Sex, Drugs, Race and the Chemicapocalypse
Each year, STATS publishes its "Dubious Data" Awards, in the grand manner of looking back over the year and sighing at the fact that nothing was learned from the one previous. This was particularly the case with the coming of the chemicapocalypse - the increasing fear that everything in the modern world is toxic and out to make us ill, disrupt our hormones, bend our genders, and make us infertile. In 2007, Activists and journalists attributed all manner of health problems to absorbing tiny amounts of chemicals from everyday objects, even though the science is tentative, the evidence thin, and the risk of something materially bad happening to you hypothetical.
If it sounds suspicious, ban it
In June, San Francisco's mayor, Gavin Newsom, decided to ban plastic water bottles, in part because of concerns about recycling, which was reasonable enough, and in part because they contained "toxic" vinyl softeners known as phthalates, which was, at least metaphorically, garbage. The mayor - and the journalists who dutifully conveyed his fears to the public - seemed oblivious to the fact that plastic bottles do not contain phthalates; they are, instead, made with a polyester called polyethylene terephthalate, which is something quite different even though it seems to sound similar. But that's chemistry for you. Poylethylene terephthalate, or PET for short, is not considered a health hazard by any regulatory agency in the world.
Perhaps a refresher course in puberty?
Phthalatophobia, a subcategory of chemophobia (the fear of chemicals), led the media to make all sorts of remarkable claims in 2007, none more ballsy, perhaps, than Time magazine's decision to advance puberty beyond the bounds of biological plausibility with the claim, in September, that inhaling phthalates from air fresheners could decrease sperm levels in infants.
Perhaps, Time was demonstrating that the mere act of reporting on toxic chemicals can cause mental derangement, as a) infants don't produce sperm and b), the author of the study on phthalates in air fresheners, Dr. Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council, admitted that had no "clear cut evidence here for health effects." This comment was something of a let down from urgent wording of the NRDC press release, which claimed that phthalates were "particularly dangerous for young children and unborn babies."
According to Google News, there were, on average, 7.7 news stories about or referencing phthalates every day during 2007. And yet despite such concern, it was far from clear what people should really be concerned about in terms of an actual risk of something - anything - happening. California banned phthalates in children's toys in October, even though the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the U.S. and the European Union's scientific risk assessment found no cause for worry (Europe, however, had already ignored its scientists and banned phthalates in toys too). More to the point, the National Institutes for Health found that children's exposure to phthalates was overwhelmingly through food and dust, so banning toys will have no discernible effect on exposure regardless of whether there's a risk or not.
Some phthalates have been shown at very high levels to harm laboratory animals, but then you can make rodents sick if you give them too much of anything. One study has drawn a statistical association between exposure to some phthalates in the womb and borderline changes in genital development. But contrary to the way the media have reported this study, the children were all healthy and had normal reproductive functioning. Even the Guardian newspaper, which is ardently pro green, concluded in its "Bad Science" column (written by an actual doctor) that the data on phthalates was being "overstated."
As for air fresheners, the NRDC only measured the presence of phthalates inside the product. As to how much evaporated into the air and was likely to be absorbed by a passing human, there was nothing. The Environmental Protection Agency has since turned down the NRDC's petition to examine the safety of air fresheners, although the agency does note that they are highly flammable - and will likely kill you if you eat one.
So, um, don't eat air fresheners.
If one was to pick one of the key flaws in the way the media reported the risk from chemicals it would have to be the absence of any meaningful measurement. Few journalists, when faced with a press release or a study by some group claiming some new threat to our collective well being, say, "show me the numbers." But without numbers, it's impossible to assess just what the risk is.
Such penetrating questioning might have spared Apple computers from a whirlwind of negative publicity after Greenpeace ranked the company bottom in its list of enviro-friendly computer companies because its phones and computers contained toxic chemicals, like brominated fire retardants.
Most reporters failed to note that Greenpeace didn't measure how much of these chemicals were in Apple's products, and whether they leached out in a way that could be dangerous. Moreover, in the case of the fire retardant deca-BDE - the most widely used flame-retardant in consumer products - Greenpeace conveniently overlooked the fact that the European Union conducted a 10-year risk assessment, evaluating 588 studies on the chemical, and found it posed no health risk. The press didn't catch them on this either.
Yes, there are health and environmental concerns over two other brominated fire retardants, "penta" and "octa," but their use was phased out in the U.S. several years ago. A special exemption is required from the EPA to import any item containing these chemicals.
Hot air on 'Fresh Air'
The chemicapocalypse reached a fever pitch on NPR's Fresh Air in November, when Terry Gross interviewed Mark Shapiro, an investigative journalist who had just written a book on the topic: Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power.
Shapiro claimed that a litany of epidemiological evidence showed that chemical exposure might be behind "spikes" in the incidence of breast cancer, reproductive problems among young women, endocrine troubles, mutagenic effects in young children, and declining sperm counts.
The only problem is that all of these problems can be explained much more easily by other factors or dismissed as false or misleading: breast cancer rates, for instance, are falling; the spikes in incidence can be explained by such known factors as the surges in hormone replacement therapy use, increased fertility treatments, later age of first birth, alcohol consumption and increased numbers of women having mammograms. The rise in fertility issues is almost certainly a matter of greater reporting and more intervention, say doctors, especially in the marketing of high-end fertility treatments. Birth defect rates are also stable - and the claims for declining sperm counts have been widely attacked for poor methodology.
What Gross, Shapiro, and many other journalists during the year failed to do when it came to the evaluating the risk from trace amounts of chemicals was to think critically about the numbers. Epidemiology can show associations between any number of things; you could, in theory, show an association between green health products and increasing cancer rates if you mined the data enough; but a correlation is not evidence of causation. To establish a causal relationship between common chemicals in parts per billion and health problems, you have to prove that the correlation does not have other, better, and possibly really obvious, explanations.
Not every over-hyped, goof-ridden story in 2007 involved chemicals, the media also stumbled over sex, drugs, race and math - but for more of that check out the rest of our awards