This piece first appeared on HuffingtonPost.com and is a revised version of an earlier Washington Times piece.
If you are a parent (or grandparent) of a young child, you are a target for manipulation by activists who claim that we are surrounded by a sea of chemical "toxins" and "carcinogens." You are easy prey -- because you care so deeply about the health and welfare of your babies and children. Purveyors of unfounded health scares know that. The fear-mongers have just about everything going for them, and, unless you recognize their manipulative tactics, you will be among their millions of terrified victims.
Here's how they work: They know what psychiatrists have known for many years: that human beings are fearful of substances that are unknown, unfamiliar -- and invisible. It's just human nature to postulate that there are hostile, unseen agents out there that are going to get you -- like the boogeyman under the bed at night. What you cannot see can be downright scary. And that is what the "toxic terrorists" count on. You will act to ensure the safety of your child -- whether or not there is a real risk.
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Take the example of phthalates: Phthalates are chemicals that are used to make plastics flexible -- and they have been widely used for some fifty years in everything from plastic shower curtains to medical devices to rubber duckies. Phthalates are invisible, unfamiliar (who can pronounce the word, much less spell it correctly?), and totally unknown to almost every parent. So when an activist like Mark Schapiro -- author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products -- claims that "American infants are...sucking on phthalate-contaminated teething rings, ingesting toxins directly into their still-developing, vulnerable bodies," you have the perfect storm: a purportedly hostile, invisible agent attacking your baby. The scaremongers have got you -- all because you are a loving, caring parent.
Contrast the activist scare about phthalates with the scientific reality: there is no evidence whatsoever -- not even a hint -- of health problems from phthalates in any consumer products used by children or adults. That is the conclusion of esteemed scientists from the Food and Drug Administration, Consumer Product Safety Commission, and universities around the world -- and a blue ribbon panel on phthalates and health chaired by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. The issue has been addressed and studied extensively. There are more than 1,000 articles on phthalates in the scientific literature. The claimed health risk is totally bogus, based exclusively on results of high-dose rodent experiments. If one were to assume that phthalates should be regarded as dangerous because vast quantities make rodents sick, then we would also have to fear the myriad collection of natural foods (like mushrooms, table pepper, coffee, and nutmeg) that contain chemicals that cause cancer in rodents -- as plenty of all-natural chemicals do, without any corresponding illness in humans.
The scare tactics on phthalates worked like a charm recently in California, since Gov. Schwarzenegger banned most forms of phthalaltes, declaring, "we must take this action to protect our children. These chemicals threaten the health and safety of our children at critical stages of their development." Building on this momentum, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) introduced legislation to ban phthalates nationwide. These regulatory moves will do absolutely nothing to promote the health of children. They will only serve to remove from the market safe, useful products.
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How should we as consumers and scientists react to these bogus scares, which are increasingly targeting worried parents?
We have a clear choice: The easy way would be to tolerate this insidious manipulation and agree to "do something" to eliminate the bogus risk -- no matter what the cost. If we continue in this direction, we will be squandering public health resources by targeting non-risks, and we will literally be dismantling our technologically-sophisticated society, demolishing our enviably high standard of living. After banning rubber duckies, what will be next?
But if we listen to scientists dealing in the facts about such alarmism, we can recognize this manipulation for what it is -- and reject it. This will take extraordinary leadership by members of the scientific community, who would need to step forward and say, in essence, "I understand your fears. We all care deeply about the health of our children. But this is fear that has no basis in reality."
Obviously, scientists in California did not speak up to declare the scare about phthalates a bogus threat -- and manipulation through fear prevailed. We can only hope that science will prevail when similar national legislation is considered -- and that any legislation to protect us from risks that do not exist will be rejected.