mention that many herbal and hand-me-down recipes are tested not in laboratories, but through centuries of trial-and-error and “grandma’s wisdom” and these can’t be discounted.

    Two points of concern I have:
    1. That we don’t always know for sure how safe a synthetic chemical is. If there is a safe, non-toxic natural alternative, it makes sense to prefer the latter, from a health and environmental point of view, just as it’s important to choose a less toxic synthetic alternative to a more toxic synthetic product.

    2. That we should not get carried away by greenwashing, or green labelling of a product as “Natural” and assume the ingredients are automatically safe.

    I understand what you say about the link between smoking and cancer. I can also relate it the extraordinary efforts made by Greenpeace and EWG to convince companies to remove toxic chemicals in even the best known and accepted brands. There is so much resistance to change, and hopefully discussions like this will help build awareness.

    Thanks for the question!!

  3. it just rocks

  4. Skeptical Environmentalist

    I think you made many assumptions or expressed many opinions with very little fact. The reason one fourth of the 82,000 chemicals used in the US (and how were they used?) have not been tested for toxicity is because many have been deemed low risk and occur naturally. In fact most chemicals do occur in nature, but in relationship to your vinegar statement, they are not created the same way. At the molecular level they are very much the same. It is not the vinegar that is different in apple cider vinegar, but the Other chemical compounds that come out of that manufacturing process.

    Any statistics text worth its salt will caution the reader not to confuse correlation with causation. Yet the mistake is very common. As a refresher, here’s an example I often give my classes:

    Consider elementary school students’ shoe sizes and scores on a standard reading exam. They are correlated, but saying that larger shoe size causes higher reading scores is as absurd as saying that high reading scores cause larger shoe size.

    In this example, there is a clear lurking variable, namely, age. As the child gets older, both their shoe size and reading ability increase.

    This is the same for your natural/synthetic argument. Not all synthetic chemicals are from oil. Only ORGANIC chemicals come from oil as they have the organic compound of carbon in their molecule. The fact that the medial confuses the organic and natural statements makes it even worse. INORGANIC chemicals are also found naturally, many are mined from salts in the ground or distilled from oceans.

    The biggest problem as labeling “manufactured chemicals” as synthetic is also deceiving. Many chemicals are mass-manufactured to help REDUCE the energy and materials needed to make the chemicals and what tends to be the most common reason for mass-manufacturing is lack of supply. There are many countries and regions that do not have access to all of the chemistry available in this great country and that is unfortunate.
    For example, Greenpeace has been fighting to ban rice in China that has been modified to be enriched with Vitamin A. This is an essential vitamin to help prevent blindness in children. That country has had a steady increase in child blindness in the poorest regions due to that vitamin deficiency and this GMO has the capabilities to fix that.

    Hopefully, those lives are worth trying to help.

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