Chemistry and Life

Medicinal chemistry. Pharmacology. Toxicology. Environmental sciences.

“Chemical free” charcoal

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"Chemical free" charcoal

“Chemical free” charcoal (click to enlarge)

I saw this at the grocery store recently.  It is “chemical free” charcoal.  That complex mixture of carbon, hydrocarbons, and other chemical compounds is claimed to be free of chemicals.  Taken at face value it is a nonsense claim; everything is made of chemicals.  What they really mean is that it hasn’t been treated with any kind of lighter fluid to allow it to be easily lit with a match.  However, that’s redundant to their “additive free” claim that’s printed right next to it.

So why do they make the “chemical free” claim?  Because it’s good marketing.  People see the words “chemical free” and think that it must be healthier.  Our society is primed to think that “chemicals = harmful” – to the extent that even a nonsense statement like “chemical free charcoal” is an effective marketing tool.

The irony is that even natural untreated charcoal, its smoke, and its soot all contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some of which are notoriously carcinogenic.  One’s exposure to harmful chemicals is not going to be reduced in any meaningful way by buying “chemical free” charcoal.

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