Saturday, February 2, 2008

Hysteria Over Minuscule Amounts of Chemicals Is Unwarranted

Jack Dini
Livermore, CA

(From Hawaii Reporter, February 1, 2008)

Imagine one dime in a stack reaching from the Earth to the Moon and half-way back. This is equivalent to one part in 1019, a detectability level for one atom of cesium in the presence of argon atoms reported by Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists. (1)

These days scientists can find any thing in anything and this leads to a problem. The minute that something is found in food, in someone’s blood, etc., some folks get very concerned and start creating a lot of fuss. The very act of being able to measure something can give the impression that if it’s quantifiable, it’s dangerous. (2)

Todd Seavey observes, “When regulators began looking for traces of potentially harmful substances to ban a half-century ago, scientists were capable of finding traces as small as parts per million. Unfortunately, activists continue to panic—and make news—each time science improves our ability to detect minuscule traces, even if there’s not new evidence that these smaller and smaller traces can harm us. Now it isn’t hard to find traces of virtually any substance on the planet in virtually any place on the planet.” (3)

Here’s a great example of selectively picking data to arouse panic. Bill Moyers did a PBS special on plastics in January 2002. During the program a scientist reported that a sample of Moyers’ blood had been analyzed and about 400 chemicals were found that would not have been found in his blood 40 years ago. The inference was that all of this had come from big, bad industry. No mention was made of concentration levels. No mention was made of the fact that 40 years ago we were analyzing in the parts per million range (equivalent to finding 1 second in 12 years), whereas today we routinely report in the parts per trillion range ( 1 second in 32,000 years), and even greater as mentioned in the opening sentence of this article. No mention was made about the 1000 natural chemicals in coffee; no mention about the 2000 natural chemicals in chocolate.

Another naysayer, Lewis Smith reported, “Traces of a cocktail of toxic chemicals linked to cancer and fetal deformities are being eaten even in the healthiest of diets. Man-made pollutants and chemicals were found in every one of 27 food products, including staples such as bread and eggs, that were tested by experts in further tests carried out by WWF, formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature. Every one of 352 people who provided blood samples over the past five years was found to be contaminated with toxic chemicals. All the contaminants found in the samples were at low levels, well within legal limits, but there are serious fears for long-term health.” (4) How low were the levels? Not mentioned. Parts per million? Parts per trillion? Parts per quadrillion? Just low levels, and no references, other than mentioning WWF, an advocacy group well known for its chemophobia leanings.

This type of reporting led a number of Britain’s leading poison experts to denounce pressure groups for mounting a ‘hysterical scaremongering’ campaign against dangerous chemicals in the environment. They accused the groups of acting irresponsibly by publishing reports claiming most people have blood swimming with toxic compounds. Said Alan Boobis of Imperial College, London, “Most chemicals were found at a
fraction of a part per billion. There is not evidence such concentrations pose any threat to people’s health.” (5)

Anthony Trewavas points out that by failing to provide the full information on how minuscule these chemicals are, the public is deprived of the necessary information to make a balanced judgment. He adds, “Worse, a cardinal rule of toxicology is ignored: All chemicals are hazardous, depending on the dose. Drinking six pints of water quickly will kill the average adult from hyponatremia; an aspirin a day helps circulation but 40 stops it for good; you get the point.” (6)

Lastly, from Joe Schwarcz, “Evidence for the presence of a substance is not evidence of harm. After all, we don’t avoid apples even though their seeds harbor the deadly toxin cyanide; we happily eat strawberries although they contain acetone, a known neurotoxin; and we are not deterred from toast by the presence of 3,4-benzopyrene, and established carcinogen. The toxic properties of these chemicals are indeed real. When test animals are exposed to high does of acetone, or 1,4-dioxane, they certainly show neurological damage or tumor growth. But that doesn’t mean small doses will have a similar effect. In fact, they may have a significantly different effect. (7)

1.Mark S. Lesney, “Chain Reactions: Harvest of Silent Spring,” Today’s Chemist at Work, 8, (3), 63, 1999
2.Eric Dezenhall, Nail ‘Em, (New York, Prometheus Books, 2003), 41
3.Todd Seavey, “Undetected, Unmeasured Disaster,”, November 19, 2004
4.Lewis Smith, “Man-made toxins are found in even the best diets,”, September 22, 2006
5.Robin Mckie, “Poison experts attack ‘hysteria’ over chemicals,”, September 18, 2005
6.Anthony Trewavas, “Chemical Warfare,” The Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2005, Page 14
7.Joe Schwarcz, Let Them Eat Cake, (Toronto, Canada, ECW Press, 2005), 159

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