Monday, March 31, 2008

Abused Vocabulary #2: Chemicals? In My Child's Hair?

I cringed today during one of my lectures.

The instructor was discussing pediculosis, otherwise known as lice infestation. Lice are a recurring nightmare for public places where children gather in large numbers--daycares and schools come to mind. I have vivid memories of the school faculty lining us up in the hallways outside the nurse's office for occasional lice inspections.

She went on to mention--but not necessarily recommend--"natural" treatments for head lice. Apparently, olive oil, tea tree oil, and mayonnaise, and various other products are occasionally used as alternatives to "chemical pesticides."

What threw me was the professor's specific quote: "Well, some parents are going to use these because they don't want to put chemicals on their children."

Huh. I don't know. I would be terribly concerned about rubbing oleic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid, and lineoleic acid into my child's scalp, wouldn't you? I mean, they're acids. Acids are corrosive, dangerous substances that can dissolve rocks and metals!

Except that they're fatty acids. There's a big difference between hydrofluoric acid and oleic acid, especially considering that the latter is the major component of olive oil.

The point is that anything can sound scary if you describe it the right way--consider the dihydrogen monoxide issue. (For those who don't immediately get the joke, dihydrogen monoxide is water). And it drives me nuts when people who are supposed to be scientists--or worse, educators--haphazardly use the word "chemicals," apparently validating the public's irrational fear of the very word, a word associated with harmful, "unnatural" things like benzene and turpentine instead of water, salt, and sugar.

Of course, the joke is on them. The active ingredient in RID is made from crysanthemums.

1 comment:

Lukas said...

Thanks, Rachel Carson.