Chemical Literacy

Chemophobia pervades our society. Should you fear 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde? Not in tiny amounts, not if you enjoy cookies. A shorter name is vanillin, the primary chemical in vanilla extract. We fear chemicals because they have complicated names and often have fancy structures.

Fear of an individual chemical leads to demonization of that chemical. Chemophobia leads to the conviction that eliminating a specific chemical will make the earth a better place where birdies chirp and flowers grow. It doesn’t always work that way. We humbly (or not so humbly) suggest that chemical literacy will result in effective regulations that still allow truly productive, sustainable manufacturing.

Chemophobia has steadily reduced the number of effective chemicals that can be used for critical cleaning. Chemicals used in manufacturing, like perchloroethylene or methylene chloride, must be used with care and respect. Starting in the mid-1980s, Ozone Depleting Compounds were taken out of use, certainly in the West; the results were judged beneficial. Over the years, chemical after chemical has been targeted, demonized, and either banned or heavily restricted. Of course, it is essential to protect workers, neighbors, and the world from safety and environmental threat. However, as we approach the quarter mark of the 21st century, it is apparent to us that eliminating all active chemicals from use is becoming a never-ending task. In manufacturing, nearly all useful chemicals, particularly those used in critical cleaning, are nearly certain to have some safety and environmental baggage. Currently, efforts to minimize or eliminate chlorinated and brominated solvents (EPA Amended TSCA) along with Federal and State efforts to control PFAS mean fewer effective choices for critical product cleaning. Changing the process often involves an enormous engineering effort, investment in capital equipment, and retraining of the workforce. The new process may not live up to all the promises in the glossy brochures; process change may require several iterations. All these iterations are associated with money, engineering, time, gnashing of teeth, and aggravation. What happens when the substitute chemicals are found to have worker exposure and/or environmental issues? Yup – another round of aggravation, process disruption, and investment in new capital equipment.

While chemical literacy is often thought of in the context of educating children, teens, and young adults, it ought to extend to everyone: manufacturers, private citizens, elected officials, members of regulatory agencies. Achieving comprehensive chemical literacy is likely to take a while. Requiring chemical literacy would require national if not global control. If we ruled the world, manufacturing could be perfect!  However …

What if you don’t rule the world?

We’re going out on a limb and assume that readers of Clean Source do not include national or global leaders. What can you do to foster chemical literacy in your company? Consider your own chemical literacy. We’re still learning new things; we invite you do the same. We think everyone ought to be “edumacated.” (1,2). Within your company consider building the technical literacy of technicians and assemblers, your boss, other engineers/managers who may be tasked with finding a new cleaning process, facilities/maintenance folks, health and safety people, upper management, and the CEO.

Upper Management
The technicians and the CEO are the most important audiences for understanding chemistry. Some clients ask us to do cleaning programs for key groups within their company. When we do client educational programs, we sometimes set up “executive summary” programs about cleaning, process change, and – yes – the basics of chemistry. Barbara taught chemistry to the CEO of a major, multi-national corporation. The upshot was groundbreaking, effective change in cleaning processes. Management involvement is not always an option, especially if upper management takes a traditional, top-down, segmented command and control approach. This is unfortunate, because buy-in from upper management tends to be associated with successful, cost-effective cleaning processes. If management is even somewhat open to the idea, arrange a “lunch and learn” educational program. 

Assemblers, Technicians
The technicians/assemblers must have input and buy-in for any process change. Their intellect should be fostered and respected. There is a school of thought that technicians should be trained to follow a process without question and without understanding the basics. Colleges sometimes offer training programs that show assemblers how to follow the exact directions provided – no more, no less. We think this is short-sighted. In fact, we asked one professor what would happen if the process changed. The answer was that all the techs would have to be retrained. Tim Pennington has described the positive features of a company that considers the employees, the assemblers to be customers (3). Certainly, whatever term you use (customers, associates, team members, lab techs, grunts), take advantage of the brainpower of all of your employees. A good educational program should, of course, involve following directions. It also must include developing an understanding of chemistry and how cleaning processes work. We’ve discussed how undesirable it is to use dish soap and other household cleaners for critical cleaning (4-6). Employees should understand that the lotions and perfumes found in dish soap can compromise critical cleaning. If employees understand the importance of minimizing unexpected changes to the formulation, they are less likely to use such products. Of course, as the manager, you may receive feedback about a process being sub-par; this may be why the household cleaner was added in the first place. We suggest that you not immediately dismiss all comments by assemblers as “stupid gripes by the grunts” – such an attitude can result in disaster.

Smart manufacturers involve the purchasing department. Communication is key, especially if some of the folks have developed PTSD about chemistry. Perhaps, they had poor or uninteresting chemistry teachers. At an in-house client presentation, a group of students exhibited glazed eyeballs as soon as the program started. Barbara asked who thought the term “organic chemical” meant a compound that was raised free-range and without pesticides. Sure enough, the purchasing folks all raised their hands. It didn’t take long to explain about compounds that contain carbon. This is important, because without a basic understanding, someone might purchase a cleaning product that was falsely sold as equivalent to an acceptable cleaning agent. If a supply chain is involved, your cleaning process can be compromised by changes in cleaning processes that happen before anything enters your facility. Purchasing can be an invaluable partner in monitoring/auditing suppliers.

The safety/environmental group must be part of the educational program. We have seen too many instances where this group makes arbitrary/ simplistic decisions about chemicals. One reason is that it may be easier to say “no” or to assert that only certain listed chemicals be used. We think it is more sustainable to figure out how to use the chemical in a way that minimizes worker and environmental exposure and that maximizes safety. Manufacturers live in challenging times, often with limited options. Educating the safety/environmental group about how chemicals work, and about effective cleaning processes sometimes leads to interchanges that make additional options possible.

We always try to involve facilities/maintenance in educational programs. Because many of them move around the facility, they act as systems integrators. They often pick up on problems that others are not aware of. We sometimes find that, as part of the maintenance and repair program, they use a chemical that contaminates your product; an understanding of chemistry helps with their awareness. They may volunteer information that make the process work more effectively. If the educational program is part of an effort to set up a new cleaning process, they can often provide practical information to assure that the process runs smoothly. 

Fostering chemical literacy
While most manufacturers are not in a position to foster chemical literacy in government, we can educate ourselves and our co-workers. Get educated about chemicals and about critical cleaning. 

Consider taking advantage of the educational resources from the Product Quality Cleaning Workshop and from BFK Solutions. We are very proud of the Product Quality Cleaning Workshop (PQCW) webinars, including sponsored webinars, that we conduct with Dr. Darren Williams of Sam Houston State University (7-8). We recently launched a YouTube channel of “cleaning tidbits,” programs; most are under 15 minutes (9). We have a comprehensive On-Demand Aqueous Cleaning Course that allows you and your employees to learn at their own pace. (10). 

Get out there and learn some chemistry! Most chemicals don’t bite – especially if you know how to use them properly.

Many thanks to Dr. Darren Williams for his helpful review and comments. Errors are the responsibility of the authors.


  1. See the sixth quote at
  2. Use of ‘ma’ to add humorous pseudo-sophistication to an existing word ( )
  3. Tim Pennington is Editor of Finishing&Coating;
  5. Joyful Dawn 1; 
  6. Joyful Dawn 2); 
  7. Up-coming webinars; 
  8. Past webinars; 
  9. Playlist Link: 
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