Field of Science

Misused and abused chemical terms

Chemistry and biology broadly overlap at the molecular level, so chemists and biologists deal with some of the same terminological bugga-boos. Here are probably the most commonly misused and abused chemical terms, and the Phactor wouldn't argue with this list one little bit.
CHEMICAL - Ooo! That unwashed piece of fruit is probably covered in chemicals. Actually the whole damned thing is nothing but chemicals. What do you think stuff is made of?
PURE and IMPURE - Nothing is really pure. One of the chemically most pure common substances in your house is sugar, probably something like 99.99% sucrose, but it still has contaminants. So virtually everything is impure, including some of your thoughts. Therefore the connotation that pure is good and impure bad just doesn't hold water so to speak.
TOXIC - This is one of the Phactor's favorites. In teaching about poisonous plants, medicinal plants, stimulating plants, narcotic plants, and even hallucinogenic plants, the most useful concept is that they are all toxic, all produce intoxications, but the intoxications differ, some even being beneficial. Lots of toxic substances change categories with dosage, usually, but not always, producing more harmful intoxications with increasing dosages. Nothing like a glass of wine with dinner, but ethanol is a very toxic chemical. So toxic is not the same as poisonous, and here impure is good. Remember, what makes wine tasty are all those impurities because water and ethanol are both colorless, tasteless, odorless, totally miscible chemicals.
NATURAL and ARTIFICIAL - Natural is good; artificial is bad. Salicylic acid is natural and too rough on the stomach to be taken internally for aches and pains, although pounded up white willow leaves might make a good poultice on a sore elbow. Artificial acetosalicylic acid (aspirin) is much easier on the stomach. So everything that occurs in nature isn't necessarily good, and everything artificial isn't bad. This sort of gets confused with ORGANIC and INORGANIC, which would have been the Phactor's 4th pick rather than chemical. All food is organic, although we sometimes ingest some inorganic chemicals like salt. There is no such thing as inorganic food. And what gives with fertilizers? Plants don't care where the nitrates come from, they'll absorb them the same, and you can't tell the difference. At times you wonder if the grocery store will put a new sign "Inorganic produce"? If you really think this makes a lot of difference, go back to pure and impure, and start again. There are a lot of really unintuitive things about molecules, and the primary one is that they are so darned small even a tiny amount of something contains mind-boggling numbers of molecules (look up Avogadro's number sometime; we used to call it "avocado's number" and now there's a restaurant of that name.). If you were to carry a glass of water to Lake Michigan and throw it in, one glass full into the lake, and if you assume the molecules in the glass of water disperse evenly throughout the whole lake, what are your odds of dipping the glass back into the lake and recapturing one or more of the molecules you threw in? Just based on numbers, you're almost certainly going to get at least one water molecule back. How can that be true? So perk up your ears and listen for those improperly used terms.