Angela Logomasini

bigstock-big-Industrial-oil-tanks-in-a--47806088The 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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IMG_3456Could 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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thanksgiving-dinnerplate 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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scrabbleHeadlines 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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breast_cancer_awarenessOctober 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.

Post image for Green Policies Translate Into Less Food, Higher Prices

Thanks to misguided bureaucracy and fear mongering from environmental activists, myriad valuable products are disappearing from the marketplace. Walmart, Proctor & Gamble, and Johnson and Johnson are leading the way by following green advice to phase out a host of valuable chemical technologies because of misinformed green hype.

Pesticides—which are needed to feed a growing world population and fight vector-borne diseases—are often found on the regulatory chopping block, thanks to environmentalist scare campaigns related to both food safety and wildlife protection.

In Europe, as in the United States, pesticide regulations are driving a host of products off the market and will surely raise prices and reduce the ability of European farmers to produce food.  While green groups suggest that we should fear these chemicals, what we really need to fear is their crazy policies.

A recent article in a European farmer’s publication explains how nonsensical European pesticide regulations will likely affect food production there:

“We are essentially moving towards a European regulatory system more driven by ideology than science, and that is more than a little concerning,” says John Peck, BASF’s technical lead for the UK and Northern Europe. …This new wave of legislative pressure could leave farmers with a very depleted chemistry set (see Table 1). In some cases entire crops could become uneconomic to produce; in others the use of certain pesticides may only be permitted in certain parts of the country, at certain times of the year, or on certain parts of the farm.

The article points out that such policies will reduce crop yield, dropping wheat yields by an estimated 12 percent, for example.  Reduced yield creates adverse environmental impacts by demanding that more land be farmed, leaving less land for wildlife.

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Post image for Green Market Pressure Takes Toll on Consumer Choice

When environmentalists don’t have the political power to regulate away consumer choice, they sometimes can get industry to do the job for them. Most recently, Proctor and Gamble (P&G) has decided to phase out the chemical triclosan, which has been used in a wide range of soap products to reduce risks from bacteria. P&G’s announcement follows other dumb triclosan phase outs that Colgate Palmolive (2011) and Johnson and Johnson (2012) have already begun.

Interestingly, Colgate is removing triclosan from some products, such as face washes, but keeps it in toothpaste because of its valuable public health properties! They claim to be eliminating other uses because they are not as proven effective.

It may be true that tricolsan isn’t perfect for every product in every application, but the irrational fears generated by the hype lead industry to go overboard and fail to defend their products. They don’t understand that you can’t appease environmentalists, who take an “all-or-nothing” approach, with heavy emphasis on the nothing. The activists will push for complete elimination, without much consideration of the consequences.

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Post image for Perspectives on Honeybees and Pesticides

If you believe the headlines, honeybees may soon be endangered, pesticides are to blame, and regulations offer an easy solution. Yet headlines belie the truth of the matter: Some honeybees have left their hives to never return, but we really don’t know why.

Referred to as “colony collapse disorder,” the disappearance of honeybee colonies raises concerns that it will be increasingly difficult to produce food without enough of these pollinators. Ironically, the proposed “solutions” involving banning agro-technologies from pesticides to biotechnology, may do even more harm to agricultural production while not helping the honeybees at all.

A key target of the anti-pesticide crowd is a class of chemicals called Neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids encapsulate seeds, which eventually produces plants that systemically can fight off pests that otherwise would undermine crop production. The beauty of these products is you don’t need to engage in spraying. Evidence is weak that these products have a significant impact on bee colonies in real life settings, as compared to lab experiments.

If we really want to help the honeybees and ensure continued food production, we need to focus on finding out what’s really happening, rather than playing the blame game, banning products, and crossing our fingers that these policies will help. In fact, bans on some products could harm honeybees if the replacements prove less safe. While most of the news stories on the topic push incomplete information and hyped risks, there is some good information out there for those interested in the issue, ranging from research studies to investigative journalism to helpful opinion pieces. I have added a page to where those interested in this issue can find links to a number of thoughtful perspectives and research on the topic.  Check it out.

(This post was updated on 12-11-13.)

cautionEighteen scientists recently weighed in on the unscientific and dangerous nature of the so-called “precautionary principle” in the July issue of the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology. The article follows on the heels of a substantially similar letter to the EU president’s Chief Scientific Adviser that dozens of scientists signed in protest of  the European Union’s draft regulation on endocrine active chemicals.

