You Can't Escape Chemicals

They surround us, and usually that's OK.
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Glen Tickle

It's easy to believe that a mix of white vinegar, salt, and dishwasher liquid soap is somehow different from a nasty chemical-y weedkiller. 

But, as comedian and writer Glen Tickle's Twitter joke, seen above, makes plain: everything we use is made of chemicals. They are an inescapable fact of modern life. 

And that's OK! 

When Andrew Kniss, a Wyoming weed (not that kind) scientist, ran an analysis on the ingredients in this homemade weed killer, he found that it was more toxic than glyphosate, aka Roundup, aka Monsanto's Roundup. 

In a standard laboratory test, called the LD50, the "acetic acid is more toxic than glyphosate." And because of the mix of chemicals in the recipe and the amount of weedkiller one would apply, "the acetic acid in the homemade mixture is nearly 10 times more lethal than the glyphosate in the Eliminate [a Roundup product] mixture." Oh, and the homemade weedkiller would stick around in the soil longer. 

But the truth is: Both of them are OK to use, if used properly with standard safety practices. 

And if you're really worried about weeds—and not about making a certain point about the danger of chemicals—Kniss also has a breakdown of when you might want to use a contact herbicide like the acetic acid mix and when you might want a systemic herbicide like glyphosate. 

So, keep all this in mind the next time someone tells you to use a "homemade" weed or bug killer. There may be good reasons to do so, but the idea of the "natural" that they rely on is a fiction. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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