Angela Logomasini

Post image for Encouraging News about Honeybee Health

A recently released study in Europe reports some good news about honeybee health, which should prompt public officials to reexamine a recent ban on some agricultural products. “It’s the first major study of pests and diseases that affect honeybees. A lot of it seems very encouraging,” honeybee researcher Tom Breeze, says in a Reuters news story.

The study examines honeybee populations in Europe after recent disappearances of entire bee colonies during the winter—a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder—which began in 2006 and has continued to be a problem with large losses reported after the winter of 2012-2013.

After hives suffered considerable losses in some places in Europe, the EU took a knee jerk response by banning a class of pesticides that makes food production more affordable. Ironically, the ban is supposed to ensure agricultural productivity by protecting these pollinators, but elimination of crop protection products may undermine food production, and it’s not likely to solve colony collapse disorder.

The chemicals, called neonicotinoids, are systemic products that can be applied to seeds, which eventually produce plants that systemically can fight off pests without the need for regular spraying. There are many reasons to doubt claims that neonicotinoids cause, or significantly contribute to, colony collapse disorder in any case. For more details, read Jon Entine’s superb Forbes.com series on the topic, as well as the many articles posted on SafeChemicalPolicy.org.

This latest study adds another wrinkle to the debate, indicating that the problem is not as widespread as people think, and that other factors are in play, such as cold weather. It underscores why we need to continue to study the issue rather than push rash and unhelpful bans.

Specifically, it examines bee mortality during the winter of 2012-2013 when many beekeepers reported missing colonies.

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Post image for Food Policy Fight: Junk Study on Vegetarian Diet

Log on to Twitter and you might read: “A vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health, a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life.” Here we have junk science going viral! And its fanning the flames between meat-eating and vegetarian advocates. But it shouldn’t.

You can’t really blame the person pushing out this tweet too much, however, because her source is a study published in a PLOS One research paper. It highlights some of the pitfalls associated with paying too much attention to isolated studies that rely on questionable methodology and overblown claims.

This study is another example of how junk science adversely impacts public policy debates, which is why I recently developed A Consumer’s Guide to Chemical Risk: Deciphering the “Science” Behind Chemical Scares.” As this study on vegetarian diets shows, it’s not just chemical policy that’s negatively impacted by bad science. Personal choice, should rule the day when it comes to dietary choices, but because government is so involved — setting guidelines and telling us what we should and shouldn’t eat — food politics are unavoidable. Accordingly, meat-eaters might use this dumb study to push their agenda, but the facts do not really support them.

This study placed all vegetarians into one category, but there is no such thing as a single vegetarian diet. For example, some vegetarian diets might include mostly processed food and french fries, while others consist of nuts, beans grains, and fresh vegetables. It makes no sense to lump these diets into one category. Yet there are no more details in this study about what the vegetarian participants’ diets included and when the participants began them. Nor does the study include any empirical medical data; just reports from individuals about their perceived health profile.

Apparently, assessing the value of any particular diet was not really the point of this study, despite its conclusions. Rather it addresses the subjects lifestyles’ and perceptions about them, and it found that vegetarians (at least the Austrians in this survey) worry more about their health and report having more health problems than do meat eaters. It does not demonstrate that a vegetarian diet can’t be as healthy as or healthier than a diet that includes meat.

Yet the authors somehow conclude:

Moreover, our results showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life. Therefore, public health programs are needed in order to reduce the health risk due to nutritional factors.

This conclusion offers lots of opportunity for anti-vegetarian soundbites, but the study really doesn’t show what this conclusion says. First the “association” does not prove cause-and-effect; and second it’s not a vegetarian diet that causes these problems. It’s the alleged lifestyles of the vegetarians, such as not getting vaccinated as often and not pursuing preventative health check-ups.

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Post image for Consumer’s Guide to Chemical Risk

Will these chemicals make me fat? That sounds like a weird question, but some consumers may actually have such worries, thanks to a constant barrage of news headlines suggesting that synthetic chemicals—an even some naturally occurring ones—are responsible for nearly every public health problem imaginable.

My website and CEI‘s recently released booklet, A Consumer’s Guide to Chemical Risk: Deciphering the ‘Science’ Behind Chemical Scares,” are tools designed reduce both the confusion and fear about chemicals. These tools provide consumers with some insights on the science and the politics behind the headlines.

For example, when confronted with a new claim, consumers can evaluate the underlying science by asking the following questions:

