- Today’s toxic headline: A plastic gun is pointed at your children & it looks like SpongeBob. @JonEntine
- Dividing the world, and prickly science policy issues, into black and white makes for exciting narratives. @JonEntine
- The anti-science campaign du jour: An attack on the backpacks, book covers & lunch boxes your kids tote to school.
Today’s toxic headline: a plastic gun is pointed at your children and it looks like SpongeBob, Hello Kitty and Dora the Explorer.
Campaigning NGOs and many journalists share a not-so-attractive sensibility: they are often uncomfortable with complexity. Dividing the world, and prickly science policy issues, into black and white makes for exciting narratives. Unfortunately it’s invariably wrong, authoritarian and, as Freud would say, crazy (“neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity”).
"Dividing the world, and prickly science policy issues, into black and white makes for exciting narratives. Unfortunately it’s invariably wrong, authoritarian and, as Freud would say, crazy (“neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity”)." That’s certainly the case in today’s anti-science campaign du jour: a ferocious attack on the harmless backpacks, book covers and lunch boxes that your children tote to school.
The hysteria kicked off earlier this week with a news conference organized by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice starring anti-chemical flack Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) at which the CHEJ released a guide ominously titled, “Hidden Hazards: Toxic Chemical Inside Children’s Vinyl Back to School Supplies”.
“These dangerous chemicals manufactured by ExxonMobil have no place in our children’s school supplies,” said Mike Schade, CHEJ’s “Markets Campaign Coordinator” who orchestrated the media blitz. The non-profit, composed almost entirely of fulltime campaigners, has one lone non-PhD scientist on staff—with no research expertise in this area.
The circus worked—the news conference resulted in dozens of variations on the “backpacks will kill you” headline in hundreds of news reports in top end media sites. According to CBS News, the report “showed that about 75% of back to school supplies that they sampled contained “dangerous phthalates, or PVCs.”
CHEJ purports to take a scientific look at the dangers posed by phthalates, which are plasticizers used in thousands of common products, including toys, cosmetics, medical devices, cabling, flooring and even pharmaceutical pills—that help make them flexible and durable. Its narrative is not so much bereft of science but, even more sinister, it distorts it.
What does the science actually say?
Few chemicals on the market today have undergone as much scientific scrutiny as phthalate esters. And environmental and industry groups pitted against each other in the debate have no shortage of studies they can use as ammunition. Self-proclaimed environmental groups cite research linking outsized doses of some phthalates to reproductive problems in rodents. Mainstream scientists counter that phthalates and adverse health effects in humans never have been connected.
The CHEJ and similar alarmist “studies” rely heavily on the work of Shanna Swan, a controversial, self-proclaimed campaigning scientist, who sent anti-phthalate campaigners into overdrive in 2005 with the publication of a controversial study that purported to show that phthalates has a feminizing effect on boys.
The National Toxicology Program, looking specifically at the phthalate DEHP, found that Swan did not show any statistical association between DEHP metabolites and genital development, which challenged her central thesis. Another phthalate found in school, products, DINP, has been deemed safe by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Most recently, in NeuroToxicology, the Mt. Sinai Hospital researcher linked phthalates and another controversial plasticizer, bisphenol A, to a variety of health problems including neuro-developmental delays, behavioral issues and reduced fertility. Her evidence? She examined urine samples from 10 Mennonite women —yes, 10 of 1.5 million Mennonites worldwide. From a science perspective, any conclusions she might make from such a dismally small sample is literally ridiculous—but the media had a field day, nonetheless.
Regulators and subsequent researchers have not been able to confirm her results, and her work is now widely questioned and even dismissed—except by anti-chemical campaigners. According to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released in 2011, phthalates do not pose a health hazard. “Phthalates are metabolized and excreted quickly and do not accumulate in the body,” the CDC concluded.
That report reconfirmed a comprehensive study conducted in 2004 by the Children’s National Medical Center and the George Washington University School of Medicine that showed no adverse effects in organ or sexual functioning in adolescent children exposed to phthalates as neonates. The same team evaluated infants in a 2010 study and reconfirmed the negative findings. Another recent study has shown that even high levels of phthalates have shown no effect on the genital development of marmosets, let alone humans—activist claims to the contrary.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a comprehensive list of links to actual scientific studies on the chemical—none of which echo Swan’s conclusions. Plain and simple, and unequivocally, extensive testing over decades doesn’t support the claims by Schumer or the CHEJ that students face danger from “toxic exposure” from their school supplies.
Yes, we encounter phthalates and dozens of other common chemicals everyday, and yes, they show up in urine samples. It’s estimated that more than 160 chemicals can be detected in human urine, many of which are potentially dangerous if consumed at high enough doses over a long enough period of time.
It sounds scary, but as scientist’s note, chemical danger is a function of dose and duration of exposure. The source of much of the toxins found in adult urine can be traced to our national drug of choice, coffee, which is not only a mild narcotic but is filled with dozens of “toxic” chemicals—most of which would flunk tests on lab rats but are not actually harmful to us. Why? Because our body metabolizes the substances and strips out its toxic effects.
The “plasticizers will harm you” meme has hardened into dogma at CHEJ. Launched more than 30 years ago in the wake of the Love Canal dumping fiasco, the NGO has become a clearing house for extremist precautionary orthodoxy, targeting chemicals and now, of course, fracking—reflecting the two dominant litmus test issues of advocacy groups.
Most importantly from a science perspective, even if the CHEJ and campaigning professor Shanna Swan’s claims should somehow find firmer scientific footing, restricting their presence in school supplies, toys or cosmetics would have no effect on overall human phthalate exposure. “Such measures will not reduce the main sources of our exposure to phthalates (since our main source is food),” notes George Mason University professor Dr. Rebecca Goldin, who analyzed the Swan study and found it statistically challenged. “It will not reduce our exposure (or our children’s) to the particular phthalates that are correlated with [toxic effects] even if we buy into the claim that this is a worthy goal,” adds Goldin, who is a also senior fellow at the Statistical Assessment Service.
It’s doubtful that such groups as CHEJ will suddenly “discover science” and put such critical issues into appropriate context. But we can hope that the reporters who cover such “events” and purport to act in the public interest exercise greater care, caution and a respect for nuanced reporting. Our health depends upon it.