Fear Factor

Fear is hard-wired into our biology and an integral part of survival. It can, however, become a debilitating force when it is out of proportion to the threat. In this episode, Steve talks about the fear of chemicals and how fear can be manipulated and distorted to make some people fear what they need to survive: food.

On today’s episode I want to talk about “fear,” particularly the fear of chemicals, sometimes called Chemophobia. But before I get into that specific issue I need to talk about fear in general, because fear can be an adaptive and positive thing when a threat is real and caution or avoidance is appropriate. Fear is something that is hard-wired into our biology, and it’s not just a human thing. Consider how we associate fear with certain animals to portray our own behavior: “timid as a mouse,” or “Scare-dy cat,” or “chicken.”

I would argue that fear exists beyond just the animal kingdom. When a corn seedling is starting to grow, it has molecular sensors that allow it to “see” its surroundings by checking the ratio of visible and infrared light. If that balance indicates other kinds of plants are growing nearby, the corn plant sort of “fears” the potential competition and puts relatively more of its energy into growing taller so that it can capture more of the light.  In another scenario, when a plant cell is infected with something like a fungus, it can go into a "fear" mode where it emits a chemical signal to the rest of the cells in the plant to ramp up their production of defensive compounds and enzymes (it’s a phenomenon known as Systemic Acquired Resistance). Even bacteria can have a “fear response” in which they aggregate to better survive some challenge about their growing conditions.

So, in some ways, fear is an integral part of survival. But fear can also be a debilitating force when it is out of proportion to the threat. And unfortunately, fear can be used by some people to manipulate others in anything from subtle marketing to personal intimidation, to the methods of dictatorial politics to terrorism.  So, while we acknowledge that fear can be an asset when there is a legitimate threat or danger, irrational fear can expressly harm someone and impact quality of life. So, let’s be brave enough to take on this important topic.

The importance of fear in our lives is pretty clear based on how often these themes come up in pop culture. Many people like the adrenaline rush you can get from watching a horror flick, so there is a whole genre of movies to satisfy that urge. In Thousand Oaks, California, there is a popular tourist attraction called the “Reign of Terror Haunted House,” with the sole purpose of making patrons hair stand-on-end and flee in panic!

Fear is also a huge theme in music and cinema. There is a website called ranker.com that lists the top 100 songs or music about various topics. Their music and movie lists for the topic of fear or overcoming fear include lots of familiar big hits with major stars. They cover themes ranging from “healthy fears” to times when fear is a debilitating aspect of someone’s life to courageous examples of overcoming fear. That overcoming sort of thing is featured in songs like “I Won’tBack Down” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. There are even examples where a song celebrates ignoring a fairly rational fear, like the Tommy Dorsey/Frank Sinatra song, “Where angels fear to tread, fools rush in” about boldness to pursue love.

Perhaps one of the more famous exhortations to overcome fear is the speech made by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s for his inauguration in 1932. As the nation was slipping into the Great Depression, Roosevelt famously said: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Figure 1FDR's 1933 Inagural Speech. Image  credit .

Figure 1FDR's 1933 Inagural Speech. Image credit.

A word that resonates in that quote is paralyze.  Paralysis, or disproportionate fear, is also a common individual issue. These are fears that are debilitating. Many people are afraid to speak in public and that can limit their career. There are times when fear causes us “to freeze,” limiting us from doing what is best to resolve some situation.

We use the words “phobia” or  “paranoia” to describe the kind of fear that is out of proportion to the threat. A constricted space could be a real problem, but if someone takes that to an extreme we say they are “claustrophobic.” One needs to be careful when on a high perch, but if that fear is out of proportion we say the person is “acrophobic.” So with phobias we are not saying there isn’t any reason for caution or some fear, just that what is being felt is excessive for the situation. For instance, my oldest granddaughter grew up in places like London with very little exposure to bugs, and so when she does come across one she tends to over-react. When she comes to visit in California, she often experiences bugs in my garden and reacts. In the picture below there was just a little, harmless fly in the blossom end of the apple we just picked.  I think her expression is a good representation of an exaggerated degree of fear or revulsion.

Steve granddaughter.jpg

One of these phobias is called “chemophobia,” the fear of chemicals. There is actually a good biological justification for being concerned about chemical substances around us because the natural world is really not a benign realm in that regard. Long before anyone understood anything about chemistry, we learned that there can be hazardous things out there in nature. In his book, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” author Jared Diamond describes how impressed he was with the sophisticated, oral knowledge-base that a “primitive” tribe in Papua New Guinea had about which plants were safe or unsafe to eat and which had medicinal properties. Since we are no longer “hunter gatherers,” that kind of detailed knowledge about wild plants isn’t important to most of us, but there are chemicals in our lives that are worthy of caution. So, there is a healthy fear of, or respect for chemicals, which we often speak to with certain warning symbols or the almost universal label language such as the common phrase “keep out of the reach of children.” 

