Health Scares Ahead

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This piece originally appeared in the New York Sun.

Public-health "advocates" have to rally popular sentiment and political support to make progress on the long list of foods and consumer products that they want to see banned because of purported health hazards. They issue regular press releases about "toxins," "poisons," and "carcinogens" and then frequently follow up with calls for regulatory action.

We've had our share of health scares for the past sixty years, starting with the great cranberry scare of 1959 and then the saccharin scare of 1977 and the Alar apple scare of 1989. All these scares were based on reports that the chemicals in question -- aminotriazole in cranberry sauce and daminozide in the Alar apple -- caused cancer when fed in high doses to laboratory animals. Not to be outdone, 2006 had its share of unfounded health scares:

In San Francisco activists issued warnings about chemicals -- namely traces of bisphenol A and phthalates -- in plastic posing a cancer risk. The scare "worked," as in December, San Francisco banned a whole line of children's toys and gear, including pacifiers, rubber duckies, soft covered books, and car seats.

The Environmental Working Group complained to the Food and Drug Administration that soft drinks were contaminated with carcinogenic benzene and posed a risk of leukemia, particularly in children

The same activist group issued a report asserting that the chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products -- including nail polish, deodorants, shampoos, and shaving creams -- pose a risk of cancer and should be replaced with more "natural" items.

California advocates sounded alarms about the cancer-causing effects of a long-used dry cleaning chemical, "perc," and have called for a ban on it in that state.

Environmentalists, who have been trying to ban Teflon for years, heightened their rhetoric by claiming that the no-stick coating used for cooking purposes contained a cancer-causing chemical, PFOA.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, actually an anti-meat activist group, announced that "grilled chicken can cause cancer," alleging that chemicals formed in cooking are carcinogenic.

The Natural Resources Defense Council asserted that the chemicals used in shampoos and lotions to treat kids with head lice are "neurotoxins" that cause seizures. The group urged the FDA to ban these products.

The National Christmas Tree Association came up with its own scare, noting on its Web site that artificial trees "harbor cancer-causing and poisonous chemicals."

What do these unfounded health scares have common?

In many cases, including those involving plastic, Teflon, "perc," chemicals in cosmetics, and artificial Christmas trees, the cancer and toxin claims were based exclusively on results of high-dose rodent studies. When will they learn? It is well-established that high dose animal cancer tests have no relevance in predicting human cancer risk. If they did, we would really be in a heap of trouble because scientists have determined that a myriad of naturally occurring chemicals in food, including hydrazines in every day mushrooms, safrole in table pepper, and a multitude of chemicals in coffee, cause cancer in animals at high dosages.

Further, those trumpeting the scare did not take into account the extremely low level of exposure that was the reality whereas scientists' conclusions are based on high levels of exposure. For centuries scientists have been guided by the toxicological principle that only the dose makes the poison. The scaremongers probably never will learn this because they would be out of business. That is why consumers must be wary when they hear these pronouncements.

But the biggest unfounded health scare this year was not based on cancer claims, and did not come from self-appointed environmental advocates. It centered on claims about the causation of heart disease and it came from a team of scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health. That's the same institution that gave its highest award for public health achievement in 2005 to environmental activist Erin Brockovich. The scientists opined that trans fats in oleomargarines and some cooking oils were "metabolic poisons" and were a major cause of heart disease. This set off a national panic and triggered a ban on trans fats in New York City restaurants, with other cities scurrying to follow suit.

What is the real story behind this scare, one that hit very close to home? As a pioneer in the field of cholesterol and heart disease, David Kritchevsky, noted just before he died: The kerfuffle over trans fats is just "the scare du jour " -- with smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and diets high in saturated fats being far more important heart threats. With trans fats now accounting for 1% to 2% of our caloric intake and saturated fats accounting for about 15%, the chances that a ban on trans fats in restaurants will reduce the risks of heart disease are about zero. Instead, the ban will only cause havoc in the restaurant industry and escalate costs of doing business, all of which will be passed on to us.

Perhaps the absurdity of the trans fat scare and its resulting restaurant ban was apparent in a quote from Four Seasons purchasing manager, Joel Patraker, who bragged that his dining landmark did not use trans fats, noting, "we use a large amount of wonderful, farm-fresh butter." Talk about out of the trans-fat fryingpan and into the saturated-fat fire.