This month’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) contains a “research letter” on a “study” conducted by researchers at Harvard University that says:
Human exposure to bisphenol A (BPA) has been associated with adverse health outcomes …we hypothesized that handling of thermal receipts significantly increases BPA exposure … In this pilot study,we observed an increase in urinary BPA concentrations after continuously handling receipts for 2 hours without gloves, but no significant increase when using gloves.
And given these “findings” the headlines declare:
Does this JAMA article really warrant such coverage? Not at all. It didn’t really find much of anything.
Basically, after two hours of constant handling of receipts that contain trace levels of BPA, the study subjects had slightly more trace levels of BPA in their urine. So what? Studies have shown that BPA passes out of the body quickly, before it can have any health effects.
The tiny increase of BPA and small study size make these “findings” pretty much meaningless. In the study, the mean BPA level measured in urine among 24 subjects increased from 1.8 ug/l to 5.8 ug/l before and after handling cash register receipts for two hours. That is, the increase was just 3 parts per billion! These levels are well below levels that regulators around the world have deemed safe. For example, the authors of the JAMA letter admit, “The peak level (5.8 g/L) was lower than that observed after canned soup consumption (20.8 g/L).”
The only reason, perhaps, JAMA publishes this “letter” is to attract news headlines. But lost in the resulting hype is the fact that BPA is used to protect public health. BPA resins that line food containers prevent development of dangerous pathogens that otherwise might produce deadly food-borne illnesses. Thanks to JAMA’s contribution to the anti-BPA hype, we may eventually see increased regulation of BPA and the loss of its life-saving and enhancing benefits.
In this final post on my series related to the January 9 chemical spill in West Virgina, I address wrongheaded claims that the spill also exposed Charleston residents to dangerous levels of formaldehyde.
A few weeks after the spill, West Virginia Environmental Quality Board Vice Chairman Scott Simonton alleged that final traces of crude MCHM are breaking down and exposing residents to dangerous levels of formaldehyde. “I can guarantee that citizens in this valley are, at least in some instances, breathing formaldehyde,” Simonton told legislators at a public hearing. Simonton said that he found formaldehyde in three water samples from a Charleston, West Virginia, restaurant. But West Virginia’s Bureau for Public Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Tierney called these claims “totally unfounded,” as well as “misleading and irresponsible,” for good reason. As she explained to reporters, Simonton is not part of any official investigation related to the spill, and she cannot validate his tests. In any case, she noted that the MCHM would need to be heated to 500° Fahrenheit before it would break down into formaldehyde. Others have offered similar criticisms of Simonton’s assertions.
In any case, traces of formaldehyde are not alarming or particularly risky. Humans produce it simply by breathing because it is a byproduct of respiration. It is also released through cooking and is relatively high when one cooks such things as Shiitake mushrooms. Competitive Enterprise Institute Adjunct Scholar Dana Joel Gattuso points out in her study on chemicals and cosmetics that Shiitake mushrooms contain 100-400 parts per million of formaldehyde, some of which is released as a gas when mushrooms are cooked. But no one is sounding alarms about Shiitake mushrooms as a source of formaldehyde!
Some studies show that formaldehyde produces relatively mild acute symptoms—such as eye irritation—at about 800 ppb, while others indicate that extra sensitive individuals might experience such effects when exposed to 100 ppb. In comparison, Simonton said he found water in the West Virginia restaurants with levels of 32 and 33 ppb, which is hardly worrisome. Prolonged exposure to relatively high levels of the chemical may have health effects, which is an issue for workers using concentrated amounts of formaldehyde. But it has nothing to do with this chemical spill and any trace levels of formaldehyde found in drinking water.
In the aftermath of the January 9 chemical spill in West Virginia, environmental activists claim: “More than two weeks after the spill, the answer to most questions about the spill and the chemicals in it is either that ‘we don’t know’ or that the information is incomplete.” Green groups make such claims to capitalize on the fact that everything in life has some uncertainty. But that does not mean that Charleston residents should live in fear because, as I explained in prior posts in this series on the West Virginia Chemical Spill, the long-term health effects are negligible.
