RADIO DEBATE: ACSH Weighs In on Chemical Industry

By ACSH Staff — Apr 12, 2002
ACSH's Jeff Stier contributed to the debate on the chemical industry scheduled for broadcast April 15 on NPR. You'll also be able to hear it here: Summary of Stier's remarks:

ACSH's Jeff Stier contributed to the debate on the chemical industry scheduled for broadcast April 15 on NPR. You'll also be able to hear it here:

Summary of Stier's remarks:

We've been told that we're exposed to a soup of toxic chemicals. We're all contaminated and all these chemicals are going to cause us to die soon. The question is, are we going to fall for that scare or are we going to remain calm and evaluate the science?

The American Council on Science and Health has published something that we call the "Holiday Dinner Menu" in which we take a look at a number of foods that we eat on a typical holiday meal: sweet potatoes, bread, mushrooms. These are all natural foods, some of them could even be organic. In all of them there are naturally-occurring chemicals that are toxic and carcinogenic. When we feed these chemicals to animals over long periods of time at very high doses, the same way we do with PCBs, they cause cancer in laboratory animals. The problem is that we keep pumping more and more of these chemicals into the rat until the rat gets sick and then we say, well, it must have the same effect on humans. Mice are not little men and, if we go ahead and ban every chemical at the drop of a rat, before long, we're not going to have anything left to eat.

I don't think testing is really the issue. I think the real issue is how we will use those tests once they're done. It's quite clear that while certain chemicals may exist in the environment and they may even exist in our bodies it does not, therefore, mean that they will make us sick. For example, there is a whole range of animal and human studies on PCBs. I would encourage you to look at the human data in the peer-reviewed literature on PCBs, and I would challenge people to show me where PCBs have ever caused any illness in humans. The science doesn't support that assertion. If you want to go and say that the PCBs in the Hudson River make the river dirty and we don't like dirty rivers, well, then, go ahead and dig them up and make a mess and take them out. I have no problem with that. But if you're going to say that we ought to take the PCBs out of the Hudson River because people are getting cancer from them, the peer-reviewed scientific literature on PCBs needs to support that view.

Our goal in the public health community is to help people live longer and healthier lives. How do we do that? We know what makes people sick. If you look at the data, people die in car accidents, from the abuse of alcohol, from smoking. I think we ought to pay attention to a handful of things that are way at the top of the list. Children who ride bicycles should be wearing helmets. People who smoke shouldn't be smoking. We ought to have a balanced diet high in fruits and vegetables. The American Council on Science and Health encourages people to put their public health priorities in order. But scares about toxic chemicals do very little to help us do that.

Jeff Stier, Esq. is the Associate Director of the American Council on Science and Health.


December 1, 2002

No good deed goes unpunished. PCBs are among the most innocuous substances known. In use since the mid-thirties and widely distributed as the "arachlor" family of plastics, used in many paper coatings and as electrical insulators, they were noted for their inertness and user-friendliness.

In the 70s, a family of chemicals with an easily-confused acronym, the PBBs (I forget whether they were weed-killers or insecticides), gained notoriety when a packager allowed them to contaminate livestock feeds in Michigan. The PBB contamination killed livestock and sickened humans, who consumed meat from affected livestock. The PCBs quickly (and erroneously) became feared and loathed as well, although there was absolutely no evidence that PCBs were hazardous in any way.

Because the PCBs are chemically so inert, their presence in minute quantities can be detected almost everywhere. This led to the fear that somewhere, sometime, PCBs might cause trouble to someone. A nation-wide legislative and regulatory witch hunt was embarked upon to rid the nation and posterity of the Satanic "menace" of PCBs.

So now PCBs, like alar, cyclamates, and bendectin, have been anathematized. But at what cost to human life, health, and well-being?

No amount of incontrovertible scientific evidence seems sufficient to allow the truth to triumph.


Matt Prastein