Any biologists reading this should stop immediately. Besides being seriously lost on the Web, you probably won’t like the jokes, jibs and jabs that I will make at your expense today. Seeing this headline at Chemical Week, "ECHA Adds Acrylamide to Reach Candidate List" set off a chain of thoughts that reminded me of the quirky thought patterns of biologists.
A few jobs back, I was a lonely little chemist in a microbiology lab. These weren’t just any old microbiologists, they were of the worst ilk – food microbiologists. You know, the type that love to scare you about all the bugs in your dinner that will make you sick and kill you. They never got to me or made me change my eating habits (I still eat hamburgers rare) because they never understood what chemists do: It’s the dose that makes the poison (Paracelsus). So what if there is e. coli in there; is it enough to kill me? i.e., What is the LD50? Of course, that would require a little bit of math, not one of their strong points since they think multiplication and division are the same.
Let’s get back to the acrylamide. Biologists use it all the time to make their electrophoresis gels used to separate DNA, RNA, proteins,…The monomer is being linked to cancer (hence the headline above) and made the news a few years ago because it is found in fried foods. Despite this, they have no problem working with a suspected carcinogen. It's just fine. But get this: I could clear a room if I even showed them a bottle of toluene. Somehow every last one of them was absolutely convinced that it was a carcinogen. It’s not. Not even close. In their minds, acrylamide, a suspected carcinogen is fine, while toluene is not. Why?