I fell in love with my work from the very first day, although it entailed nothing more at that stage than quantitative analysis of rock samples: attack with hydrofluoric acid, down comes the iron with ammonia, down comes nickel (how little! A pinch of red sediment) with dimethylglyoxime, down comes magnesium with phosphate, always the same … but stimulating and new was another sensation…it was a piece of rock, the earth’s entrail, torn from the earth by the explosive’s force; and on the basis of the daily data of the analysis little by little was born a map, the portrait of the subterranean veins.     —-Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (p 71)

This picture of a chemical-free chemistry set has been circulating the science blogs for the last month, to the great amusement and annoyance of the blogging community. From the scientists’ perspective, the idea of “chemical free” is ridiculous. Everything is made from chemicals. Well, alright, maybe not everything, as one blogger correctly points out. There are entities lurking at the atomic level — protons and electrons for instance– which are not chemicals.

But the point still stands. The world is made of chemicals. Nothing is chemical-free.

Now some commenters have rightfully pointed out that word-meanings change over time. Scientists and science journalists are being a too literal and too touchy they say. We all understand that “chemical free” should not be taken literally, they argue. It just means that the chemical-free item in question contains nothing unnatural (now there’s a fuzzy term) or toxic. No additives. No preservatives. No scary words starting with 1,2,4-dimethyl… on the label.

Of course. We understand that.

But there’s another fundamental issue here. Yes language changes.  But language shapes and is shaped by our thinking. And, conversely, our thinking is shaped by how we use language. Either way, word-choice matters.

So it happens, therefore, that every element says something to someone (something different to each) like the mountain valleys or beaches visited in youth. One must perhaps make an exception for carbon because it says everything to everyone, that is, it is not specific, in the same way that Adam is not specific as an ancestor—    –Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (p 225)


Remember when it was ok for men to call women “honey” at work: “Honey, would you get me a cup of coffee?”  That you younger folks can’t even fathom those days is a testament to the Women’s Lib activists of the 1970’s. They had to argue strenuously that while the term “honey” as an endearment between loving people, was not a negative term, in the workplace, when used by men speaking to women, it was demeaning.

This is a good example of what Univ of VT professor Robert Nash refers to as first moral language [pdf]–that is, the language of one’s background beliefs.  A person’s first moral language is primarily an inner monologue, but unless specifically tempered, it has a tendency to colour a person’s daily conversation. These are the unconsciously chosen words that reveal the speaker’s fundamental views. The concept is a little hard to describe, but easy to illustrate:

  • “I like Carlos, even though he’s gay.”
  • Husband to wife: “I’m sorry I spilled paint on your stove.”
  • A dad to his friend: “I can’t go out tonight. I have to babysit the kids.”

(And yes, my first moral language is causing me to focus on gender- based examples. Feel free to help me out with some others. )

Swaying public opinion relies on precise use of moral language. Anti-abortion activists are pro-life. Their opponents are not pro-abortion (or pro-death); they are pro-choice. When speaking of the unborn child, anti-abortion folks use the term “baby” whereas the pro-choice people use the term “fetus.”  Marketing companies and politicians, of course, are the masters of intentionally spinning the message of background beliefs: Patriot Coal, War on Drugs, Freedom Fighters, Natural American Spirit Cigarettes, pure bottled water, illegal alien, light cigarettes.

But if it wasn’t Uranium, what was it? I cut off a slice of the metal with a handsaw (it was easy to cut) and offered it to the flame of the Bunsen burner: an unusual thing took place: a thread of brown smoke rose from the flame, a thread which curled into volutes. I felt, with an instant of voluptuous nostalgia, reawaken in me the reflexes of an analyst, withered by long inertia… I touched the deposit with a drop of silver nitrate solution and the black-blue color that developed confirmed for me that the metal was cadmium, the distant son of Cadmus, the sower of dragon’s teeth.   ——  Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (p 198-99)


So what has that got to do with the chemical-free movement? Well, take a look at where we’ve come from.  What is the moral language behind the marketing of these circa 1950’s chemistry sets? (setting aside, for a moment, the obvious gender bias)

Adventures in science. Tomorrow’s America. A safe, thrilling introduction to the mysteries and miracles of the atomic world! Harmless! Exciting! Practical!    Glowing terms. Big visions. Even the Chemcraft set, with its safety assurances, doesn’t condemn all chemicals. It just assures parents that there are no “dangerous poisons” or “explosive chemicals.” (Never mind the uranium ore and the radium.)

How chemicals and chemistry are portrayed in media, advertising, to children, in the news –how the word “chemical” is used –delivers a loud and clear message. And that message has changed dramatically in the last half-century.


Our atom of carbon enters the leaf, colliding with other innumerable (but here useless) molecules of nitrogen and oxygen. It adheres to a large complicated molecule that activates it and simultaneously receives the decisive message from the sky, in the flashing form of a packet of solar light: in an instant, like an insect caught by a spider, it is separated from its oxygen, combined with hydrogen and (one thinks) phosphorous, and finally inserted into .. the chain of life. .. when we learn to do likewise .. we will also have solved the problem of hunger in the world.    —-  Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (p 225)

In the post-war years of the 20th century science brought the promise of a bright and shiny future. It put cars on the road and planes in the sky. It freed women’s time: cake mix in a box, permanent press, a washing machine! Surely, if science could put a man on the moon – the moon! – it could do anything.  Bring on the jetpacks!

