Chemical-phobia is in full bloom this spring. Terrifying headlines on cancer risks, infertility, impaired sexual development and more have plastic bottles and rubber duckies being pulled off store shelves.
But the risks aren't real - the scary "news" is an artifact of a research method that falsely reports dangers in chemicals that don't harm our health. Applied across the board, it would lead to bans on about half the chemicals in the world -- including the ones in nature.
Fear gets our attention, and most reporters and editors are ignorant about the relevant science -- so the media have been blaring similar studies for decades. With politicians just as clueless, the error has led to bans on cyclamates (1969) and red dye No. 2 (1976) -- plus the mother of all scares in 1989, over Alar on apples.
Nalgene announced this month that it will stop using the chemical BPA in making its bottles, after stores like Wal-mart and CVS pulled BPA-containing products. This followed a government report expressing "some concern" about BPA having possible "neural and behavioral effects" and possibly causing cancer or early puberty.
Earlier this year, California banned toys (like rubber duckies) that contain phthalates to "protect the health of children." Similar national legislation is pending. Critics claim that phthalates (which make plastic flexible) induce cancer and various sexual abnormalities.
Again, this is much ado about nothing. Both BPA and phthalates have been in common use for decades. Each has been studied intensely; scientists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) report that they pose no hazard. Any "dose" of either that makes it into our system is truly minute -- less than a fraction of a grain of salt a day.
So what is the basis for the claims of danger? Studies that dose rats with massive amounts of the "suspect" chemical.
The reality is, these studies don't predict human risk. But they are relatively easy to do (sorry, rats) -- and they win headlines.
Psychiatrists tell us that chemicals like BPA and phthalates -- unfamiliar to us, and invisible -- are the perfect focus for fear. Add claims that they may harm children, and you create the perfect storm of fear and outrage. Decision-making grows irrational, with consumers willing to purge the suspect substance without even considering the safety profile of the alternative chemicals (which may well be less tested).
Scientists largely remain mute while the risks are being hyped and science distorted. Reporters typically don't call experts who won't give the desired scare quote -- while officials at the FDA and CSPC have to worry about backlash from their political masters. (Neither agency, though on record that BPA and phthalates are safe, has issued updated statements to calm fears.)
Corporations end up caving, abandoning perfectly safe products, because it's just not worth the money to fight the hysteria. The withdrawals and product -- reformulations are extremely costly, leading to higher prices but not an iota of improved safety. Each time it happens, another useful product of technology vanishes.
It all recalls a cartoon I saw years ago: A naked man gazes at his empty closet, exclaiming, "Oh, my -- they banned everything."