To Be REALLY Safe, Let's Ban Everything

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While Americans blithely go about their business, an insidious and irrational flee from technology is taking place all in the name of "public health." Over the past two months alone, two safe and useful products have been taken away from consumers despite the conclusions that the approved use of those products are safe.

To make matters worse, some manufacturers of these rejected technologies are joining forces with some extreme environmentalist groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect us from hazards that do not exist.

Recently, ACSH criticized 3M's withdrawal prompted by pressure from the EPA of its unique fabric protector, Scotchgard. The product will soon disappear from the supermarket shelves, not because there is any evidence it is unsafe, but because trace levels of some of the product's chemical components have been persistent in human blood samples and in the environment. These trace levels of chemicals in the blood have not been deemed harmful but their mere detection was enough to be fatal to Scotchgard.

Last week, the EPA announced its intention to ban one of the most common ingredients in home, lawn and garden bug killers, Dursban. This compound is found in familiar household pesticide sprays, like Raid and Black Flag roach and ant killer. EPA Administrator Carol Browner defends her decision to ban this useful product by claiming that Dursban causes damage in the brains of newborn rats. She further argues that both children and adults have been harmed from the use of these products. These sprays can indeed, when misused, be toxic, and misuse and accidental ingestion of the products could cause serious health hazards. Yet, Ms. Browner presents no evidence that the approved and intended use of Dursban products poses any health problems at all.

Thus the 3M Scotchgard episode and the Dursban sequel illustrate an emerging and unscientific code for "protecting pubic health":

#1. Ban the product if you can find traces of any chemical components persisting in the body or the environment.

Scientists know that the ability to merely measure the presence of a chemical that is potentially harmful does not indicate that human health is in jeopardy. Furthermore, it is well known that human blood contains traces of nearly all the myriad natural and synthetic chemicals to which we are exposed daily.

#2. If it causes health problems in rodents, ban it.

Yet repeated laboratory animal studies using extremely high levels of naturally occurring chemicals (in food, water and air) can cause toxic effects, cancer and reproductive damage . For example, the naturally occurring chemicals hydrazines, found in mushrooms, are carcinogenic in rodents. Arsenic and solanine, natural components of potatoes can be highly toxic to humans and animals in high doses but are harmless in the trace levels found in spuds.

#3. If the product is abused or misused, ban it even for its rational, approved use.

Yet common pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, cleaning agents--and even table salt can cause injury and death if misused or accidently ingested. In the case of a small child, even small amounts of such ingested material can pose a grave risk.

Are we pursuing such a degree of safety in our society that we are willing to discard any and all useful technology where no valid evidence of a health threat with intended use exists? And what negative consequences might we face from the purging of these allegedly hazardous materials?

That "household hint" guru, Heloise, has appeared on the Today Show recently,suggesting primitive ways of protecting our clothes from stains now that Scotchgard will be gone. But what her comments made clear is that there are no good alternatives to Scotchgard available, and that means higher costs for all of us to replace blighted clothes and furniture. And with Dursban gone most likely to be joined in the graveyard of chemicals by pesticides with similar properties --we have lost even more of our tools in fighting off the asthma-inducing effects of cockroaches and other pests.

The most troubling aspect of this insidious threat is that consumers seem unaware that we are on a slippery slope, with most any useful and safe consumer product now vulnerable to strident cries to "be safe rather than sorry" to "protect the children". And to make matters worse, some manufacturers seem to be willing to fold their tents and move on rather than stand up for their science-based conviction that their products are safe.