Opinion

The truth about chemicals

Congress is debating overhauling the Toxic Substances Control Act, the law that guides how the federal government regulates chemicals in the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency plans to regulate five commonly used chemicals and says more will be added to the list regularly. Chemicals are under increasing scrutiny and the trend is toward more precautionary regulations.

But what’s driving all this? Science? Or political hype? I say the latter. Many of the chemicals under attack have been used in household products for decades without evidence of human harm. What we’re witnessing is an assault on science. The media are ignoring the copious factual evidence of safety in favor of the more audience-friendly and alarmist “junk science.” The fact that a product is safe isn’t deemed newsworthy, while even a preliminary study claiming a link between shampoo and cancer is a front-page story or the lead item on the evening news.

One prime example of this war on chemicals is phthalates, chemical agents used to make plastics soft and flexible. Phthalates have been safely used in a wide variety of consumer products such as garden hoses, flexible medical devices, and beach balls for over 50 years. A vast amount of scientific data already exists on the safety of phthalates and there is currently no evidence of health problems from phthalates in any consumer products.

The American Council of Science and Health even convened a blue-ribbon panel chaired by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in 1999 to review the scientific literature on phthalate exposure. The panel’s findings confirmed the safety of these products. A more recent analysis was published in the online peer-reviewed journal Medscape by Dr. Michael A. Kamrin, professor emeritus at Michigan State University’s Center for Integrative Toxicology. After examining biomonitoring studies, epidemiological research and laboratory animal evidence, Dr. Kamrin concluded that the risks of phthalates “are low, even lower than originally thought … there is no evidence of adverse effects on humans.”

But in spite of their safety record, phthalates have been targeted by a well-orchestrated scare campaign run by special interest groups. Last year the activists successfully inserted their anti-phthalate agenda into the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which placed restrictions on how the chemicals could be used in children’s products. Congress did not evaluate the safety of phthalates in its decision, instead implementing a “precautionary principle” approach. Activist groups based their campaigns on flawed research and preliminary (or even rodent) studies, conveniently ignoring government research supporting the safety of phthalates — studies by accredited evaluators including the European Union, Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the National Toxicology Program’s Center for Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction.

Instead of reviewing the scientific facts, many lawmakers caved to propaganda and media hype. The most frequently cited studies attacking phthalates don’t account for risk or exposure, trying to establish cause and effect without regard to accepted scientific precepts. One scientist whose entire career has been devoted to a crusade against phthalates is the statistician Dr. Shanna Swan, director of the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at the Rochester University School of Medicine and Dentistry. Swan has attempted to show reproductive and developmental effects from phthalate exposure — but despite the publicity surrounding her studies, she has yet to prove a direct link between phthalates and the health effects she claims. Moreover, none of her research has been reproduced by other scientists and her conclusions have been called into question by the scientific community.

Recently a group of researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center set out to prove phthalates harmful, claiming correlation between phthalate exposure and everything from obesity, to breast development, to autism. However, these studies yielded no evidence whatsoever and the authors even admit any associations are weak and inconclusive.

The phthalates scare was just the tip of the iceberg. Activists have now focused their efforts on the larger fight for TSCA reform, urging Congress to pass strict precautionary regulations. Earlier this month, the prestigious-sounding “President’s Panel on Cancer” released a report blaming a substantial number of cancers on exposure to “chemicals.” This report, which has been dismissed by all those who are knowledgeable about the preventable causes of cancer, served only to fuel the circulating misinformation about the alleged dangers of chemicals in the environment — dangers that are actually negligible.

The amount of media and political attention paid to chemical pseudoscience is irresponsible and distressing. Such fear mongering blurs the lines between real and hypothetical risks and diverts time and attention from actual health and safety challenges. Instead of manufacturing scares, we need to focus our attention on addressing known risks.

Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president and founder of the American Council on Science and Health.