Growing Threat of Phony Health Scares

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America's technological prowess and enviable high standard of living are now under unprecedented assault by an array of self-appointed "consumer advocates" who claim our food, water, air, and consumer products are making us sick.

Health scares are nothing new in our society; recall the great cranberry scare of 1959, panic over the artificial sweetener cyclamates in 1969, or Alar in 1989, just to mention a few. But the onslaught of health scares has worsened in the past two years. Why? Because the scaremongers realize that even with a Republican in the White House they face no effective opposition.

I am not referring here to the unending but usually transient Internet rumors (linking aspartame with multiple sclerosis, antiperspirants with breast cancer risk, etc). Instead, I refer to dire health warnings that are given legitimacy by our nation's leading newspapers warnings that prompt regulatory actions or litigation threats that cause manufacturers to remove the alleged risk.

Consider just a few of the "scares du jour" now making headlines, in the form of purported links between trace levels of chemicals and cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, or other morbidities:

--Chemicals (phthalates) in nail polish

--PCBs in farmed salmon

--Mercury in tuna and other fish

--Bromate in bread (and in England, bromate in Coke's Dasani water)

--Pesticides on produce (an oldie but still a goodie)

--Flame retardant traces found in blood and breast milk

--PCBs in the Hudson River

--Diesel exhaust fumes from school buses

--Arsenic in drinking water

--Phthalates (plasticizers) in medical devices and children's toys

--Perchlorate in drinking water

--Lead in blood

--MTBE (a gasoline additive used to make air cleaner) in water

--Pressure-treated wood (in playground equipment, picnic tables)

--Perchloroethylene (perc) used in dry cleaning


--Chlorine and its chemical relatives

--BPA, a type of plastic in baby bottles

These scares get big play in the media and not only have a predictable effect on skittish consumers but increasingly cause manufacturers to withdraw or reformulate products (the Wall Street Journal, noting "health concerns" about nail polish, reported that Procter & Gamble and Estee Lauder are reformulating their products, presumably to make them "safer"). What does not get reported is that these alleged risks are purely hypothetical: there is no evidence that anyone ever became ill from low-level exposures to any of these substances. Certainly, the risks of high-level exposure to lead in paint, mercury in fish, or naturally-occurring arsenic in drinking water (the latter in some Asian locales) are well documented and real. But the media scares are either based on very low-levelhuman exposures or simply on the observation that high levels cause cancer in laboratory rodents.

H.L. Mencken was right: "the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety), by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." Indeed, environmental radicals, their colleagues in the regulatory arena, and the media are there to "lead us to safety" away, that is, from these phantom hazards.

This unnecessary and wasteful "protection" means more laws and regulations with higher costs to us, the consumers. For example, the PCB scare prompted EPA to demand that General Electric spend $500 million to remove PCBs from the Hudson costs that will eventually be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices for GE goods and services. Anxieties about the health effects of pesticides are driving consumers to "go organic" paying substantially higher prices with zero health benefits. Negative press about the alleged ill health effects of fire retardants caused manufacturers to phase them out and then use higher-priced alternatives.

How much do bogus health scares cost the American consumer in higher taxes and prices? The amount in unknown, but surely it is multiple billions. How many cases of premature disease and death are prevented by regulating and pontificating about these hypothetical risks? That figure is not known, but most likely none.

How do those who specialize in risk hyperbole get away--largely unchallenged-- with their litany of health scares and their associated regulatory demands? They succeed because (a) health is a highly emotional issue, (b) consumers are themselves rarely able to sort out real risks from fake ones, (c) most scientists have remained mute when facts about disease risk are distorted (during the recent farmed salmon scare, for instance, neither the National Cancer Institute nor the American Cancer Society stepped forward to tell consumers that there was no known risk), (d) the scaremongers successfully argue that anyone who disagrees with their claims of risk must be a paid surrogate for "industry" and thus not credible, and (e) "environmentalism" has morphed into something of a religion, with even the most fearless of politicians now unwilling to critically evaluate its premises. Thus the activists, their motivations, and their enormous economic resources remain unexamined.

If we continue to let these unfounded health scares go unchallenged, both our economy and standard of living will deteriorate. As we continue to chase down bogus risks, we will have less time and resources to confront the real ones, including smoking and obesity. It is incumbent upon our nation's physicians and scientists to step forward now, to publicly confront and defrock the "junk scientists" who are scaring us to death and saddling us with "remedies" characterized by staggering cost but offering no health benefits.