This was a time when “Better living through chemistry” wasn’t just a corporate slogan, it was a belief system. Through chemicals, the phrase “preventable disease” was born. Chemicals would enhance food production, create game-changing materials and  in the end, even make us happy.

There are friendly metals and hostile metals. Tin was a friend—not only because, for some months now, Emilio and I were living on it, transforming it into stannous chloride to sell to the manufacturers of mirrors, but also for other, more recondite reasons: because it marries with iron, transforming it into mild tin plates and depriving it on that account of its sanguinary quality of nocens ferrum; because the Phoenicians traded in it and it is, to this day extracted, refined, and shipped from fabulous and distant countries…   —  Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (p 184)

To be sure, a lot of that trust and hope was premature or misplaced. Late in the game we learned that some of those chemicals that brought The Good Life also poisoned our waters, killed off our wildlife, and damaged our children. That realization was the beginning of the end.  People got scared. They got skeptical. And they blamed chemicals.

Jump ahead fifty years and today “chemical” is firmly entrenched as a dirty word. Ask the nearest 4th grader what a chemical is, and she’ll probably answer, “A poison” or “bad stuff they put in your food.”  The term “chemistry” may still conjure images of test-tubes and white-coated scientists, but “chemical” evokes waste dumps, food additives, and tanker trucks.   In fact, according to this survey taken for the European Commission, only a minority of Europeans view chemicals in terms of their benefits. Most respondents see chemicals as dangerous, harmful to the environment, or unhealthy.

So it’s those white-coated chemists (and all the other science-minded folk) who are railing against the use of “chemical-free.” It’s not merely the technicality that nothing can be chemical-free that is irksome.  It’s that the first moral language of the phrase is one that broad-brushes the term “chemical” into a catchall for everything –real or imagined — that’s wrong with this earth: the poisons, the environmental catastrophes, the things that make our children sick, autistic, or even dead.

Distilling is beautiful. First of all because it is a slow, philosophic and silent occupation…Then because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapor (invisible), and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by the centuries, almost a religious act, in which, from imperfect material, you obtain the essence, the usia, the spirit, and in the first place, alcohol, which gladdens the spirit and warms the heart..   —  Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (p 57)


For that reason, it would be nice to wipe “chemical free” out of the lexicon. It’s a foolish phrase, but more importantly, its weighty inference shapes the way people think about chemicals and the science of chemistry.  Not only that, but its sloppy usage shames the noble origins from which it stems.   Since the time of ancient alchemy, generations of chemists have postulated, observed and experimented in order to tease the chemical truths out of matter.  The study of chemistry has brought metallurgy, medicine, forensics, genetics, gas laws, and atomic theory.

Chemicals are neither bad nor good. They are neither natural nor unnatural. They just are. Each one has a name and its own special set of properties — personalities if you like.  Some are inert. Others are reactive, explosive even.  Some play well with others. Others do not. A large number of them have properties that are well-understood. More are still waiting to surprise the diligent (or lucky!) researcher who unlocks their secrets.

Oh look! A girl on the box!

But who is going to unlock those secrets?  Where is the next generation of chemists and chemical engineers going to come from if children are raised with a fear of chemicals?  How will they come to appreciate that it’s chemical reactions that cause their eggs to cook, their LCD’s to glow, and their bodies to operate,  if every time they move, we shriek “Don’t touch that! It might have chemicals in it!”?

What will compel them to want to experiment with exotic (at least to them) chemicals, to test reactions or to invent their own mix, if  “chemical free” is emblazoned on everything they eat, wear, or play with? And come on–what will a child find exciting about a chemistry set that is no more than a cookbook, beakers, and a list of  ingredients that come from the kitchen? Let’s make Jello. Yay.

So sure, I don’t want to consume toxins. I read labels. I don’t like what big agribusiness is doing to my food and the land. I know we are being exposed to a whole lot of potentially dangerous chemicals that never used to exist in such quantities our environment. Many of those I’d like to stay clear of.  But seriously, chemical free?

Carl Sagan said we are star stuff. Well that star stuff is chemicals and I’m immensely grateful that those chemicals, that star stuff, all somehow came together to make me.

I could recount an endless number of stories about carbon atoms that become colors or perfumes in flowers; of others which, from tiny algae to small crustaceans to fish, gradually return as carbon dioxide to the waters of the sea … ; of others, which instead attain a decorous semi-eternity in the yellowed pages of some archival document or the canvas of a famous painter; or those to which fell the privilege of forming part of a grain of pollen and left their fossil imprint on the rocks for our curiosity…     —  Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (p 232)

Primo Levi

All excerpts are from The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi. Paperback edition.  English translation from Italian by Raymond Rosenthal, Schocken Books, NY (1984). Originally published in Italy as Il Systema Periodico, by Giulio Einaudi editore, s.p.a, Turin Italy (1975).

Levi was a renowned chemist, a gifted writer, and an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor. He saw the beauty in chemistry and, in this book, poignantly fashioned a series of memoir-based short stories around a collection of elements.  In 2006, the Royal Institution of Great Britain named The Periodic Table the Best Science Book Ever.

Links to Chemical Free Commentary

JAYFKHell to the no! Chemical-free chemistry kit

Deborah Blum at PLoS Blogs – Speakeasy Science:

ScienceGeist: My Chemically Fueled Life

Carmen Drahl:  Wiping Chemical Free off the marketing map (Storified twitter discussion)

Mary CarmichaelF No, “Chemical Free” – An entertaining collection of Chemical Free ads, webpages, products

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) £1 million bounty to the first person who can create a 100% chemical-free product. (Unclaimed since 2010)


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