#Chemophobia and #Nanophobia

In an excellent post entitled “How to recognize (and talk to) a chemophobe” (that I encourage you to read in full), Ash Jogalekar writes:

Chemophobes fear a technically nebulous entity called “chemicals” that’s all too real to them. The problem is that in the jargon of chemistry, “chemicals” essentially means everything in the material world, from fuels and plastics to human bodies and baby oil.

There is a strong parallel between the fear of chemicals and the fear of nanoparticles. If anything, the “nanoparticle” entity is an even broader, and therefore more nebulous, category than “chemicals”. Nanophobia, the fear of nanoparticles is just as irrational as chemophobia, not because all nanoparticles are benign (they are not), but because they constitute a category so broad that thinking in terms of the risks of nanoparticles does not help anyone asking the right scientific and epidemiological questions.

There is however a strong difference between chemophobia and nanophobia.

In the case of chemophobia, most of the scare comes from outside the scientific community, e.g. the Food Babe, and there is a challenge mounted within the scientific community with an attempt to bridge the gap, e.g. Chemistry blog, sense about science, etc.

In the case of nanophobia, many of the scare originate within the community, often with comments about the dangers of those highly nebulous entities called “nanoparticles” from studies that consider one particular material at one particular dose in one particular biological model. Those can take the form of press release, of reports or even be included in scientific articles. They are then build up in blogs and media by various organisations.

Instead of challenging the fear of this nebulous entity, we hear again and again that “more research is needed to understand the toxicological properties of nanomaterials”. We need toxicological research on new molecules and materials which are – or will be – in mass production. The reasearch focus needs to be on a reasonable scientifically sound evaluation of risks, not led by the irrational fear of a “trigger word” [see Ash again for introduction to this term].

To conclude, here is the key message of sense about science “Making sense of chemical storiesguide, adapted (minor changes) to nanoparticles:

The reality boils down to six points:

  • You can’t lead a nanoparticle-free life.
  • Natural isn’t always good for you and man-made nanoparticles are not inherently dangerous.
  • Synthetic nanoparticles are not causing many cancers and other diseases.
  • We need man-made nanoparticles.
  • We are not just subjects in an unregulated, uncontrolled environment, there are checks in place.


  1. I must confess that I’m not a great fan of the term “chemophobe” – to me it demonstrates an over-eagerness to categorize, judge and ridicule people that echoes social prejudices so often used to justify actions based on ill-informed perceptions. It also demonstrates a worrying lack of understanding over how people and society work.

    That said, the comparison between people who are concerned about synthetic chemicals, and those who are concerned over synthetic nanoparticles, is an intriguing one. And it perhaps pushes the point home that we all have our biases and prejudices when it comes to evaluating risks and benefits!


  2. Thanks Andrew, good point about the term “chemophobe”. The “sense about science” page though is pretty good science communication, no? It does not categorize people but challenges perceptions.


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