Junk Science and Politicians: Popular NY Combo

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H.L. Mencken once said that "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." Apparently, here in New York, where the American Council on Science and Health is headquartered, Democrats and Republicans alike are well-versed in this philosophy, since this year we have been subjected to one health scare after another -- all bogus -- accompanied by slick, unscientific, purported "solutions":

--Assemblyman Scott Stringer (D-Manhattan) introduced a bill to ban the sale of cosmetics -- nail polishes, shampoo, deodorant, lipstick, and more -- which contain chemicals called phthalates, widely used for years in toys, wall coverings, blood transfusion bags, medical tubing, and personal care products. Stringer and the environmental activists advising him warned that tests on laboratory rodents show that these chemicals cause cancer and birth defects. But there is no indication whatsoever that human health is in anyway jeopardized by using cosmetics such as nail polish (assuming you are not ingesting them in huge quantities) or any other phthalate-containing product.

--Sen. Charles Schumer announced that the drinking water in Queens was "poisoned" by a fuel additive, MTBE, and that he is here to rescue us. Never mind that with today's technology you can literally find traces of any chemical in just about anything -- and ignore the fact that such infinitesimally small exposures pose no health hazard at all.

--Then there is Brooklyn assemblyman Felix W. Ortiz and his ongoing campaign against his own hobgoblin: foods high in fat and sugar. His answer? Taxing "junk food," whatever that is. Never mind that obesity is caused by too many calories -- from any food -- and too little exercise, and that the proposed tax would do nothing except fatten the State coffers.

--Recall, too, Governor Pataki's State of the State address earlier this year, in which he proclaimed the dangers of industrial cleaning products and issued an Executive Order requiring all state agencies (and later all the schools in New York) to use "non-toxic" cleaning products "free of harmful chemicals." In announcing this purported hazard and his legislative solution, the Governor did not cite scientific evidence but rather praised a radical environmental activist, Deirdre Imus (wife of the radio personality), who he called "a great New Yorker." She had allegedly documented the hazards of these products, according to her website, hoping she could "ultimately prevent environmental factors that cause...pediatric cancer." Pure junk science.

Health scares may advance political careers, but they do so at an enormous cost to consumers who pick up the tab for the "solutions" to problems that either do not exist -- or which require more scientifically-based intervention.

Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org).