Thursday, April 18, 2013

Carrots, chlorine, and chemophobia

On a recent lunchtime "survey of the literature" (i.e. Facebook break) I noticed that an old classmate posted the following paragraph (it's not new--but I hadn't seen it before):


From the Department of Life Education:

Baby Carrots:

The following is information from a farmer who grows and packages carrots for IGA, METRO, LOBLAWS, etc.

The small cocktail (baby) carrots you buy in small plastic bags are made using the larger crooked or deformed carrots which are put through a machine which cuts and shapes them into cocktail carrots – most people probably know this already.

What you may not know and should know is the following:

Once the carrots are cut and shaped into cocktail carrots they are dipped in a solution of water and chlorine in order to preserve them (this is the same chlorine used in your pool).

Since they do not have their skin or natural protective covering, they give them a higher dose of chlorine.

You will notice that once you keep these carrots in your refrigerator for a few days, a white covering will form on the carrots. This is the chlorine which resurfaces. At what cost do we put our health at risk to have esthetically pleasing vegetables?

Chlorine is a very well-known carcinogen, which causes Cancer. I thought this was worth passing on. Pass it on to as many people as possible in hopes of informing them where these carrots come from and how they are processed.

I used to buy those baby carrots for vegetable dips. I know that I will never buy them again!!!!”

First, it should be noted that the person who shared the post works in a biomedical profession and probably should know better. Second, this looks like a classic chemophobic recipe: (1) take familiar concept; (2) point out chemical; (3) extol nastiness of chemical, real or imaginary; (4) panic.

It should be pointed out, of course, that the "warning" is alarmist and exaggerated. Most fruits/veggies are rinsed in water containing low-ppm chlorine -- levels comparable to drinking water -- not in a highly-chlorinated solution as implied. Chlorine is an antimicrobial protectant in thse cases. Moreover, the white residue is, obviously to chemists, not chlorine 'resurfacing' (???) but simply dehydrated carrot. And something that needs mention: there's no evidence that chlorine is a carcinogen (see here and here for instance) (You wouldn't want to go on a date with pure chlorine, of course, but not because of a cancer danger).

The chemophobia doesn't surprise me, though, since "chlorine" sounds nasty.

I am surprised, however, by some of the responses on the internet. They're unusually fact-based! In fact, in the first two pages of Google search results for "baby carrots chlorine", only a few support the myth. But let's look at the chemophobic minority first:

The chemophobes

Angela Garrison, a writer at alternative health site The Alternative Daily, gave this warning about the carrots (also posted at RiseEarth) in 2012. She largely parrots the viral bite above, adding some nonsense about baby carrots being ground-up regular carrots (they're sliced, but certainly not ground, and it would be pretty impressive if manufacturers could reconstitute the texture like that from carrot paste). Additionally, the title ("Why Baby Carrots are Killing You") is perhaps more dramatic than warranted. She alleges that the chlorine bath gives them their orange color (and has never apparently heard of carotene). It's worth reading the article (which is characteristically factless); but I have to include this excerpt which does a smashing good job of confusing chlorine with chloroform and delightfully ignores both citation and any discussion of dosage:

As defined by the EPA, Chlorine is a pesticide. Its purpose is to kill living organisms. So it would make sense that when you ingest chlorine, it kills some parts of our body like the healthy bacteria in your gut and intestinal flora for instance. Chlorine is a highly toxic, yellow-green gas most heavily used in chemical agents like household cleaners and can be found in the air near industrial areas especially around paper processing plants. Exposure to Chlorine has been linked to health problems such as sore throat, coughing, eye and skin irritation, rapid breathing, narrowing of the bronchi, wheezing, blue coloring of the skin, accumulation of fluid in the lungs, pain in the lung region, severe eye and skin burns, lung collapse, a type of asthma known as Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome (RADS).

Chlorine is also added to the public water supply. So not only are you drinking it, but you are absorbing it through the largest organ in your body, your skin. In fact, 2/3 of human absorption of chlorine is from inhaling the steam in the form of chloroform and fast absorption through your open pores in the warm shower or bath. The inhalation of chloroform is a suspected cause of asthma and bronchitis, especially in children… which has increased 300% in the last two decades. Other health risks associated with chloroform is cancer, potential reproductive damage, birth defects, dizziness, fatigue, headache, liver and kidney damage. Chloroform is also found in the air and in food, like baby carrots.
While no one is encouraging anyone to go breathe the stuff, that's a bit much.

Another unsuprisingly chemophobic source is (website for prominent snake-oil salesman Joseph Mercola). Mercola starts (in 2009) by insisting that chlorine is a carcinogen (spoiler: it's not), delves into a litany of other nasty roles chlorine and chlorinated byproducts can play, and ends by recommending chlorine-free carrots. Total Health magazine seems to largely echo (almost plagiarize) these claims.

The chemophobia has to have been taken fairly seriously by many--indeed, Bolthouse Farms created an entire website ( to respond to the claims. But surprisingly, the above three examples were the only two immediate negative results in my two-page Google foray.

The non-chemophobes

Interesting, the majority of responses to the chlorine-carrot allegations are non-chemophobic (and largely come from non-scientists!). Journalist Bart Van Bockstaele at Digital Journal (2008) posts a  response that includes a discussion of the confusion around the 'chlorine' nomenclature whilst dismissing all health concerns and properly pointing out that science hasn't shown chlorine to be carcinogenic anyway. (Note that some of the text is pretty similar to that found on the somewhat odd website World Carrot Museum).

At FarmProgress (2013), editor Jennifer Vincent admonishes those spreading misinformation, pointing out the public health efficacy of chlorinated water and describing how she corrected someone else who was spreading the carrot scare.

Joel Mackey of Z6Mag (2013) gives a somewhat disorganized response, but two items stand out: (1) he contacted the companies and investigated the matter himself; and (2) there's some neat Google trends graphs that show that searches for 'baby carrots chlorine' increased going into 2013.

Lisa Leake of the whole-foods effort 100 Days of Real Food (which sounds like it should be brimming with chemophobia) has a nice, accessible response in which she (1) made a point of looking up the relevant information and not just trusting 3rd party information; and (2) explained some of the layperson chemical misconceptions in the carrot-chlorine scare.

Other, shorter responses include those by Dr. Andrew WeillLinda Golodner of the Water Quality & Health Council (she points out the health-protective benefits of low levels of chlorine in water!), Megan Loberg of Eat, Pray, Farm (who points out that even 'organic' producers use chemicals to wash carrots), and Consumer Reports, Moms Against Cooties.

And of course, anti-hoax websites such as Snopes and wafflesatnoon dismiss the claims (Snopes is itself a little chemically misleading, implying that neat chlorine is used to treat the carrots).

Overall, the responses are encouragingly NOT chemophobic in general. That's a relief to see, I think: engagement by the non-chemical community is probably more convincing to the general public than engagement by chemists (whether we like it or not).