Welcome to Chemo-Philia

in association with the Centre for Chemical and Bioanalytical Sciences
and with RHUL's Science Outreach for schools

The environmental chemistry web site for balanced comment on media reports which feed public concern and the growth of chemophobia

We live in a chemical world -- everything we touch, taste, smell, eat and drink is chemical and evolution has ensured that we can thrive in a chemical environment

Global chemistry has been in continual change since the world began. However, many would say that in the last 200 years the 'normal' chemical equilibrium has been noticeably disturbed by human beings releasing and rearranging the earth's chemicals in order to improve health, nutrition, and many other facets of our standard of living. Few would wish to exchange a 21st century lifestyle for, say, Victorian times: the tremendous contrast has occurred as a result of the development of new materials, all of which can be described as chemicals!

The downside of the chemical revolution has been the industrial production of many compounds which are new to the biosphere and, hence, potentially harmful, and the release of excessive amounts of small molecules such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen oxides which are important, integral parts of the biosphere.

Over a geological time-span, there have been several natural catastrophic chemical events which in some cases destroyed almost all living species. The appearance of oxygen in the atmosphere about 2.5 billion years ago was one such incident. In more recent times there has been nothing of this magnitude but, on a smaller scale, tragic loss of life has continued as a result of environmental contamination.

One of the worst incidents this century was a well documented, natural phenomenon in 1986 when 300 cubic metres of carbon dioxide escaped overnight from the bottom of Lake Nyos in Cameroon killing 1,700 people by asphyxiation: 800 others were hospitalised. This was matched by an earlier, 'anthropogenic incident' (Bhopal, India,1984) when methyl isocyanate was accidently released into the atmosphere with devastating results: 2000 people died and 100,000 were injured. Such acute incidents involving large quantities of industrial chemicals have, fortunately, been rare.

Of greater public concern are the possible long-term effects of low levels of insidious anthropogenic pollutants such as the industrial additives, phthalates and parabens, which are claimed to be 'oestrogen mimics' affecting the sexual development of animals, and organohalogens which are long-lived in the environment and accumulate in living tissues. The public would like to be given firm advice on the dangers of such materials; however, most industrial chemicals have not been adequately tested for toxicity although several countries, including the UK and USA, plan to do this on a large scale. Human toxicity data are rarely available. Claims that a particular xenobiotic is a threat to human health are usually based on: (1), epidemiological studies (which do not prove cause and are often difficult to interpret because of confounders) ; (2), studies with laboratory animals (which have different physiologies and, hence, may not relate well to human beings) and (3), structural comparisons of putative harmful materials with other compounds with well defined toxicities (eg all aromatic amines would be suspect carcinogens) .

All in all, the effect of pollutants on health can only be considered in terms of probabilities. These are extremely difficult to assess and, at the human level, will depend on the amount of material, its inherent toxicity, the time of exposure, the site of entry (via the mouth, lungs, skin, etc), and the health and genetics of those exposed. Given sufficient amounts, virtually all chemicals are harmful. However, if large amounts are dangerous this does not necessarily mean that small amounts present a significant health problem.

The word "chemical", when used by the media (and increasingly by the public), has become synonymous with "toxic and hazardous"! Newspapers and broadcasting companies, often with limited scientific knowledge, are quick to highlight any event involving "chemicals" and to extrapolate to potential disasters/catastrophies and the need to curb the activities of the chemical industry. Environmental groups with various agendas support the media and together oppose the industrial lobbies. In the general mêlée, it is often extremely difficult to uncover the real facts and the situation is undermining public confidence and threatens the economic well-being of one of the UK's most productive industries.

It is with this in mind that Chemo-Philia (who is an admirer but no relation of the British Medical Journal's "Minerva"!) has entered the arena to confront "chemophobia". Chemo-Philia with the help of colleagues, will report the latest news of the 'chemical environment' and endeavour to present balanced comment on controversial issues. Chemo-Philia hopes that this site will be instructive without being mischievous: it is for the consumption of the general public and it provides a glossary (button near upper left) of some terms. She doubts whether she will often uncover the full truth but her aim is a more complete story and more debate.


Media, and occasionally learned journal, coverage of topics likely to be of considerable public interest determines the content of this site: it is intended only for general information. Every effort has been made to ensure that it is free from error within the ambit of probability and a rapidly changing literature. The views of the author are attributed in the text to those of "Chemo-Philia"

The author and Royal Holloway and Bedford New College cannot be held responsible for any inaccuracies, errors or omissions and provide no warranty to this effect, nor will they be liable to any party for the consequences of any reliance placed thereon by such party, other than to the extent that the same shall result in legal liability, unavoidable at law.

Comments or reports of errors would be welcomed by the creator of this document. [email protected].