Mount Sinai's Scare Campaign (and John Stossel's reaction)

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ACSH's view on this issue was noted by John Stossel on his blog today:

It is nothing new for junk science to make it onto the New York Times op-ed page. But some agendas are so far outside the mainstream they have to buy their way onto the page. That's what the Mount Sinai School of Medicine did in buying a platform for their Dr. Philip Landrigan, an activist who has dedicated his career to raising anxieties about "chemicals" in the environment.

In an August 4 "op-ad" likely costing around $50,000, Dr. Landrigan rails against thousands of new, synthetic chemicals introduced over the last few decades.

He says they are responsible for a full spectrum of diseases in our children -- including cancer, hyperactivity, asthma, reproductive difficulties, and even autism. There is not a shred of evidence to back up such claims. He cites some specific chemicals that have been in the news of late: PCBs (industrial chemicals used until 1977 in fireproofing and insulation ), phthalates (plastic softeners used in a wide variety of consumer products and medical devices), and bisphenol-A (BPA, used to harden plastics and in food and beverage packaging).

He states that these and other chemicals are routinely found in the bodies of both adults and children -- and that this itself is a cause for alarm. In an attempt to gain some legitimacy for his scientifically bereft claims, Dr. Landrigan throws in for good measure the actual documented health risks from exposure to high levels of lead in paint and gasoline (which was the case decades ago but is no longer an issue) and the actual link between asthma and exposure to cigarette smoke. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

But for all his claims that "chemicals" are not safe and have not been tested, he does not acknowledge these basic facts:

•Everything in our universe consists of chemicals. Our natural foods (yes, even organic ones) are 100% chemical in composition -- and come replete with myriad natural toxins (otherwise known as poisons) and carcinogens (usually defined as chemicals which cause cancer in high doses in animal studies). Such natural carcinogens and toxins are of no health consequences because they occur at such low doses.

•Nearly all the health claim Dr. Landrigan makes -- regarding chemicals causing cancer or "toxic effects," for example -- are based on high-level animal studies. By that criterion, he should be worried about nutmeg (which contains a natural hallucinogen and the carcinogen safrole), potatoes (which contain a toxicologically significant level of arsenic), and apples (with their own natural carcinogen quercetin glycosides)

•That we can detect traces of myriad "chemicals" in the human body should be no surprise. With today's sophisticated analytical techniques, we can basically find anything in anything. The mere ability to detect a substance does not mean that the substance poses a hazard.

•Landrigan mentions something called "endocrine disruption" and reproductive defects -- but these phenomena have absolutely no practical application to human risk. Again, the claim that trace levels of chemicals adversely affect hormone production is based only on high-dose animal studies. The allegation that synthetic chemicals cause abnormalities in reproductive potential -- including allegedly chemically-induced penis shrinking -- is derived from observations of alligators growing up in polluted Florida lakes. The human data provide no evidence of reproductive problems linked to chemicals.

In short, the paid-for Landrigan piece is alarmist propaganda masquerading as science and represents a great disservice to parents, children, and public health. One cannot help wonder why Mount Sinai let its good name be associated with this unscientific diatribe -- even allowing its logo to be included in the op-ad.

Dr. Landrigan says that our children need our protection. I could not agree more. Dr. Landrigan's false alarms contribute nothing to our children's health but do create needless distractions. Instead of scaring parents about phantom risks, we should, among other things, advocate basics such as seatbelts, bike helmets, smoke detectors, childhood vaccinations, nutritious diets, and healthy recreation. Parents who provide their kids with these should not be needlessly terrified by Mount Sinai about imaginary chemical menaces.

Dr. Elizabeth Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health (