Are Chemicals Killing Us?

That was the teaser question for a press conference this morning organized by the Society of Toxicology (SOT), the Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University, and the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) think tank.  The groups were reporting the results of a recent Harris poll of full members of the Society of Toxicology that aimed to determine the collective judgments of toxicologists on chemical health risks. In addition, the survey asked toxicologists how well they thought environmental advocacy groups, industry, government and media do in explaining chemical risks to the public.

The online survey, done in conjunction with the leadership of the Society of Toxicology, was sent to all of its 3600 full members and got a 30 percent (937 members) response rate.  Of the respondents, 37 percent worked in industry, 25 percent in academia, 15 percent were associated with government, and the remaining members were spread among non-profit organizations, consultants, and contractors.  Apparently, as a proportion of the SOT's membership, academicians were over-represented and industry toxicologists were under-represented.

With regard to chemical health risks, only one of out of three toxicologists surveyed thinks that food additives post significant health risks, and one out of four think that cosmetics are risky. On the other hand, more than half think that pesticides and endocrine disruptors (substances that mimic hormones) are significant sources of chemical health risk.

Ninety-two percent of toxicologists disagreed with the assertion that "any level of exposure is unacceptable for chemicals that have been identified as carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxicants."  In addition, 81 percent rejected the notion that the detection of any level of a chemical in your body indicates a significant health risk. And, 87 percent disagreed with the claim that organic or "natural" products are safer than other products.  Seventy percent were against using the precautionary principle as a guide to risk regulation.  The precautionary principle mandates that a substance suspected to cause harm should be banned even in the absence of scientific consensus.

So whom should the public trust when it comes to information about possible health risks from exposures to chemicals? Certainly not environmental advocacy groups:  96 percent of toxicologists believe that Greenpeace overstates chemical health risks; 85 percent says the Environmental Defense Fund does too; and 79 percent believe that the Environmental Working Group, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Center for Science in the Public Interest overstate risks.  On the other hand, about 60 percent believe that industry lobbyists such as the American Chemistry Council and the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America understate chemical exposure risks.

In general, the majority of toxicologists think that government agencies are fairly accurate in portraying chemical health risks, although 41 percent thought the Environmental Protection Agency overstated risks and 40 percent thought the agency was accurate in its risk portrayals.

During the question and answer session, a representative from the NRDC complained that the survey results were being released before peer review during the press conference.  STATS president Robert Lichter pointed out that survey results are generally released without peer review, although the SOT and STATS plan to publish their results in a peer reviewed journal in the future.  Lichter then archly asked if the NRDC ever released data without peer review. The NRDC representative replied, "We're an advocacy group and we don't hold ourselves out as scientific researchers. We don't do peer reviewed science. Everybody knows that."

The media reporting on chemical heath risks came in for a huge drubbing in the survey. Over 80 percent of toxicologists believe that national newspapers, magazines, local newspapers, cable news, broadcast and local TV news overstate the risks of chemicals. Two-thirds thought that public broadcasting reports were overstated.  The best media sources for risk information? Wikipedia and WebMD, clocking in 45 and 56 percent accuracy respectively in the survey. "Apparently, the members of the Society of Toxicology believe that any guy off the street can do a better job reporting on chemical risks than major national media outlets," said STATS president Robert Lichter. While toxicologists don't like media reporting, two-thirds also believe that the peer review system is becoming overly politicized.

The survey also asked toxicologists to rate the riskiness of various chemicals that have been in the news lately. I found the results of this part of the survey a bit odd. The default setting for toxicologists seems to be that any given chemical substance poses a medium risk. Risk must be distinguished from hazard.  A hazard is something that can cause harm (lightning, bears, knives) and risk is the chance that a hazard will actually cause harm.

Now for the oddness.  Apparently, 48 percent of toxicologists believe that current exposures to bisphenol A, which is used to make polycarbonate plastics like those in baby bottles, represent medium to high risk. This is still quite scientifically controversial, but let that go. But the STATS evaluation of risk by experts turns strange (at least to me) when the SOT survey also finds that 47 percent of toxicologists believe that current exposures to high fructose corn syrup, used in a huge variety of foods, pose high to medium risks. What I fear is happening is that toxicologists are getting their information about the risks posed by chemicals that they do not themselves study from the same sources that most Americans do - newspapers, magazines, TV.  You know, the same media that SOT members think are doing a terrible job reporting toxicological risks. On the other hand, maybe high fructose corn syrup is dangerous. Oh well, at least consumers and farmers can take heart when two-thirds of toxicologists think that genetically modified organisms are low risk.

For more information about the SOT chemical risk survey go to here.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • !</a||

    In addition, 81 percent rejected the notion that the detection of any level of a chemical in your body indicates a significant health risk.

    I disagree.

    Leftoids with any level of carbon in their body are at severe risk and are destroying the environment.

    They need to be careful to stay away from DHMO, a known carbon cohort. To detoxify they should abstain from all forms of DHMO exposure and ingestion for at least three months.

  • Gunter||

    Given that the American lifespan continues to increase, I'm gonna say no.

