THE BLOG

Hostages in the War Against "Chemicals"

02/06/2008 10:40 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

If you are a parent (or grandparent) of a young child, you are a target
for manipulation by activists who claim that we are surrounded by a sea
of chemical "toxins" and "carcinogens." You are easy prey -- because
you care so deeply about the health and welfare of your babies and
children. Purveyors of unfounded health scares know that. The
fear-mongers have just about everything going for them, and, unless you
recognize their manipulative tactics, you will be among their millions
of terrified victims.

Here's how they work: They know what psychiatrists have known for many
years: that human beings are fearful of substances that are unknown,
unfamiliar -- and invisible. It's just human nature to postulate that
there are hostile, unseen agents out there that are going to get you --
like the boogeyman under the bed at night. What you cannot see can be
downright scary. And that is what the "toxic terrorists" count on.
You will act to ensure the safety of your child -- whether or not there
is a real risk.

•••

Take the example of phthalates: Phthalates are chemicals that are used
to make plastics flexible -- and they have been widely used for some
fifty years in everything from plastic shower curtains to medical
devices to rubber duckies. Phthalates are invisible, unfamiliar (who
can pronounce the word, much less spell it correctly?), and totally
unknown to almost every parent. So when an activist like Mark Schapiro
-- author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products --
claims that "American infants are...sucking on phthalate-contaminated
teething rings, ingesting toxins directly into their still-developing,
vulnerable bodies," you have the perfect storm: a purportedly hostile,
invisible agent attacking your baby. The scaremongers have got you --
all because you are a loving, caring parent.

Contrast the activist scare about phthalates with the scientific
reality: there is no evidence whatsoever -- not even a hint -- of
health problems from phthalates in any consumer products used by
children or adults. That is the conclusion of esteemed scientists from
the Food and Drug Administration, Consumer Product Safety Commission,
and universities around the world -- and a blue ribbon panel on
phthalates and health chaired by former Surgeon General C. Everett
Koop. The issue has been addressed and studied extensively. There are
more than 1,000 articles on phthalates in the scientific literature.
The claimed health risk is totally bogus, based exclusively on results
of high-dose rodent experiments. If one were to assume that phthalates
should be regarded as dangerous because vast quantities make rodents
sick, then we would also have to fear the myriad collection of natural
foods (like mushrooms, table pepper, coffee, and nutmeg) that contain
chemicals that cause cancer in rodents -- as plenty of all-natural
chemicals do, without any corresponding illness in humans.

The scare tactics on phthalates worked like a charm recently in
California, since Gov. Schwarzenegger banned most forms of phthalaltes,
declaring, "we must take this action to protect our children. These
chemicals threaten the health and safety of our children at critical
stages of their development." Building on this momentum, Sen. Diane
Feinstein (D-CA) introduced legislation to ban phthalates nationwide.
These regulatory moves will do absolutely nothing to promote the health
of children. They will only serve to remove from the market safe,
useful products.

•••

How should we as consumers and scientists react to these bogus scares,
which are increasingly targeting worried parents?

We have a clear choice: The easy way would be to tolerate this
insidious manipulation and agree to "do something" to eliminate the
bogus risk -- no matter what the cost. If we continue in this
direction, we will be squandering public health resources by targeting
non-risks, and we will literally be dismantling our
technologically-sophisticated society, demolishing our enviably high
standard of living. After banning rubber duckies, what will be next?

But if we listen to scientists dealing in the facts about such
alarmism, we can recognize this manipulation for what it is -- and
reject it. This will take extraordinary leadership by members of the
scientific community, who would need to step forward and say, in
essence, "I understand your fears. We all care deeply about the health
of our children. But this is fear that has no basis in reality."

Obviously, scientists in California did not speak up to declare the
scare about phthalates a bogus threat -- and manipulation through fear
prevailed. We can only hope that science will prevail when similar
national legislation is considered -- and that any legislation to
protect us from risks that do not exist will be rejected.

Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on
Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com).