Unfortunately, much of the media hysteria about the chemical spill and its risks are partly the result of a communication failure among public officials. In a politically charged situation, officials failed to place this risk in perspective. Moreover, cautious researchers always qualify their findings by acknowledging the reality of uncertainty. Nothing is 100-percent safe, and uncertainly in every aspect of life is unavoidable. In this case and others, the best we can expect is relative safety. Unfortunately, media and activists have not focused on relative safety, and instead harped on the qualifiers and uncertainties, blowing the risk out of proportion and generating needless fears.
To its credit, the CDC moved quickly to determine what level of the chemical in the drinking water would pose negligible risks. It set a 1 part-per-million standard as safe based on rodent tests applying numerous safety factors akin to EPA standards for other drinking water contaminants. It then applied additional safety factors to come up with a level that is likely hundreds or thousands of times lower than what is actually “safe.”
But rather than emphasize the low risks, CDC researchers, who want to be scientifically accurate, also communicated the unavoidable reality of uncertainty — and that is where the media and greens placed emphasis. For example, National Public Radio reported that CDC chief medical researcher Vikas Kapil acknowledged, “‘that there was very little information to go on.’ Still, he says, drinking water that meets the CDC guideline of one part per million is ‘generally not likely to be associated with any adverse health effects.”
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The January 9 chemical spill in West Virginia, which temporarily contaminated the Charleston drinking water supply, has rekindled a debate related to federal chemical regulation. Clearly, this case — and another spill that occurred this week in West Virginia — demonstrates the failure to properly implement the many emergency planning and prevention laws and programs already on the books. And this is a problem that state regulators and policymakers there need to address.
But do these cases warrant expansion of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to force companies to conduct more testing of chemical products?
My blog post yesterday pointed out that there was enough information about the chemical to manage the risks. Now we address the myth that thousands of potentially dangerous chemicals are simply unregulated because they are “grandfathered” from TSCA. Richard Dennison of the Environmental Defense Fund makes this claim:
The sad truth is this chemical is one of tens of thousands of chemicals on the market today with little or no safety data. MCHM is one of the 62,000 chemicals that were already in use when TSCA, our nation’s main chemical safety law, was passed in 1976. All of these chemicals were grandfathered by TSCA: That means they were simply presumed to be safe, and EPA was given no mandate to determine whether they are actually safe. Even to require testing of these chemicals under TSCA, EPA must first provide evidence that the chemical may pose a risk – a toxic Catch-22.
In reality, existing chemicals were not “grandfathered” from the act. They are simply not regulated as “new chemicals.” TSCA set up two regulatory programs, one for these “existing chemicals” and another for “new chemicals.” For “new chemicals,” the law demands that manufacturers provide the agency with notice and data demonstrating safety before chemicals enter into commerce, and EPA can regulate or ban them based on that data. The agency can also request more data, or do its own testing.
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In a prior post, I addressed the background related to the recent chemical spill that contaminated drinking water in West Virginia, and I highlighted why more regulation would not do much good. But we continue to hear that we need more regulation because we don’t have enough information about this chemical and thousands of others. Such claims divert our attention from the real issue: failure to properly implement the many emergency planning laws and programs on the books.
In any case, the claim is wrong. There is enough information about this chemical to manage the risks, and keep them low. But public officials did not effectively communicate the fact that it is the dose that makes the poison. Public exposure to the chemical mixture involved in this spill — crude MCHM — is too low to pose any long-term health risks, and worker exposure is managed by proper work practices regulated under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). The only time the public experiences any exposure to this chemical — which is designed for industrial use only — is in the case of spills.
In this situation, public exposure was short-term, temporary, and quickly managed. Health effects involved temporary skin and eye irritations. Although official numbers are not yet available, Ken Ward of The Charleston Gazette reported that public officials said that the number of individuals affected was between 450 and 500 cases. If that is true, the spill resulted in short-term health effects among 0.17 percent of the population. There are likely no significant long-term risks from these exposures since health effects like cancer require relatively high, long-term exposures. It is also worth noting that this chemical has been used safely for decades without any evidence of serious health effects.
