Attack of the Rubber Duckies

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

If California is a bellwether for public policy, the nation is in big trouble. In February, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that creates the nation’s first "Green Chemistry" program. It follows by two years the governor’s introduction of his Green Chemistry Initiative—an aggressive, ambitious approach to the management of chemicals.

The legislation signed by the governor adopts two of the initiative’s goals: raising public awareness about the hazards of "chemicals of concern" and finding alternatives that are less harmful to the environment and public health. It enables state regulators to take a variety of actions with regard to such chemicals in commerce after the completion of a risk and alternatives analysis. The spectrum of possible actions is wide and includes restrictions or bans on use of a chemical, labeling requirements, and recycling or disposal requirements.

Like much of what politicians and bureaucrats do, the implementation falls far short of the intent. State and federal regulators often use faulty, overly conservative assumptions in performing risk analyses, and their decisions are driven more by politics than science. Two recent—and egregious—examples are California’s regulatory decisions on particulate matter in diesel exhaust and a partial ban on important (and safe) plasticizers called phthalates. These unscientific regulations will impose huge costs on businesses that ultimately will be passed on to consumers, with minimal benefit to public health.

The Green Chemistry Initiative is more appropriate for a letter to Santa Claus than an attempt at serious public policy. It recalls H. L. Mencken’s observation that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

For starters, the governor, his advisers, and state legislators seem oblivious to the fact that we live in a sea of chemicals—and that our bodies are actually made up of them—and also to the toxicologists’ credo, "the dose makes the poison."

Many of the alarms raised recently about chemicals, from those in rubber duckies and plastic bottles to pesticides used in agriculture, are bogus; most of the others represent only negligible risks.

Pseudo-scares and the wrongheaded (and often costly) responses to them—as in these new policies—are wasteful, if not actually harmful.

For example, the federal EPA has been forcing General Electric to remove trace levels of chemicals called PCBs from the Hudson River, although this massive project will have prodigious costs but no benefits. The EPA’s assertion that PCBs in fish pose a human cancer risk is based solely on observations that high-dose, prolonged PCB exposure causes tumors in laboratory animals.

Another example of misperception of risk is acrylamide, a useful industrial compound formed naturally in high-carbohydrate-containing foods cooked at high temperatures, such as in frying or broiling. It has thus been part of the human diet since humans learned that cooked foods taste better than raw ones. Yet because we only recently learned of acrylamide’s existence in foods, and because very large amounts fed to animals cause cancer, there have been calls to require warning labels on fried foods and other products—even though acrylamide in food has never been shown to harm human health.

Yet another example of a poorly substantiated health threat is the current scare about bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used to make certain plastics clear and shatterproof. Again, because animals fed huge doses of the chemical experienced ill effects, and because minuscule amounts can leach into the contents of plastic cups and bottles when they are heated, warnings about an effect on infants and children (guaranteed to have the most potent effect on parents) have been trumpeted in the media. ("Is your baby exposed to carcinogens with every feeding? Story at 11.")

Controversy over chemicals rages on the other side of the pond as well. In 2003, the European Union’s Institute for Health and Consumer Protection concluded, in a risk assessment of DINP, a chemical commonly used in a variety of consumer products, that

the end products containing DINP (clothes, building materials, toys, and baby equipment) and the sources of exposure (car and public transport interiors, food and food packaging) are unlikely to pose a risk for consumers (adults, infants, and newborns).

Despite such reassuring risk assessments, politicians overruled them, and the EU instituted a permanent ban on DINP and related chemicals in children’s toys in 2005.

Many of the alarms raised recently about chemicals, from those in rubber duckies and plastic bottles to pesticides used in agriculture, are bogus.

But these risks aren’t real—or, to be more accurate, they have not been substantiated. If we followed through by banning all the chemicals we read about that supposedly cause cancer, birth defects, low sperm counts, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and so on, we would have to ban most of the chemicals in the world—including "natural" ones.

Unfortunately, the scares are real attention-grabbers. And many journalists and editors—to say nothing of politicians—seem not to care whether the science supports the hype.

How can we know what we should worry about?

There is a remarkable new interactive web source that helps consumers figure out what poses significant health risks, and what does not. The New York–based American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) has produced and manages what it calls a Riskometer (www.riskometer.org), which allows visitors to compare health risks.

It informs us that exposure to cigarette smoking is far and away the leading cause of cancer deaths: in 2002 the odds of dying from smoking were 1 in 771. ("Odds of dying" is defined as the number of people expected to produce one death from a particular cause.) The odds of dying from obesity or from unintentional injuries (including traffic accidents, falls, and others) are each about 1 in 2,800.

Cigarette smoking is far and away the leading cause of cancer deaths (1 in 771). Far down the list are hyped threats like arsenic in water (about 1 in 6,000,000).

Far less likely is death from exposure to the dry-cleaning fluid perchloroethylene (PERC) or from arsenic in water (about 1 in 6,000,000). Despite this infinitesimal risk, laws were passed restricting the use of PERC—because "everyone knows" it’s a serious health risk.

The data on the ACSH Riskometer show that many of the hyped threats that we hear and read about daily occur very far down on the list.

The media’s pseudo-scare mode is a disservice to readers and viewers because people have only so much time to pay attention to health issues, and if most stories focus attention on minor (or virtually nonexistent) threats, greater risks that individuals may be able to control get short shrift.

The bottom line: be skeptical, be informed, and consult the Riskometer.