This piece first appeared on Forbes.com.
Scaremongering U.S. regulators have been indiscriminately attacking products from China for years, and China recently struck back. Shanghai's equivalent of our Food and Drug Administration investigated baby products made by Johnson & Johnson, echoing claims by a coalition of U.S. activists that the products pose a threat to children because they contain trace amounts of the "carcinogens" formaldehyde and 1,4 dioxane. That China opted not to ban the products is good from both scientific and economic perspectives--and we should learn from this brush with product banning.
The low levels of these chemicals found in baby shampoo, soap and lotions pose no threat to children's health. The alarmist claims are based on high-dose, long-term rodent experiments that cannot be extrapolated to humans simply. (In fact, those experiments would equally classify organic baby food as carcinogenic, since sweet potatoes, carrots and pumpkin all contain natural chemicals that can cause cancer in rodents.)
But if China's investigation isn't based on science, what's driving the scare? It's just the latest move in a junk-science-exploiting trade war, which plays well at home in each country--but undermines both trade and health.
The U.S. gave China the ammunition--and perhaps the motivation--to launch this counter-attack when we declared Chinese-made toys "toxic" because some were found to contain low levels of lead. But the vast majority of those toys never posed a threat to children. Targeting Johnson & Johnson baby-care products lets Chinese regulators pose as protectors of children and slam an iconic American company.
As in all trade wars, the collateral damage is costly.
In this case, the first impact is to health. Unfounded health scares tend to make us think "everything" is dangerous. Over time, the drumbeat of alarmist news lessens people's sensitivity to serious public health issues, such as the melamine-tainted milk--which actually sickened thousands of Chinese infants last year.
The second impact is economic. Johnson & Johnson holds 69% of the market share of baby-care products in China. But theirs aren't the only ones that contain (harmlessly low levels of) chemicals. The implication that U.S. products are dangerous may have a ripple effect on all U.S. exports--just as overstated claims about the danger of Chinese products damaged their entire economy. Toxic terror trade wars hurt consumers as well. Products will become more expensive as trade is hampered. Defamed chemicals will have to be replaced by other, not yet defamed, more expensive ones.