This perspective does not diminish the fact that thousands of people were inconvenienced and frightened and that many small businesses suffered adverse impacts. Unfortunately, poor communications from public health officials and politicians increased fear and made things worse.
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The recent chemical spill in West Virginia has green groups clamoring for more regulation, including expansion of Environmental Protection Agency power under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Early on, however, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California rightly told the press, “We can fix this now” using existing laws rather than passing new ones.
Boxer’s strong opposition to the current TSCA reform bill (S. 1009) may explain her position. Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana and Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey introduced this legislation just weeks before Sen. Lautenberg passed away this past spring. It appears that Boxer does not want this compromise bill—pushed by both EDF and industry—to gain any momentum from the chemical spill. Whatever her motivations, Boxer is right that there’s no need for a massive expansion of chemical regulations or TSCA to address this accident and related local emergency planning failures. She is, however, cosponsoring the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act of 2014 (S. 1961) along with West Virginia’s Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller, which would mandate more tank inspections. On Tuesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on the topic.
In a nutshell, here’s what happened in West Virginia: On January 9, the local government discovered that one of Freedom Industries chemical tanks at the Charleston, West Virginia-based Etowah River Terminal was leaking a chemical mixture called Crude MCHM (composed mostly of a chemical called 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol) that was blended with a small portion of a chemical called PPH. The tank had released an estimated 10,000 gallons of the chemical, which entered a nearby waterway that leads down to the intake point for the city’s local water supply facility, located 1.5 miles down the river. After traveling down the river, the chemical reached the intake port for the community’s water supply facility and then was piped out to residences before water officials knew what happened. As soon as they learned about the spill, local officials quickly issued water advisories and provided bottled water to the community. Thanks to their swift action, there were no serious illnesses among a population of 300,000 people, but a number people suffered short-term health effects such as skin and eye irritations.
Apparently, not only did the company tanks fail, so did their containment systems, and there was no spill plan in place. News reports also indicate that the tanks had not been inspected in decades. Local officials and Freedom Industries may have avoided this accident had they implemented emergency planning measures that included site inspections.
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Could your affection for bottled water be responsible for your bout with migraines? Apparently so, if you believe the latest headlines about the chemical bisphenol A (BPA). But its wise to be wary of such silly claims.
First of all, it’s wrong to suggest that single serving bottled water commonly contains BPA, because that’s simply not true. BPA is not used for single-serving, flexible plastic water bottles, as pointed out on the International Bottled Water Association website. They note: “It [BPA] is not, however, used in any retail-sized PET bottled water containers.” Nor is it used for most food storage containers like GladWare and other more flexible plastic food storage containers. So go ahead and put those containers in the microwave and leave your bottled water in the car and sun despite the claims that doing so will release BPA! They don’t have any BPA to release. But even if they did, I wouldn’t worry.
BPA is used in the five-gallon water jugs designed for office water coolers, and other products made with hard, clear plastics, such as safety goggles. It was once used to make hard clear plastic reusable water bottles, but most of these are now made “BPA-free,” thanks to all the misguided hype about BPA risks. And BPA is used in resins that line the interior of soda cans and steel cans for canned foods. These resins prevent the development of dangerous pathogens in our food, which is a good thing! The trace levels of of BPA that ends up in the food are so low that the risks are negligible and those benefits outweigh any risks, as numerous comprehensive scientific reviews around the world have concluded.
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Toxic chemicals lurk in the “typical” Thanksgiving meal, warns a green activist website. Eat organic, avoid canned food, and you might be okay, according to their advice. Fortunately, there’s no need to buy this line. In fact, the trace levels of man-made chemicals found in these foods warrant no concern and are no different from trace chemicals that appear in food naturally.
