Chemical Irritation

Not so much a chemical information post today as a diatribe against natural terminology used by the countless chemophobes out there.

I had a query this morning from a reader asking whether adding bleach to the water used with their cut, fresh flowers would reduce fungal infections and so somehow prolong their bloom time. I suspect there’s probably a drop of truth in the idea, but in trying to find a definitive answer I found a gardening type page that discussed the issue.

In it, the author of the item, Marion Owen (whom I am sure is a lovely person) asserts that, “If you don’t like to use chemicals to prolong the life of your cut flowers, there are “natural” alternatives.” She then goes on to list various chemicals that one might add – a penny, aspirin, lemon-lime soda, bleach, lemon juice, sugar, bleach, and listerine. At this point, I’m not worried about whether my blooms stay blooming lovely or not, but am taken aback by how she seems to be defining the word chemical. She’s not alone, of course, millions of people make similar assertions about detox diets that avoid chemicals (so, what do you eat when you’re on a detox diet, raw energy?)

Anything Marion and her readers might add to a vase of flowers is made from chemicals. The flowers themselves are made from chemicals (proteins, carbohydrates, fats, water, minerals etc), lemon juice (water, citric acid etc). Even the water itself (dihydrogen monoxide)!

But, more to the point it’s that use of the word “natural” with which I take umbrage, natural usually preserved for non-synthetic chemicals (although there is no actual distinction in nature between natural and synthetic, humans are “natural” after all). Maybe she meant to specific agrichemicals or chemicals produced by the industry for the specific purpose of reducing mould and extending bloom life. Wouldn’t you rather use something designed specifically for the job rather than adding a random selection of household chemicals to the vase. What, if the bleach and that carbonated lemon-lime drink react, catalysed by the copper penny, to produce some noxious vapour? At best, the flowers would more likely fade faster, but you might also get a nasty whiff of something when you lean over to catch their scent!

Anyway, how can adding aspirin be considered a natural alternative to adding chemicals? Of course, you might use sap from the cricket bat willow (Salix alba) which contains salicylic acid, the active metabolite of aspirin, but that would still be adding chemicals to the flowers, natural or not, and the very process of extracting the sap, is that natural?

Of course, the whole activity of cultivating blooms, hacking them from their plant and sticking them in a vase and leaving them to die with no chance of producing offspring is in itself not an entirely natural thing to do. But, how do you segregate anything humans do from the natural world in the first place? Human intellect and activities are as much a part of the natural world as the very flowers we admire, the insects that would normally pollinate them, the moulds and microbes that grow on them and apparently shorten the blooming lives, the insects and fungi that will rot them on our compost heaps, and the soil bacteria that will feed on them producing the right conditions for next year’s flowers.

Author: David Bradley

Freelance science journalist, author of Deceived Wisdom. Sharp-shooting photographer and wannabe rock god.

2 thoughts on “Chemical Irritation”

  1. She’s using a common, highly imprecise distinction that people make believing they are understood when they make it. Actually, each user of the term has his own definition and usually is unaware of the unique and vague nature of it. The related term “organic” used to mean from plants and animals. Now it includes certain legally defined origin and supply parameters. The example above is flagrant and extra irritating as it carries a kind of “chemophobia.”

    As a chemistry student in the ’60’s-70’s I heard a lot of that kind of thing. “No chemicals man,” as a great virtue. I even had a guy try to tell me why LSD wasn’t really a “chemical.” Chemophobia has a basis in history. Many compounds at first thought to be entirely beneficial turned out to have a dark side. We learned lessons about biodegradation and some persistent environmental consequences of the chemical cornucopia. But the failure to recognize copper and aspirin as “chemicals” is a mark of ignorance and an indicator of the decline in education in this country. On the other hand a lot of us have gotten smart about food additives and agrochemicals and insist on organic produce where the term is well defined. Why anyone cares what cut flowers are preserved with is beyond my ken.

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