We live in a world made of diverse chemicals, but in the last century or so we have advanced to where we can make novel chemical compounds of our own. At first, this was generally considered to be a wonderful advancement. People of that day celebrated “better living through chemistry,” when things like nylon became available. Lives and health improved as synthetic medications were developed.  When Haber and Bosch figured out how to turn nitrogen from the air into forms that can fertilize plants it became possible to feed more people better food. When Paul Muller discovered that the synthetic chemical DDT would kill insects it was initially celebrated because it was so effective at preventing insect-borne diseases, and it seemed to be safe for people.

But then some things began to go wrong when there were unintended effects of this chemistry breakthrough. The German Nobel prize winning nitrogen inventor, Fritz Haber, used the power of chemistry to create the terrifying new weapon, nerve gas. As DDT was vastly over-used, its longer-term effects on health and the environment were discovered. 

There is an extremely interesting webinar produced by the American Chemical Association titled: “Chemophobia: How We Became Afraid of Chemicals and What to Do About It.” Australian chemistry teacher and blogger, James Kennedy, takes an honest and probing look at how chemists and chemistry teachers have failed to help the rest of society understand this science enough to help them keep the fear of chemicals at an appropriate and informed level. He cites the gap between knowing about the elements in the periodic table and understanding how that ties into critical roles of chemistries in our lives. He admits that saying: “never eat in the lab” gives the impression that all chemicals are dangerous.

Fortunately, the realization of potential risks with some chemicals led to the establishment of regulatory processes which would allow modern society to do what Jered Diamond described for the tribe in Papua New Guinea – learn how to separate the known and new man-made chemicals into categories of safe, dangerous and/or beneficial. For some time now, humans have had the scientific tools with which to evaluate the safety of chemicals, natural and synthetic, and we have laws to ensure that this knowledge is applied in such a way to keep us safe. 

But in Kennedy’s webinar he makes an interesting argument that the remarkable and beautiful image of “earth rise” that came from the Apollo space missions had a profound effect on our modern preference for what we perceive as natural and reinforced suspicion about that which is manmade. Whatever the reason, there is a strong “appeal to nature” that exists in modern society and that extends well beyond chemicals. This of course has come hand-in-hand with extensive marketing of what is “natural” or even what is claimed to be “chemical-free.”

Earth rise as seen from Apollo 11. Photo  credit .

Earth rise as seen from Apollo 11. Photo credit.

So how are we to get it right when it comes to the spectrum of our risk perception of “chemicals?” What tools do we have to avoid excessive fear in this realm?

When you think about it in general, one of the most powerful tools against irrational fear has always been knowledge. The Dark Ages were a time when fear and superstition were widespread because of the loss of knowledge that came with the fall of Roman civilization. That darkness was alleviated by the recovery and advancement of knowledge that came with the Renaissance. I often say that we have now entered the Dark Ages 2.0 because our current overwhelming access to information has actually made it harder for each of us to draw true “knowledge” out of that sea on inputs. This situation is also characterized as “the death of expertise” when someone like the blogger “Food Babe” can have as much influence on what people believe as do the relevant scientific experts.

There is another confounding phenomenon that European scientist Marcel Kuntz has termed “parallel science.” There are pseudo-science players with a definite agenda who design experiments to intentionally generate negative data on their topic of interest. They can then get these results “published” in “pay for play” journals that don’t really have peer review. In most cases, the design of the activist’s experiment would never fly with a real science journal. Unfortunately, the press is often taken-in by the sensationalism, and the next thing you know there is something “out there” in the public that can then be used by those who really are trying to manipulate us with fear. The classic example was the Seralini rat study.

I don’t think that there are many people who are truly “chemophobic,” but there is enough concern about chemicals to affect buying habits. Many consumers have the false impression that organic means no pesticides or that naturally pesticidal chemicals are necessarily safer than synthetic ones. The marketers of organic products have no incentive to correct these public misperceptions, and will continue to push the message to consumers that in order to be truly safe from chemicals, one needs to buy organic. By definition that communicates that we cannot trust the EPA regulatory process that helps to ensure that the non-organic options are fully safe. The worst-case scenario is that these unfounded concerns about chemicals induce people to eat less fruits and vegetables. Whether this qualifies as full-on chemophobia is academic.  If people’s diet choices are being distorted by disinformation, that represents a true public health challenge.

Our best reason to be comfortable with the chemicals that are used in our lives is that we do have regulators like the EPA, FDA and OSHA. I’ve written before that these agencies are a bit like the comedian Rodney Dangerfield who was always saying, “I don’t get no respect!” From the political "right" the agencies get accused on over-regulation. From the political "left" they are ignored or considered to be too lax. What I can tell you is that the EPA in particular gets a lot of respect from the pesticide part of the chemical industry. These companies fully accept the need for careful regulation and as long as decisions and regulations are science-based and the agency is able to complete evaluations in a reasonable timeframe, the industry is fully supportive of the process. 

So, I guess what I’m saying is that there are certainly chemicals out there that are worthy of caution, both natural and synthetic. But when it comes to concerns about pesticidal chemicals on our food – that is something that is being well-handled, and we can enjoy our food supply.