The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) illustrates this reality best with their Holiday Dinner Menu, which outlines all the “toxic” chemicals found naturally in food. The point is, at such low levels, both the man-made and naturally occurring chemicals pose little risk. This year the ACSH puts the issue in perspective explaining:
Toxicologists have confirmed that food naturally contains a myriad of chemicals traditionally thought of as “poisons.” Potatoes contain solanine, arsenic, and chaconine. Lima beans contain hydrogen cyanide, a classic suicide substance. Carrots contain carototoxin, a nerve poison. And nutmeg, black pepper, and carrots all contain the hallucinogenic compound myristicin. Moreover, all chemicals, whether natural or synthetic, are potential toxicants at high doses but are perfectly safe when consumed in low doses.”
Watch ACSH’s video on this topic here.
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Headlines continue to appear to claiming that a recent study has shown that the chemical bisphenol A increases the risk of miscarriage, which I addressed in a Forbes article last week. There are many problems with this research, such as the fact that it is not available in a published, peer-reviewed format. Check out my piece here for more details.
This issue raises a bigger concern about the state of science today, particularly when the research is related to chemical safety. Reliance on hard facts, scientific standards, and cautious conclusions seems to be withering away. Even well-schooled researchers have become involved in the game of activism and alarmism, using carefully chosen rhetoric to generate headlines and fear based on inconclusive and largely meaningless studies and even unpublished research.
There are some terms that should make you wary. Key among them are headlines that condemn a chemical because a study “links it” to or “suggests” its a problem or simply because the study is “consistent with” other equally unimpressive studies or even mere theories. Researchers increasingly use these phrases to describe weak statistical associations and weak studies that are often too small to provide much value.
In these studies researchers measure the strength of associations by assessing the “relative risk” of a chemical. This process compares groups of individuals with relatively high chemical exposures to groups of individuals with low or no exposures. If the high-exposure group(s) experiences more health ailments, researchers then report an association between the chemical and the illnesses they discover. They then engage in calculations to express the strength of that association numerically as a risk ratio. If the risk ratio is 1, then the study reports no difference between the groups. A relative risk of 2 suggests that the exposed group has risk that is two-times higher than the other group, a relative risk of 3 suggests that risk is three times higher, and so on. However, relative risks of 3 and below are generally considered weak associations and potentially the result of a mere statistical accident or researcher bias. Such associations do not establish cause-and-effect relationships and do not warrant alarm.
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October is “breast cancer awareness month” thanks to a collaborative campaign arranged by public and private groups united in the mission to fight breast cancer. Their educational efforts can save lives by promoting early detection and healthy lifestyle choices. Yet environmental activists and media are using this campaign as an excuse to scare women about chemicals, and unintentionally, divert their attention from truly useful information, such as the importance of regular breast exams and a healthy diet.
For example, USA Today recently produced a story and video designed to scare women about the chemical bisphenol A, which is used in food packaging and plastics. It cites a meaningless statistical study that makes claims the data don’t support. The study reads: “Our findings suggest that developmental exposure to environmentally relevant levels of BPA during gestation and lactation induces mammary gland neoplasms in the absence of any additional carcinogenic treatment. Thus, BPA may act as a complete mammary gland carcinogen.”
But the reason these authors use the word “suggests” is because the data didn’t actually show anything, although they want you to think they did! In fact, the authors wanted to make an even bolder statement, which they did in an advance publication of the report online prior to the print publication. But the journal forced the authors to revise the study claims after Forbes journalist Trevor Butterworth pointed out that the data did not support any conclusion. You can see Butterworth’s recent article documenting the changes that downgraded the researchers’ claims to nothing more than “suggestive.” Yet the study is still making headlines even though the “findings” are not compelling and they contradict other more robust research on the topic, as Butterworth points out.
There’s a bigger lesson here: Beware of studies about chemical risks that are merely “suggestive.” Basically, when researchers say the data “suggest” something, it means they failed to demonstrate anything. Yet researchers use the term all the time to hype risks and capture headlines. Unfortunately, not only does that scare people, it can divert us from the real issues that affect our health.