The article and the letter both decry the use of “precaution” as an excuse to depart from science when making policy decisions. Indeed, it seems that science is under siege everywhere, and this is just one example.

The authors lament unscientific language and standards that EU regulators include within this framework, particularly this statement:

Relevance of data to humans should be assumed in the absence of appropriate data demonstrating non-relevance.

In other words, if a lab rat gets sick or even simply shows a hormonally related effect (positive, negative, or largely irrelevant to health) when exposed to massive doses of a chemical, then we must assume the chemical will have such effects on humans—at least for regulatory purposes. In reality, such tests tell us very little about the impacts of trace-level chemical exposures to humans. For example, high doses of many healthy foods from broccoli to soy have shown effects in rodents, but that does not mean we have to regulate them or that they pose any significant risks to humans at current exposure levels.

The preference for regulation in cases where we cannot disprove an adverse effect is the essence of the precautionary principle. In the Food and Chemical Toxicology article, these scientists explain: “All as scientists should know, it is biologically and statistically impossible to demonstrate ‘absence of effect’ and thus ‘absence of relevance.’”

The irony is that the resulting policies of precaution are not only arbitrary, they are dangerous. The authors explain:

Regulations that profoundly affect human activities, that legally impose significant fines and even detention, should not be based on irrelevant tests forced to be regarded as relevant by administrative dictates, and on arbitrary default assumptions of no thresholds. Such standards would be contrary not only to science, but to the very principles of an enlightened governance and social contract. Not only scientists but society itself would pay dearly if unscientific approaches were to undermine our everyday practice of science, and the stringency of data analysis and evaluation developed by scientific thinking over the past centuries. In the present instance, the very credibility of thorough and robust teaching, research, and scientific analysis is questioned. This calls for action, and as beneficiaries of public support it is the utmost responsibility of us scientist to resist and counteract any efforts that undermine the core of science and its continuing promise for the betterment of the human condition on the planet.

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4PosterAs Americans gather outdoors to celebrate the 4th of July, ticks are also out — and in record numbers — particularly in certain places such as the east end of Long Island. According to the Sag Harbor Express, New York State Department of Health officials recommend that individuals protect themselves by staying inside (the Health Department website does offer some more useful advice). Seriously, that’s just dumb, particularly when the state serves as a main roadblock to some real solutions.

It’s high time New York officials got serious about controlling the state’s dangerous and growing tick population, which expands along with the population of its main host animal: white-tail deer.

One tool that has been shown to work elsewhere is the 4-Poster deer feeding station. It basically works like the insect repellents we put on our dogs, such as Frontline, but for deer. When the animals come to feed on corn at 4-Poster stations, they rub up against polls containing a pesticide, which eventually kills off the ticks. These systems have been shown to cut tick populations by 77 percent to 94 percent over several years. See the photos with this post (source: the American Lyme Disease Foundation website), which show the reduction of ticks on deer that feed at the 4-Poster stations.

New York State has banned this solution everywhere except in Suffolk County, where it is being experimented with on Shelter Island. Apparently results are positive, but use of the system is declining because of the cost of corn feed for the deer, according to the report in the Sag Harbor Press. Rather than search for funding or allow individuals to pay for their own backyard stations (which could be monitored and controlled by local officials to ensure safety), the state may abandon this option altogether.

New York officials have delayed use of 4-Poster feed stations because of concerns that feeding the animals would contribute to increasing deer populations. It is true high deer populations in suburban areas cause problems, such as highway accidents and damage to vegetation and gardens. Others expressed concern pesticides would get into deer meat, but as noted here, that’s not the case, as it stays on the hide and does not migrate into the animal’s flesh. These concerns can and should be managed (and may require culling of deer herds), when employing useful technologies to control the ticks — rather than simply letting the ticks proliferate and make people sick.

The impact on human health is too serious to ignore, given the fact several thousand New Yorkers get Lyme disease every year. In addition to Lyme disease ticks, health officials have discovered a new, similar tick-transmitted illness called Borrelia miyamotoi, that is affecting thousands of New Yorkers as well. Ticks also cause Babesiosis and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (recently in the news as a likely cause of death of a 6-year-old girl in Louisiana), among other things.

Enough with the politics of delay and procrastination! State regulators should get out of the way and allow local health officials to deploy the best technologies available — including  4-Poster feeding stations.