Greens' War Against All Chemicals Will Do Little To Reduce Our Risks

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By Henry Miller

Posted 1/26/2009

A report from a panel appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says that California should expand pollution prevention initiatives, add "green chemistry" to public school curricula and offer public access to comprehensive information about the chemicals in consumer products.

The report, part of a plan by the California Environmental Protection Agency to eliminate many supposedly toxic materials, is more appropriate for a wish list sent to Santa Claus than an attempt at serious public policy.

It recalls H.L. Mencken's observation that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong. 

For starters, the governor and members of his panel seem oblivious to the fact that we live in a sea of chemicals and that, in fact, our bodies are actually comprised of them and also to the toxicologists' credo, "the dose makes the poison."

Many of the alarms raised recently about chemicals, from those in rubber duckies and plastic bottles to pesticides used in agriculture, are completely bogus, while most of the others represent only negligible risks. 

Pseudo-scares and the wrongheaded (and often very costly) responses to them as in these latest recommendations from the governor's panel are wasteful, if not actually harmful.

For example, the federal EPA forced General Electric to remove trace levels of chemicals called PCBs from the Hudson River, although this massive project will have prodigious costs but no benefits. The EPA's assertion that PCBs in fish pose a human cancer risk is based solely on observations that high-dose, prolonged PCB exposure causes tumors in laboratory animals.

An example of misperception of risk is acrylamide, a useful industrial compound formed naturally in high-carbohydrate-containing foods cooked at high temperatures, such as in frying or broiling. It has thus been part of the human diet since humans learned that cooked foods taste better than raw ones.

Yet because we only learned of acrylamide's existence in foods recently, and because very large amounts fed to animals cause cancer, there have been calls to require warning labels on fried foods and other products in spite of the fact that acrylamide in food has never been shown to harm human health.

Yet another example of a poorly substantiated health threat is the current scare about bisphenol A (BPA) a chemical used to make certain plastics clear and shatterproof. 

Again, because animals fed huge doses of the chemical experienced ill effects, and because minuscule amounts can leach into the contents of plastic cups and bottles when they are heated, warnings about an effect on infants and children (guaranteed to have the most potent effect on parents) have been trumpeted in the media. ("Is your baby exposed to carcinogens with every feeding? Story at 11.")

Exaggerated Risks

Controversy over chemicals rages on the other side of the pond as well. In 2003, the European Union's Institute for Health and Consumer Protection concluded in a risk assessment of DINP, a chemical commonly used in a variety of consumer products:

"The end products containing DINP (clothes, building materials, toys and baby equipment) and the sources of exposure (car and public transport interiors, food and food packaging) are unlikely to pose a risk for consumers (adults, infants and newborns)." 

In spite of the reassuring risk assessments, politicians overruled them, and the EU instituted a permanent ban on DINP and related chemicals in children's toys in 2005.

But these risks aren't real or to be more accurate, they haven't been substantiated. If we followed through by banning all the chemicals we read about that supposedly cause (pick one) cancer, birth defects, low sperm counts, autism, Alzheimer's disease, etc., we'd have to ban most of the chemicals in the world including "natural" ones.

Unfortunately, the scares are real attention-grabbers; they sell papers and attract our attention on TV spots and Internet blogs. And many journalists and editors to say nothing of politicians seem not to care whether the science supports the hype. 

How can we know what we should worry about? 

There is a remarkable new interactive Web source that helps consumers answer that question to understand what poses significant health risks, and what does not. 

The New York-based American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) has produced and manages what it calls a "Riskometer" (, which allows visitors to compare health risks.

It informs us that exposure to cigarette smoking is far and away the leading cause of cancer deaths: In 2002 the odds of dying from smoking were 1 in 771. ("Odds of dying" is defined as the number of people expected to produce one death from a particular cause.) The odds of dying from obesity or from unintentional injuries (including traffic accidents, falls and others) are each about 1 in 2,800. 

Far less likely is death from exposure to the dry cleaning fluid perchloroethylene (PERC) or from arsenic in water (about 1 in 6,000,000). In spite of this infinitesimal risk, laws were passed restricting the use of PERC because "everyone knows" it's a serious health risk.

The data on the ACSH Riskometer show that many of the hyped "threats" that we hear and read about daily occur very far down on the list. 

The media's "pseudo-scare mode" is a disservice to its readers and viewers because people have only so much time to pay attention to health issues, and if most stories focus attention on minor (or virtually nonexistent) threats, greater risks that individuals may be able to control get short shrift. 

The bottom line: Be skeptical, be informed, consult the Riskometer.

Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was at the NIH and FDA from 1977 to 1994.  His most recent book is "The Frankenfood Myth."




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