  • Is the association strong and statistically significant? Most of the studies in the news are merely statistical analyses that assess whether two factors occur at the same time. They don’t prove cause-and-effect relationships, which can only be inferred when the association is very strong. Accordingly, if researchers report a “weak association” or “suggestive” one, consumers should be suspicious of the claims.
  • Is the sample any good? Ideally, a randomly selected, large sample of a population provides the best chance of good data, but locating and developing such samples is difficult and expensive. Accordingly, researchers often work with less-than-ideal samples and existing databases that offer imperfect data, or both. Accordingly, a study with 1,000 subjects is more reliable than one with 100 subjects.
  • Are there serious confounding factors? The the possibility that a factor other than the two variables in question is responsible for the result is always present. While scientists attempt to apply “controls” in studies in an effort to negate the impact of such confounding factors, it does not always work. Consumers should be suspicious when there are other factors that more likely contributed to the result.
  • What is the potential for recall bias among study participants? Some studies require interviewing subjects about their personal behavior, sometimes expecting them to recall chemical exposures dating back decades. The subject’s failure to recall the facts accurately can so undermine the validity of the data that the final study results are completely off the mark. Be wary of studies that rely on this type of subjective data collection.
  • Does the language used by researchers suggest they are stretching the truth? Good researchers will strive to keep their biases in check, while still working toward finding something interesting. Yet others add “spin” to weak and meaningless “findings” to garner publication and media interest—and more funding. For example, researchers trying to prove that trace chemicals can make us fat have captured headlines by labeling these chemicals as “obesogens.” Their science may be weak and inconclusive, but their marketing it this way garners lots of media coverage.
  • Is the study relevant to humans? Tests on rodents involve administering massive amounts of chemicals to animals bred to be highly susceptible to cancer, and many form tumors as a result. Despite what headlines may suggest, such tests are not particularly relevant to risks associated with human exposures to trace levels of chemicals.
  • Is the exposure significant enough to matter? Many substances that are helpful or benign at low levels can sicken or kill at high levels. Accordingly, if the study involved high exposures, consumers should question whether it’s relevant to trace exposures through consumer products.
  • Is the study peer reviewed and published? Peer review is designed for an industry to self-regulate to reduce fraud and poor quality research. While it alone isn’t sufficient to assure a study is completely sound, consumers should be very skeptical of claims from studies that have not undergone any peer review.
  • Can other researchers reproduce the study results? Science is a long process of discovery that brings us closer to an answer as an issue is examined time and again. Part of that process involves repeating specific studies to see whether different scientists or teams of scientists can reproduce results of their peers’ or even their own research. If data is unavailable or other researchers have not been able to reproduce the result, the study is less compelling and may be discredited.

Find out more at SafeChemicalPolicy.org.

Post image for Human Achievement of the Day: Bionic Eyes

You won’t see the glory of human achievement if you abide by the World Wide Fund for Nature’s recommendation that you spend an hour in the dark this Saturday night to allegedly “show your commitment to a better future.” Rather than take that anti-technology approach, why not leave the lights on and celebrate human achievement, including a new invention that will help even blind people see?

Once only imagined in the 1970s TV series The Six Million Dollar Man or the 1990s Star Trek: The Next Generation, 2013 saw the introduction of real bionic eyes! Created by Second Sight Medical Products Inc., of Sylmar, Calif., the Argus II Retinal Implant involves placing an implant in a person’s eye that connects wirelessly to eye glasses equipped with a tiny camera, which transmits images through the optic nerve to the brain.

The device helps those individuals affected with an eye disorder called retinitis pigmentosa, which strikes first as night blindness and then can degenerate photoreceptor cells eventually causing total blindness. It is not yet designed to help those with glaucoma and some other forms of blindness.

The Food and Drug Administration approved the device in February 2013 for use in the United States, and the first FDA-approved implants began this year. Those in the experimental program testified at FDA pre-approval hearings, expressing great joy about what the device had done for them. One exclaimed: “I don’t mind telling you how much — I mean, how happy that made me, not only to see the silhouette of my son, but to hear that voice coming and saying, ‘Yeah, it’s me, Dad. I’m here and I love you.’”

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Post image for Beekeeper Speaks Out against Anti-Pesticide Campaigns

Anyone worried about honey bee survival should read the piece by Canadian beekeeper Lee Townsend in the Guelph Mercury newspaper. In recent years, beekeepers have seen some of their hives disappear without much explanation, a phenomenon referred to as”colony collapse disorder.”

Green activists have used this situation to randomly initiate bans on various pesticide products in the name of saving the bees, and their latest target is a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids. But we can’t help the bees if we continue to address the wrong causes. As Townsend points out, honey bees do just fine in many places where neonicotinoids are used, such as Canada. This suggests that neonicotinoids are the wrong target. Not only will bans divert our focus from finding the real cause or causes of colony collapse disorder, it will harm the ability of farmers to produce food.

Reading Townsend’s entire article on this topic is highly recommended, but here are some highlights that you shouldn’t miss:

No, the newest and most preventable threat comes from the mistaken alliance some beekeepers are forming with environmental activist groups who would turn farmers into enemies and drive a wedge between the farming and beekeeping communities that depend on each other for their livelihoods. …

Unfortunately, we [public officials and bee keepers] haven’t been able to work together to find out what is really happening, in part due to the insertion of special interest groups like the Sierra Club. There is no denying that neonics, like any other pesticide, can be toxic to honeybees if misapplied. But these special interest groups have scared beekeepers, the public, and the media into believing these products are far worse than actual scientific data indicates. …

In addition, these special interest groups fail to acknowledge there are colonies in Ontario and Quebec that are exposed to neonics on both corn and soy, with zero problems. And look at Western Canada. On the Prairies, 70 per cent of Canada’s colonies forage canola without issue. We are even exposed to corn and soy, and except for four beekeepers in Manitoba in 2013, there have been no issues there either.

Clearly there is need for further research, including the health status of these colonies prior to neonic exposure and clear records of the management practices of beekeepers. Most non-beekeepers don’t realize that just as farmers use pesticides to keep pests off their crops, beekeepers use pesticides inside the hive to control for infestations such as varroa mites. There is nothing wrong with this, if it is done properly. But beekeepers should keep this in mind when they link arms with activist groups with a larger anti-pesticide agenda.

Post image for JAMA’s Dangerous Hype: BPA and Cash Register Receipt Research Letter

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.

Post image for West Virginia Chemical Spill and Formaldehyde Hype

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.

Post image for Uncertainty and the West Virginia Chemical Spill

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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Post image for TSCA Reform Won’t Reduce Chemical Spill Risks

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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http://www.openmarket.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/4-methlycyclohexanemethanol.gif

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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