The Times goes sci-fi on us

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When ACSH made a cartoon spoof about two years ago featuring a bear who was so afraid of bisphenol A (BPA) that he refused to go shopping because someone had told him there was BPA in receipts, we thought it was a joke no one could possibly act so irrationally on the basis of an utterly unfounded fear. Turns out we were wrong.

In a column for today s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof reveals that there are indeed people out there who are afraid of receipts not to mention microwave popcorn, canned food, plastics, cosmetics, and food packaging. In this frightening world in which he finds himself, with dangers lurking in nearly every product, Kristof asks, Shouldn t our government be as vigilant about threats in our grocery stores as in the mountains of Afghanistan? It seems as though he wants to call out the National Guard to stand guard in the supermarket.

What s the source of all this fear? Chemicals, and particularly so-called endocrine disruptors. According to Kristof, all sorts of chemicals, including BPA (a component of many plastics, which has been in use for 60 years) can mimic hormones and lead to a multitude of health problems, from genital deformities, to infertility, to breast cancer and even obesity. But who says so? Scientists and experts, claims Kristof. He cites the Endocrine Society, which criticized the FDA for declining to ban BPA from food packaging. This ignores, however, the fact that the FDA decision was based on decades of safe use of BPA and extensive research, all of which has consistently indicated that exposure to BPA in food packaging poses no risk to consumers.

Yet Kristof goes on to describe and admire the steps that Dr. John Peterson Myers, of Environmental Health Sciences, takes to protect his family from chemical exposure. Dr. Myers no longer purchases canned food and refuses receipts whenever he can. Dr. Bloom quips, Just imagine the fun you could have giving this guy a bunch of really bad gifts, knowing he couldn t return them.

ACSH s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan was left nearly speechless after reading the column. Being so afraid of BPA that you re scared to touch receipts is more of a psychiatric issue than anything else, she says. But people read articles like this one and, when they hear the same thing time and time again, they start to believe it no matter how baseless the arguments.

People think that because Kristof is an expert on other topics, he must be a trustworthy source of information on chemicals, adds ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross. What they don t realize is that, on the topic of chemicals, he just doesn t know what he s talking about. He goes so far as to repeat the thoroughly discredited myths about gender-bent frogs and declining sperm counts favorite activist dogma, but completely unfounded.

ACSH's Dr. Josh Bloom does partially agree with Kristof s premise that there are times when we are affected by chemicals. In fact, he notes, it sounds as though Mr. Kristof himself was being affected by something chemical when he wrote this. For a satisfying dissection of common (and not-so-common) irrational fears about chemicals, you can take a look at Dr. Bloom s recent blog post on just that, over at Medical Progress Today.