Senior Fellow Angela Logomasini debunks scare stories about chemicals in your family’s Thanksgiving dinner, ranging from BPA in canned foods to naturally occurring pesticides in potatoes. Anti-chemical activists forget the cardinal rule of toxicology: it is the dose that makes the poison. Relax, eat well, and enjoy spending time with your family this Thanksgiving.
Precaution & Risk
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.
As if there wasn’t enough money in politics, now government agencies are using taxpayer dollars—our dollars—in an attempt to influence state policy. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded The Public Health Institute’s Alcohol Research Group almost $650,000 a year for five years to research the effects that alcohol privatization in Washington State has had on prices and alcohol-related harms. At first glance, it may seem like a perfectly appropriate research topic for the NIH to support, but the details make one wonder whether the motives for such research are scientific curiosity or pure politics.
The organization that received the grant and its scientists have a long history of producing anti-alcohol-biased research. Dr. William Kerr, the lead on the project, has written and spoken many times in the past about his firm stance against the privatization of alcohol sales which he believes directly results in increased drinking and costs to the state. He received funding from the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, an organization with the sole purpose of defending control state systems, to produce a study warning states of the dangers of privatization. In all likelihood, the conclusion of this forthcoming study will communicate a similar attitude.
Why would NIH award millions of taxpayer dollars to fund a study by a researcher with such an obvious bias? The answer is that NIH wants a study to show the evils of privatization that it can then show to any lawmaker considering privatization in his or her own state. Not only is this a waste of taxpayer money, but this government propaganda makes it harder for real stakeholders in the debate, such as citizens and businesses, to make their case for less government.
Results of Privatization
In November 2011, voters in Washington State approved Initiative 1183 officially ending the state monopoly on the sale of spirits. Since then, health advocates, retailers, and employee unions have waged a PR war, attempting to spin the story about the aftereffects of privatization, either to convince other control states (those states that have government-run liquor stores) to follow suit or to send them running from the very idea of loosening state control over liquor sales. According to the Reason Foundation’s Leonard Gilroy:
Robust competition is starting to take place among national retail chains, which tend to focus on offering few brands at more competitive prices (due to volume purchasing), while smaller specialty spirits retailers are emerging to offer competition through more variety in product mixes and greater attention to customer service and offering a high-quality retail experience. Perhaps more importantly, the fears promulgated by privatization opponents—primarily over the potential declines in state liquor revenues and significant negative effects on public health and safety—have not materialized.
And according to the Washington Policy Center, alcohol-related crimes have even declined since privatization in Washington. Of course, the facts have not deterred public health advocates from spinning a yard about the dangerous of getting the state out of the business of selling liquor.
Of course, that won’t stop organizations like ARG and others from pushing the idea that liquor privatization is unequivocally bad for society.
On November 7, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans to change its classification of trans-fatty acids and remove the designation “Generally Recognized As Safe.” If enacted, this change would result in a de facto ban of synthetic trans fats. In practice, this means food manufacturers would need to prove to the agency the use of trans fats would not have any adverse health effects before products containing them could enter commerce.
The de facto ban on trans fat’s GRAS status signals a sea change in the agency’s approach to food-safety regulation. Historically, the FDA has banned only additives and products that could be acutely dangerous to public health. FDA attempts to limit other ingredients, such as salt and sugar, have met public backlash, but it’s unlikely many will step up to defend trans fats, considering the scientific evidence that seems to link its long-term consumption with a slightly increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Since almost any food can become dangerous if consumed in excess over an extended period, this move would set a precedent for the FDA to go after other food ingredients. Unsurprisingly, self-styled “public health” advocates — always at the forefront of nanny state regulatory efforts – are elated at this prospect.
In the 1980s, some scientists began to associate heart disease with saturated fats, and in response, groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the National Heart Savers Association began to hound manufacturers for “poisoning America … by using saturated fats,” and as a result “nearly all targeted firms responded by replacing saturated fats with trans fats,” as David Schleifer wrote in 2012 for the journal Technology and Culture.”
In 1988, the Center for Science in the Public Interest published its report, Saturated Fat Attack, which described trans fats as “more healthful,” something we now know not to be the case. Research has shown that saturated fat is far from being “poison,” and that trans fat isn’t exactly health food. Then, in the mid-1990s, CSPI petitioned the FDA to add trans fat to nutritional labels on food products, which enables consumers to decide for themselves how much trans-fat is too much.
If you’ve read Lauren French’s Politico article on the two beer tax reduction bills currently under consideration in Congress, you might think that the Competitive Enterprise Institute views the bills as a threat to federal revenue, Brewers: Tax cuts good for what ales us (October 30, 2013). Let me set the record straight: as we state in our paper BEER and Small BREW Can Be Good for You, we believe that in the short term the BEER Act, which reduces the federal excise tax for beer producers big and small, will be a boon to the nation’s economy, but that the ideal course of action is to repeal the Federal excise tax on beer entirely.
The federal beer excise tax was first enacted in 1862 to help pay for America’s massive debt after the Civil War. It should have been repealed in 1933 with the repeal of national prohibition and the passage of the 21st Amendment that turned over authority to regulate intoxicating liquors to the states. But more than 150 years later the beer industry is still saddled with the tax in addition to the state excise taxes, federal business taxes, state business taxes, and sales taxes that have been added since—all of which make the business of beer more costly and increase the cost consumers have to pay. All told, taxes now account for almost half of the cost of a beer.
The two bills before Congress seek to lessen the burden on brewers. The Small BREW Act (S. 917, H.R. 494), would reduce the federal excise tax for small brewers only (which it defines as those making less than 6 million barrels a year) while The BEER Act (H.R. 1918, S. 958), would reduce taxes for all brewers. French stated in her article, “The Competitive Enterprise Institute estimates the BEER Act would result in a loss of revenue to the government of $1.68 billion a year. The paper estimates the Small BREW Act would reduce tax revenue by $65 million a year.” To correct this statement, our paper notes that the bills will return this amount to the American economy. While the bills reduce the direct revenue paid to the Federal government, that money will be rerouted to state economies, spent on equipment, potentially new employees, and put back in consumers’ and business owners’ pockets.
As we’ve written plenty about, “sin taxes,” which attempt to modify consumer behavior by raising the cost of so-called “bad” products, have been shown to be ineffective and often have very negative unintended consequences. Furthermore, we believe that attempting to socially engineer Americans’ beer drinking is not something our Federal lawmakers ought to be dabbling in. As noted in our paper, while either of the beer bills will be a boon to the business of brewing, we slightly favor the BEER Act in the short term, for the simple reason that it does not discriminate between large and small brewers; it cuts the Federal excise tax across the board. However, if we truly want to create a “fair playing field” in the beer business we ought to expunge completely the federal excise tax on beer and for that matter all alcohol.
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.
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.
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.
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.