The Environmental Working Group (EWG) loves ratings and listicles. Just take a look at their recent guide to the best and worst sunscreens, or their list of top pesticides consumers should avoid. But they must not love delicious baked goods, since they also go after cinnamon rolls, muffins, and donuts — and the supposed culprit isn't new nor surprising.
This time, the EWG zeroed-in on propyl parabens — derivatives of p-hydroxybenzoate — which they claim act as endocrine disrupters in humans. Endocrine disrupters is a term often used by activists when concrete scientific data fails to show a connection between chemicals and toxicity or carcinogens. The EWG even gives a detailed list of food items that contain propyl parabens, like Sara Lee's cinnamon rolls, Weight Watchers' cakes, and Weis' chocolate candies. In fact, the list is about the only thing they got right in their campaign since propyl parabens indeed are present in these foods. And for good reason.
Preservatives in foods and cosmetics have been targeted for about as long as they've been around — which is forever. They've also been the safest group of chemicals since, you guessed it, forever.
But activists' concerns grew about a decade ago, when a 2004 study found traces of parabens in breast cancer tumors. Had they read the study in its entirety, they would have concluded that no real link was found between parabens and breast cancer. Other studies on parabens in cosmetics, including a 2002 epidemiological study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, concluded that deodorants containing parabens are not associated with an increased risk of cancer. And studies that followed have also found trace amounts of parabens in urine — which is good, since the chemical is readily absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract and quickly excreted in the urine; in other words, it does not accumulate. Had they not been found in urine, we'd have a different discussion on our hands.
In one of EWG's claims about parabens, they say that 'the FDA has failed to take action to eliminate its use in food or reassess its safety.' True. That's because the FDA has described them as safe and not harmful to humans in trace amounts.
Let us be perfectly clear: There exist chemical scares that are valid. We know this. But there also exist chemical scares that are plain ludicrous. And this is one of them.