University Federico II
of Naples, Italy
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Chemistry and mass media

Did you ever hear advertising a food or a cosmetic as being "chemical-free"?

How often a "natural" product is praised for its beneficial qualities, whereas a "chemical" origin is associated with certainly harmful properties?

These examples clearly illustrate how mass media regularly counterfeit the meaning of the term "chemical", using this word solely to imply hazard and aggressiveness.


because mass media often do not guarantee a correct scientific communication... for a number of reasons

inadequate preparation of the communicator

diffidence towards chemistry

complexity of scientific language



the "chemical" scenery is the mediatic vehicle used to convey a negative image for a substance or a process.
This is the origin of several paradoxes typically present in advertisements and news!

this is disinformation!

hazardous chemicals: the "water" molecule
stating the an additive is "chemical" is meaningless, because anything is "chemical", insofar as for all substances it is possible (in principle) to give their composition.

Water is "chemical" too, its formula is well known. Nevertheless, would a media man DARE to define water as a "chemical"?

It is clear that "chemical" is confused with "synthetic", implying that whenever a substance has been produced in a factory, an industry has polluted for its manufacture, and, hence, its composition can be harmful.
Therefore, "chemical" becomes the negative counterpart of "natural", ignoring that several substances produced in Nature are much more poisonous than those manufactured in the laboratory.

but they don’t care because…

... the strong point in advertising is claiming that no scientist with a lab coat has contributed to the manufacture of that aroma, that fragrance or that amalgam of delicious flavors for our senses.

chemistry yesterday
chemistry today
the outcome is…

the firm reluctance of mass media to popularize chemistry and support its RELAUNCH, though this discipline would indeed deserve such an attitude nowadays due to the efforts of scientists towards sustainable development.

The lack of effective communication between chemistry and people is certainly also due to generally poor language skills of chemists, to their unwillingness to leave the lab and break into society, to a low ability to improve their professional image. Therefore, the social impact of other professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, and the list can be longer, is much more brilliant than that of chemists.

…is this a world-wide problem?

It's hard to say: no doubt the problem is general, but some specific language features may put additional difficulty. An example from Italian language:

In english, the term drug means any substance with a physiological action, with no distincton between positive (medicine) or negative (dope) effects.

In italian, two different words are used: farmaci for medicine and droga for dope. This creates the equivoque: doctors are good, because they deal with "farmaci"; chemists are bad, because they manufacture "droga". Clearly, this is false, because what determines positive or negative effects of substances is doses, and, anyway, a good medicine is always the outcome from a valid team of scientists which includes chemists.

…let’s conclude with a smile

The Hungarian chemist Horvàth wrote a nice editorial in the prestigious Accounts of Chemical Research (2002, volume 35, issue 9). In this article, he complained about the "snobbish" attitude of some important professionals in Budapest high-society, when he introduced himself as a "chemist".
Thus, he changed his "label". Now, he triumphantly presents himself as a "molecular designer!", which produces "wahoo's!" of admiration, in lieu of the pitiful smiles he used to receive when he was just a "chemist".