The sign pictured above claims that there is a "chemical-free park" in Durango, Colorado. Durango is a beautiful place, but unless this park is a hologram, it is made of chemicals. In fact what makes the Durango area so beautiful are the chemicals that make up the mountains, rivers, trees and flowers. Even the nice smell from the pine trees comes from terpenes. A chemical.
Maybe the makers of the sign meant "synthetic chemical free," but the paint on the sign and any plastic parts of the baby strollers or running shoes that come to the park would be among the many synthetic chemicals there.
More likely what the sign meant to say is that there are no chemical pesticides used in the maintenance of the grass etc. However, if this park has specimens of the beautiful Colorado state flower, the columbine, it definitely has a toxic pesticide. Like many plants, columbines make their own insecticidal chemicals and in this case it is also reasonably toxic to people.
Why Does This Matter? Yes, Because Of The Natural=Good Delusion
The absurd "chemical free" claim for this park is a good example of the irrational but common belief that whatever is natural is "good" and whatever is "synthetic" is bad. Let's call it the "natural=good delusion." Reality doesn't work that way. The natural world is full of extremely toxic chemicals. There are a great many synthetic chemicals that are perfectly safe. There is no automatic advantage to natural or disadvantage to synthetic.
Perhaps because we in the modern "civilized" world are so removed from natural settings, we don't tend to think about how many dangerous chemicals occur in the natural world. Think about bee, wasp, spider or snake venoms. These are natural chemicals that can sicken or kill you rather quickly. I've had a personal, extremely unpleasant experience with a natural chemical that a sting ray injected into my foot at our local beach. There are a number of mycotoxins which certain fungi can produce in our food supply. We rarely hear about them because, fortunately, our food system does a great job of keeping them out. But in parts of Africa and Asia they are a leading cause of death – particularly from aflatoxin which causes liver cancer.
I could go on and on listing dangerous chemicals in nature, but I think the more important point is that our naive assumption that natural=good is actually dangerous. I'll give three examples.
The Natural Supplement Trade Vs Fruits and Vegetables
While it is certainly true that some natural chemicals can be beneficial to our health, we have a huge, growing and severely under-regulated industry selling "nutritional supplements" and "natural remedies." Consumers in the US, the EU and Japan now spend a tremendous amount of money each year on supplements which frequently have no legitimate efficacy data or safety testing. Most are probably safe enough. Some may actually do something, but a great many are probably a just a waste of money. The danger enters when people use a natural remedy instead of some much better documented alternative. A dramatic case would be Apple founder Steve Jobs' choice to use "natural and alternative methods" to treat his cancer rather than something offered by mainstream medicine. Sadly, he died.
A disturbing and much more common phenomenon is that while Americans spend more and more money on natural supplements and remedies, they are not eating more fruits and vegetables, often citing cost as a barrier. There is extensive, high-quality science supporting a multitude of health benefits from eating produce, and all manner of health experts have been encouraging us to eat more of it for decades. For instance one meta-study resulted in an estimate of 20,000 fewer cancer cases if 1/2 of the US population increased fruit and vegetable consumption by one serving a day. We also now have an amazing array of high quality produce options available in our stores. And yet, as the most recent data from the CDC confirms, produce consumption trends remain flat. It also shows that a huge proportion of Americans are still eating far less fruits and vegetables than they should.
So why don't Americans eat more produce? After all it is "natural!" Some of this is probably cultural or driven by the convenience/lack of time in busy lives. Unfortunately, part of it may be that there are so many voices out there telling people to fear the synthetic pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables. While there is excellent documentation every year from the USDA that pesticide residues on food represent no significant risk, certain, highly irresponsible voices and a credulous press promulgate the opposite message. Add to that the anti-GMO voices whose favorite meme is a huge hypodermic needle filled with suspicious looking colored liquid being injected into something like a ripe tomato. What a great way to encourage people to eat healthy fruits and vegetables! (Um, by the way, the process of genetic engineering a plant involves absolutely nothing even close to that image, and most fruits and vegetables will never be GMO anyway)
The Offshoring of Organic
The Organic super-brand is both a promulgator and beneficiary of the natural=good delusion. Organic food is not generally dangerous, but it does have a somewhat higher risk of food-borne illness because of its use of "natural" fertilizers based on animal poop (recent examples: peanut butter, eggs, leafy greens) . People have died because of the enhanced risk, but fortunately not very many.
well, I guess hepatitis is natural…
The most important danger associated with organic comes with the increasing sourcing of organic ingredients from outside of the western hemisphere. We just experienced that personally in my family. At a party last week my wife was served some punch made with an organic frozen berry mix purchased at Costco which turned out to be contaminated with hepatitis-A. Even though it was produced by a reputable Oregon berry growing company, for this product they used pomegranate arls imported from Turkey. There is no good reason to be importing pomegranates when neighboring California is a major producer of that fruit. The only reason was to get an organic version. Perhaps the California organic pomegranates were too expensive. Thus, because this berry company and Costco pandered to the organic, "natural" leanings of some of their customers, they put my wife and many other consumers at a completely unnecessary risk. I'm not being anti-Turkish here, it is just that California producers and processors have serious HACCP systems in place to prevent things like transmission of HEP-A from workers to consumers, something that seems not to have been the case on some Turkish, organic farm or processor. Costco is one of my favorite places to shop and they do many very good things with their produce buying, but they are playing with fire with organics. My wife got a HEP-A vaccination yesterday, so hopefully she will be fine, but this was a case where the idea that natural=good was led companies down a bad path.
Organic food manufacturers are also increasingly importing foods like grains, fruit juice concentrates and frozen items from China (also milk products). Even Organic Consumers Union and the Cornucopia Institute doubt the veracity of the organic claims from such a source, but consumers who believe natural=good are buying these foods in great quantities. Again, in the pursuit of organic "naturalness" these companies are going to a source country that has polluted water and air, heavy metal contaminated soils, and frequent cases of mycotoxin contamination (peanuts and cooking oil, . Yet products with these imported ingredients are abundant in your friendly neighborhood "natural food store." Once again, our natural=good delusion can be dangerous.
Russian Roulette with Raw Milk
Believing that some magic essence of naturalness is lost when milk is heated enough to kill dangerous bacteria, raw milk enthusiasts are incurring entirely unnecessary health risks. If it were just for themselves it would be one thing, but they are also often putting their children at risk. Louis Pasteur must be rolling over in his grave! Actually, for Louis' sake I hope there is no way that the dead know when their life saving contributions to humanity are discarded.
So, the natural=good delusion is both false and dangerous. It contributes to poor eating habits. It leads to wasted purchases or dangerous avoidance of medical advancements. It leads to increased imports of foods with higher than necessary risks. It encourages some people to put their families at risk.
I love to visit Colorado, my native state (third generation!). Since high school I've developed a problem with altitude, but if I take a synthetic drug called acetazolamide that slightly shifts my blood pH, my hemoglobin can bind enough oxygen to allow me to hike around at 12,000 feet with no problems. The next time I go, I think I will go to that park in Durango and do a little graffiti. I'll put a "NOT!" sticker on the "Chemical Free Park" sign. Then I'll just enjoy looking at and smelling the chemicals!
Columbine image from curt
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