  • Twink||

    "DHMO"

    What's the Defense of Homo Marriage Organization have to do with this?

  • !</a||

    Given that the American lifespan continues to increase, I'm gonna say no.

    That is misleading. Everybody knows that the climate is changing and chemicals from the Bigchemical are bad.

  • !</a||

    Twink,

    Know, that other DHMO.

  • SpongePaul||

    This just in the major cause of death has been idietified. Life,it is fatal 100% of the time to all who contract it. You are dying right this instant, part of you is anyway, you are also being reborn at this instant, i say fuck em all, somethings gonna get ya, the only safe practice is to enjoy the interval of life to its fullest.

  • ||

    Mandrake, have you ever seen a Commie drink a glass of water?

  • ||

    On the other hand, maybe high fructose corn syrup is dangerous.

    Dave W. is a toxicologist?!?

  • jasno||

    On the other hand, more than half think that pesticides and endocrine disruptors (substances that mimic hormones) are significant sources of chemical health risk.



    I think this is the most interesting part. I think we're pretty good at identifying chemicals that will kill you, but maybe not so good at identifying the ones with subtler effects.

  • ||

    High fructose corn syrup isn't a toxin, so toxicologists wouldn't have any expertise on the subject. Dieticians and nutritionists would be the people to ask.

  • ||

    Actually, Episiarch, it's a little-known fact, but all attorneys are toxicologists. J.D. stands for "Junk Dealer."

  • robc||

    Life,it is fatal 100% of the time to all who contract it.

    Not true. There are at least 6 billion humans (plusly countless plants and animals) that have contracted LIFE and, as of yet, show no symptoms of death.

  • SpongePaul||

    ah robc but they do, its just subtle, life will eventually kill you, its like aids, it can stay dormant and then bam mac fucking truck to the head, lol

  • Syd Henderson||

    One bacterium is sufficient to cause Q Fever. I wouldn't be surprised if there are substances a single molecule of which could cause damage, by causing cancer or a cascade effect.

  • ||

    I got a lesson in the limitations of scientific expertise many years ago when my father was a professor at the branch campus of a Western Canadian university and we were dinner guests at the homes of his boss, the head of the Department of Arts and Science. This boss, a Professor of Chemistry stated that he did not not know anything about adding fluoride to the water supply or why it should be done. The topic had come up because it was being debated in the city council at that time.

    About three weeks later a full page ad appeared in the local fishwrap urging voters to support flouridation. One of the signatories of the ad was the aforementioned prof with has full title and affiliation.

    How can you go wrong listening to a Chemistry professor, eh?

    The foregoing was not intended as a comment of fluoridation nor a criticism of the subject Professor (who has quite likely passed on to his reward) but an observation on the limitations of anyone's knowledge.

  • ||

    Humanity's modus operandi is to leap from one panic to another (OMG drought, OMG plague, OMG war, OMG HFCS, etc) ad infinitum. If you're not panicked, its because you're distracted by something more immediate (OMG cheesecake!!).

    And yes, throwing in latin words does increase the importance of this post.

  • ||

    Here's what I'd like explained. Regular old sugar (sucrose) is 50% fructose and 50% glucose. The high-fructose corn syrup used in soft drink is 55% fructose and 45% glucose. The high-fructose corn syrup used in baked goods and other foods is 42% fructose and 58% glucose. So exactly how can high-fructose corn syrup be so much worse than sugar?

  • ||

    Here's what I'd like explained. Regular old sugar (sucrose) is 50% fructose and 50% glucose. The high-fructose corn syrup used in soft drink is 55% fructose and 45% glucose. The high-fructose corn syrup used in baked goods and other foods is 42% fructose and 58% glucose. So exactly how can high-fructose corn syrup, which can have both more and less fructose than regular sugar, be so much worse for you?

  • ||

    Sorry for the double post! Another of those Hit & Run web burps got me, when it refuses a post because I supposedly haven't filled out the form, even though I did....

  • ||

    PapayaSF,

    Because it's new and different and bad. BAD, BAD, BAD. And it's made in factories, not farmer's fields. And it sounds like a chemical. So it's BAD.

    OK, really, I don't know. I think Americans really do just eat to much and it's easier to blame a chemical than our own lack of self-control.

  • ||

    This question must be juxtaposed with the complementary question "Are chemicals killing those things that kill people?". The utility of chemicals in killing pathogens is just as much a part of the equation.

  • ||

    Even as I type this, many interesting and relevant points are flashing across my mind, but I'm going to stick to my guns and simply say:

    This is what happens when people are too stupid to learn.

    This is the greatest country in the world in great part because of 2 reasons: the abundance of resources of every kind, and a lifestyle that comes with lots of free time. So given these two luxuries, if people choose to never learn the REAL difference between H2SO4 and DHMO (H2O) then they can either live in fear of everything, or suffer a horrible tragedy of their own ignorance. And I'm fine either way.

    I have grown weary of the biggest issues in the world being nothing more than the product of people's ignorance and self imposed stupidity. If you still believe what you hear on the news, and therefore live in fear of "chemicals", then do us both a favor and just kill yourself. Mankind has to get over this hump somehow...

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement