Stoking Chemophobia

In recent years, people have become increasingly concerned about unwanted substances lurking in their furniture and food. These are industrial chemicals we are exposed to every day and that have been found to accumulate in our bodies, “endangering our health in ways we have yet to understand,” CNN asserted in 2007.

Periodic Table of Elements. Illustration courtesy Harvard.

In 2010, a New York Times article tried to make sense of the “avalanche of data” that has yet to yield any clear answers on what adverse effects (if any) these chemicals are having on our health. That hasn’t prevented some in the media from highlighting (and omitting) information that confirms their worst suspicions. For example, here is Tom Philpott in Mother Jones, writing this week about a class of chemicals that have garnered the most attention:

Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are what’s known as “endocrine disruptors”—that is, at very small doses they interfere with our hormonal systems, giving rise to all manner of health trouble.

In peer-reviewed research, BPA has been linked to asthmaanxiety,obesitykidney and heart disease, and more. The rap sheet for phthalates, meanwhile, includes lower hormones in menbrain development problemsdiabetesasthma,

Philpott’s summation on the state of chemicals-are-linked to-endocrine disrupter science is, to put it charitably, incomplete.  For one thing, the links he points to are correlative associations, not cause and effect. Also, numerous researchers and scientific bodies have challenged the underlying basis for the litany of harms claimed to stem from exposure to chemicals in our food chain and household products. (Jon Entine laid this out nicely last year in Forbes.) Finally, there was an important session at last month’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference that I’m betting Philpott has heard about. Perhaps he even read the Guardian story on the major analysis discussed at the panel. The results of that study found, as the Guardian reported, ”that levels of BPA in people were much lower than the levels required for significant effects.”

Now by no means am I cavalierly dismissing the concerns of public health scientists, many who have been studying this issue for years and who remain convinced that there is sufficient evidence to be wary of BPA, flame retardants, and other industrial chemicals used in everyday items. I’m also not dismissing the legitimate concerns of science-minded individuals or the likelihood of the chemical industry downplaying such concerns.

But we need to acknowledge something: There is a real scientific divide on the debate over endocrine disrupters, which is illuminated in this recent report by Live Science. That divide, to the best of my knowledge, is not reflected in the overall news coverage or public discourse on health risks posed by residual chemicals that are absorbed into our bodies. On the contrary, what we mostly see is a form of chemophobia (reinforced by a constant stream of suggestive studies) that many in the news media subtly and overtly stoke. As science journalist Deborah Blum has written,

 we need to do a much better job as journalists in communicating risk in general and chemical risk in particular.

UPDATE:  For more on the AAAS panel and the BPA controversy, this is a must-read piece by Trevor Butterworth.

13 Responses to “Stoking Chemophobia”

  1. Robert Ford says:

    I’ve heard it described as “neo-Puritanism.” Whatever you call it, I find it all to be absurdly precious. Anyone who is dumb enough fall for all of these Nick Kristof, Mark Bittman, Utne Reader style alarmist articles is not worth protecting from the supposed harm of BPA, GMOs anyway! What will be the next “in” thing to worry about?

  2. Buddy199 says:

    we need to do a much better job as journalists in communicating risk in general and chemical risk in particular.


    That’s a noble sentiment but realistically “if it bleeds, it leads”.

  3. There was also an interview in Forbes with Richard Sharpe recently on the AAAS session and general issues surrounding chemical exposures and discussions of risk.

    One thing I find so frustrating about the BPA controversy is that there’s no acknowledgement that BPA is found in products (like can linings!) for very good reasons. If you get rid of BPA in can linings for example, you need some other solution. We could go to glass jars, but then it would cost more and emit more CO2 which probably is a bad idea (I’m going to say outright that “no more canned food” is an unworkable idea). Unsurprisingly, manufacturers have been switching to other plastics. But as far as I can tell they are often less well-studied than BPA! I’ll take a well-studied but inconclusive risk over a less well-studied one.

  4. carolannie says:

    You show a certain lack of charity that would certainly allow for the death of someone as callous as you to be gleefully dismissed if the chemicals DO cause you harm. I would instead call for more education and teaching people about risk assessment. The stupidity that people show comes mostly from inadequate education and a desire to preserve themselves from potential harm.

  5. Robert Ford says:

    Does this mean you don’t like me?

  6. JonFrum says:

    This is far more specific than that. “If it feeds the environmentalist-inspired paranoia of the modern industrial state, it leads.” If it supports the anti-rationalist, romantic muddle-headedness of the green left, it leads.

  7. JonFrum says:

    Try ‘educating’ them and they’ll spit in your face. This has nothing to do with education. Hypochondriacs do not lack for education; nor do paranoiacs.

  8. JonFrum says:

    Once the pleasure of paranoia has been tasted, no amount of rational argument will take it away. Try reading gardening web site comment sections – Youtube will do. The people who obsess over the slightest hint of ‘chemicals’ obviously get a great sense of moral rectitude out of it. Once you sign up for orthodoxy, the slightest hint of the heterodox must be ruled out militantly to maintain identity.

  9. Pdiff says:

    I would define this as complimentary risk, what happens if we don’t do/use X. A full assessment of risk needs to look at all sides. This is a major failing point of current applications of the precautionary principle.

  10. dogktor says:

    Not sure how you made the leap from “ information on hazards of BPA is not as clear cut as some would have you believe ” , which was my take-away from this article to hypochondriacs and paranoiacs. One of the easiest ways to parse those psychological behaviors is to look at animals who don’t have the cognitive skills, who make good sentinels for human diseases and in whom we see effects of environmental endocrine disruption. The condition that comes to mind which didn’t exist a few decades ago is hyperthyroidism. We know that rapid fluctuations of iodine in foods could be contributing, and I suspect some goitrogens in soy as well. For awhile we believed it was linked to canned foods. However, more recently evidence has been emerging that flame retardants in the home could be significant contributors. Link to a pioneer on this disorder in my field. in which hypochondriacs and paranoiacs are rare ( unless you wish to call veterinarians such names- hope not)

  11. Hi Keith, thanks for the article. Whilst I share that the media tend to over-exaggerate the “chemophobia” side of the argument, they may argue that given the recent WHO report on endocrine disruptors they are somewhat justified.

    I am not an expert in the bioactivity of chemicals nor endocrinology and epidemiology but it would appear the WHO are very concerned about increasing incidence on conditions related to endocrine disruption. However, the report pretty much admits that for the greater part the rise in the usage of these chemicals and these conditions is not yet confirmed as a causal relationship.

    I noticed earlier that a couple of NYT journalists were irritated by your suggestion of fearmongering. I got a similar response from a journalist after making a similar suggestion. However, none of these articles can trump the UK’s Daily Mail that went with the front page banner headline of “POISONED BY EVERYDAY LIFE”

  12. Carolyn says:

    Endocrine distruptors do not follow dose response curves. The effect of the chemical is a matter of timing not dose. BPA is an estrogen mimic. Horomones like estrogen are active at very low concentrations and higher doses actually yield different outcomes. Since we have no estimate of what the environmental exposure is to the population, there is no way you can state that the levels people are exposed to are safe. Even you own link states that fact. Furthermore, exposure risk varies whether you are a fetus, infant, child, adult, male, female etc. when it comes to EDs–as such chemicals naturally trigger big developmental changes based on timing of exposure (think puberty). One study and one naysayer does not undo decades of toxicological research. Follow the national childrens study if you want to get a sense of where we are at in terms of data on this issue.

  13. Sugarsail1 says:

    Nice that you recognize this problem as a psychological/religious/paranoid one and not a matter of rational scientific debate. Chemophobia is indeed another form of paranoia, much like the belief in evil spirits dwelling within us was in the past. Only the names have changed.

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