Chemicals, chemical 'sense' - and E numbers...

The Royal Society of Chemistry and chemical scientists in general are increasingly worried about the bad press that ‘chemicals’ get amongst those who seek to live and eat ‘naturally’ and ‘organically’. Michelle Berriedale-Johnson assesses the arguments.

The Royal Society of Chemistry and chemical scientists in general are increasingly worried about the bad press that ‘chemicals’ get amongst those who seek to live and eat ‘naturally’ and ‘organically’. So worried, indeed, that they have formed a charity, Sense about Science (020 7478 4380 to provide balanced, informed information about science and medicine to anyone who needs it.

The ‘natural’ myth
Understandably for scientists, one of their main concerns is the sloppy thinking and inaccuracy of so many generally held concepts. The use of the term ‘natural’ to suggest an absence of chemicals, gets them particularly exercised.

As they point out, every blade of organically grown grass or drop of ‘natural’ herbal shampoo is made up of dozens of chemical compounds. Tea, for example, is a ‘cocktail’ of butanol, iso amyl alcohol, hexanol, phenyl ethanol, tannin, benzyl alcohol, caffeine, geranio, quercetin, 3-galloyl epicatchin, 3-galloyl epigallocatchin and inorganic salts. So to suggest that any product or anyone’s lifestyle can be ‘chemical-free’ is to talk nonsense.

A modern plague
Moreover, to suggest that chemicals are a 20th century invention, or that our forefathers lived ‘chemical-free’ and therefore healthier and more ‘natural’ lives is just as much nonsense. Chemicals have been around as long as the earth (since it is made up of them) and our ancestors were poisoned by just as wide a range of lethal chemical substances as are available to us: lead in pipes, drinking vessels and cosmetics; arsenic compounds in paint and wallpaper, mercury in hat-making, and many thousands more.

Man-made versus ‘natural’
To suggest that ‘synthetic’ or manufactured chemicals are more dangerous than ‘natural’ ones is equally inaccurate. Chemical scientists can, obviously, combine chemicals into a lethal brew if they so choose, but a chemical substance remains a chemical substance whether it occurs naturally or is made in a laboratory. Moreover, if made in a laboratory, its composition and strength is both measurable and controllable. But as yet, even the most advanced chemistry has only scratched the surface and analysed a tiny fraction of the chemical compounds that occur in nature, whose strength and effects can only be guessed at.

So far so good, and not even the most ‘naturally minded’ of our readers would take issue. However, the Sense about Science briefing paper would also have us believe both that our bodies are perfectly capable of processing and excreting harmful chemicals (natural or man-made) and that the ‘cocktail’ effect just does not exist.

‘Processing’ chemicals
Although the majority of healthy bodies are indeed capable of processing and excreting the vast majority of chemical substances that they encounter, there are an increasing number of people whose bodies are no longer able to do so. Whatever the cause may be, the filtering and excreting mechanisms in the substantial number of our readers who suffer from chemical sensitivities simply do not work. So contact with even tiny amounts of the relevant chemicals (naturally or synthetically occurring) will make them ill.

We have indeed got rid of lead from our pipes and our cosmetics, but in many cases we have replaced them (sometimes with good reason) with other chemicals which are equally harmful. For example, one of the major sources of indoor pollution, that gives most trouble to those with chemical sensitivity, are the flame retardants with which, by law, every item of new furniture has to be treated. However, before we immediately call for fire retardants to be banned, we should also be aware that since 1988, when flame retardants were introduced, there have been 1400 fires in the UK, causing 500 injuries and 40 deaths and all but three of those 1400 fires involved old furniture, which had not been treated.

The cocktail effect
To suggest that grouping chemicals together can have no greater effect than the sum of the individual parts no longer seems a reasonable claim either - if it ever did.
Herbalists have long claimed a ‘synergistic’ (a greater or different) effect for combinations of medicinal herbs (chemical compounds) than merely the sum of their parts. The recent research work undertaken at the University of Liverpool would seem to confirm, as many have suspected, that other combinations of chemicals (in this case food additives) can have an effect substantially greater than their sum.

This is, of course, the argument that has long been made against the use of multiple chemical fertilisers, and pesticides - that although each has individually been tested for toxicity and proved completely safe when used in the amounts specified, no assessment has ever been made of the effect of a number of such chemicals used together, even if each is only used at a ‘safe’ level.

What about food?
But what about chemical additives in food? Well, before we start calling for all chemical additives to be removed from our food we need to remember that some additives (many of them naturally occurring in the foods themselves) are necessary to inhibit the activity of bacteria and prevent our food poisoning us: salt, vinegar (acetic acid) and many more.

Others (calcium, assorted vitamins, folate etc) are added to food to benefit our health.

That said, there are a large number of substances which are added to food which perform no necessary function (or whose function could be performed by a different substance) and which do seem to have a harmful effect on at least some members of the population. (It is arguable that the harm is actually done to everyone who consumes them but some are able to tolerate them better than others.)

The main culprits seem to be the bright and lurid colours based on coal tar dyes, some preservatives, most artificial sweeteners and flavour enhancers such as monosodium glutamate.

E numbers
When people first learn about the possible dangers of additives and about E numbers they assume that, by definition, an E number is ‘bad’ and to be avoided. However, this is not at all the case.

An ‘E number’ is merely the number that substance was given by the EU when, in 1986, it tested, assessed, approved and classified all the additives that are permitted for use in food. Well known, harmless, often beneficial, substances (Vitamin C -E300; vinegar - E260; lemon juice/citric acid - E330 etc) have E numbers as well as the less desirable additives. Although this is a very useful and valuable system it has caused confusion among consumers (who assume that all E numbers are bad) which has been compounded by manufacturers some of whom use E numbers, some of whom use the actual name of the chemical - and some of whom use both!

The group which appears to be most sensitive to food additives (although recent Food Standards Authority research suggests that even ‘normal’ children can be affected) are children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or who are on the autistic spectrum. Again artificial colours (especially azo dyes), preservatives, flavour enhancers and artificial sweeteners seem to be the worst offenders.

For more information on these and on hyperactivity in general contact The Hyperactive Children’s Support Group - 01243 539966

Learn more
For those who are really interested - or who have a vested interest in finding out which might trigger their own reaction or their child’s tantrum - the late Maurice Hanssen’s E for Additives (Thorsons @ £7.99) remains the most comprehensive and authoritative source of information.

For ease and convenience Bill Statham’s Chemical Maze (Summersdale @ £5.99) really does fit in the pocket. It covers chemicals in both food and cosmetics and uses a clear, traffic light system to differentiate harmless/good chemical additives from ‘bad’ ones. It also has a useful glossary and ‘conversion chart’.


Click here for more articles on chemical sensitivity

First Publist in 2006

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