Silent Spring, BPA and toxic health scares: Let science drive regulation, not fear

Flickr/US Food and Drug Administration

The Food and Drug Administration continues to study the chemical, bisphenol A.

Article Highlights

  • Today's political science = the subversion of science by ideologues committed to manipulating public policy to their end

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  • As any school kid is taught, very few regulated chemicals, natural or synthetic, cause harm at typical exposure levels

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  • FDA's decision rested on science, while campaigns by #NRDC rested on cherry-picking studies that demonized a chemical

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The term "political science" used to mean public policy studied not just as opinion but based on empirical, documentable evidence. Today it's come to mean something darker--the subversion of science in the hands of ideologues committed to manipulating public policy to their end. This new, and disheartening use of the term can apply to industry groups that put profit ahead of data or advocacy groups of the left or right who believe they are on the side of the angels, empirical facts be damned.

Take the issue of chemicals, a popular flogging horse of reflexively anti-industry organizations. Most writers in the blogosphere, including many with PhD next to their name and working for self-proclaimed public interest groups, have a limited understanding of toxicological science and don't know anything about chemical risk assessment. That's a toxic mix, especially when you're trying to explain the science of toxicity.

The toxic mix of science and politics was on vivid display just last week, when the Food and Drug Administration firmly rejected a "citizens petition" filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council to ban bisphenol A (BPA), which is a plastic additive that lends strength, flexibility and transparency to many plastics and also protects goods stored in containers from spoiling, from all food packaging. The FDA's decision rested on the science, while the campaigns led by the NRDC and a slew of advocacy groups rested on cherry-picking studies that demonized a chemical.

"In this study, there was no pretense of even trying to prove that any of that long list of chemicals actually poses a health risk." -- Jon Entine

The recent study funded by Silent Spring Institute is an example of this disheartening trend. It's an anti-chemical advocacy group by charter. It recently funded a study that posed an important and provocative question: What can we learn from everyday chemical exposures?

A science-based study would have greatly benefited the public, considering the media reach of this organization. For example, it would be good to ponder why there is such an intense activist focus on, for example, the cancer dangers of chemical exposure when cancer rates continue to fall? Is the focus over chemical risk justifiable? Or as science writer Trevor Butterworth suggests in Forbes, are we exaggerating the hypothetical chemical risk and ignoring the real and growing and measurable and avoidable (but far less media sexy) actual cancer risks, such as obesity, smoking, poor diet, exposure to the sun, drinking and physical inactivity?

Unfortunately, the way Silent Spring framed the research and then reported on it veered from science into the netherworld of political science. The study looked at 213 consumer personal care and cleaning products and identified dozens of chemicals -- everything from cosmetics to cleaners to sunscreens, from phthalates to BPA. The results, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, weren't much, from a science perspective. For example, it presented no evidence and cited no studies to support its claim that the chemicals in question cause any harm to humans at common exposure levels. The few studies that do exist on this subject suggest that health dangers from chemical exposure are declining along with relevant cancer rates.

Instead it broadly linked chemicals, independent of exposure, to such vague, non-clinical terms such as "endocrine disruptor" and "asthma-causing." It documented only the mere presence of chemicals -- then characterized them as the "hidden dangers in everyday products," as one science-starved Forbes contributor compliantly headlined.

The higher end media should have been all over the study. As we learned in junior high science class, substances, including many common foods, such as broccoli or Brussels sprouts, can be "toxic" if we are exposed to high enough levels over a long enough period of time. But as any school kid is also taught, very few regulated chemicals, natural or synthetic, cause harm at typical exposure levels. In this study, there was no pretense of even trying to prove that any of that long list of chemicals actually poses a health risk. The report completely ignored the myriad benefits that chemicals, when used judiciously, bring to people including protecting food safety.

What about the claim that chemicals trigger asthma? As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states, asthma is brought on by secondhand tobacco smoke, dust mites, outdoor air pollution such as automobile exhaust, cockroaches, pets and mold. Because almost everything in the modern world includes synthetic chemicals, could they play a role? Anything could, of course, but there is just no evidence that it does at typical rates of exposures, which is what this study allegedly was addressing -- if evidence even matters to campaigners.

What about endocrine disruption? The study makes it sound like exposure to commonly encountered chemicals, such as BPA, pose a health risk at the extremely low levels at which we are exposed to it. But that's not what scientists believe. Over the past two years alone, five prominent international regulatory agencies or toxicology organizations -- USFDA, European Food Safety Authority, World Health Organization, German Society of Toxicology and Japan's Research Institute of Science for Safety and Sustainability -- individually have reviewed thousands of BPA studies by government, university and industry. They've all consistently concluded that BPA is not harmful as used.

Silent Spring cleverly played to the hysteria crowd, framing the issue by writing it analyzed "unlabeled chemicals of concern," even though regulators are not concerned about the low level exposure to these chemicals. The mere invocation of vague terms such as "toxic" or endocrine disruption" without any definitional framing serves only to create emotional havoc among consumers.

Silent Spring got its wish. Headlines such as study finds "dangerous chemicals in household products" or "55 hidden toxics in consumer products" abounded throughout cyberspace. Dedicated anti-chemical groups (and by that I mean those who in their published commentaries selectively present studies to create an ideological narrative rather than addressing the inherent complexity of science, including the usual suspects, such as the NRDC and the Environmental Working Group, and "we don't understand the science chemicals but we know we hate them" journalists at places like Mother Jones carried the water for Silent Spring. The study has generated more than 20,000 stories, with only a literal handful raising the central Chemistry 101 question: does exposure = danger? The answer, for these chemicals at least, is "no, as the FDA demonstrated with its rejection of the BPA petition.

Advocacy groups have learned they can generate articles by breathlessly claiming that a chemical is found in one thing or another at one part per million. That may be hard to comprehend, but it is the equivalent of one human step on a 568-mile walk or one 60-second minute in a two-year span. The CDC provides an important caution against over-interpretation of the detection of an environmental chemical in the body as indicating a health risk. It's clear that Silent Spring, Mother Jones, et al. haven't read it. Or worse, they have read it and don't understand it, or in their zeal to promote politics over science they don't care. When it comes to scientific responsibility and reporting on challenging health issues, it's time for responsible journalists to take the politics out of science.

Jon Entine is a senior fellow at STATS and the Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University.

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