A conference call to address what one science group calls Chemophobia or an irrational fear of chemicals in the U.S. underscores the challenge the industry faces in convincing people and the media that chemicals are safer than suggested by headlines generated by anti-chemical groups.
What most people don't understand is that most everything is made up of chemicals, said Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, during a Jan. 18 conference call that was cut short because of only three media representatives and a paucity of questions.
It is only the dose that makes the poison. You cannot live chemical-free in the United States, said Whelan, who founded ACSH in 1978 to, she said, add reason and balance to debates about public health issues and bring common-sense views to the public.
ACSH held the conference call , she said, in an attempt to help change how the public perceives chemical risk, and to bring attention to its new position paper, Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health. The paper was written by Jon Entine, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former producer at NBC News and ABC News.
Synthetic chemicals are essential for modern life, Entine wrote. But our views of them are conflicted.
We rely on chemicals to improve human health. Pharmaceuticals keep us healthy. Plastics are found in everything from toys to cars to medical supplies. Pesticides and herbicides boost food production and quality. It's impossible to conceive of life in the 21st century without the materials and fuels that synthetic chemicals have made possible, he wrote.
But from soap to sunscreens, drugs to DDT, we are faced with an endless stream of confusing messages about the safety of chemicals we come in contact with everyday, he said. The synthetic ingredients that make up many products suggest the unknown, and many of us process that as fear.
Belief in the relative benefits of chemicals, trust in the industries that produce them, and confidence in government regulators has never been lower, Entine said. Considering the conflicting narratives, the public has difficulty distinguishing between useful and benign substances in products and those that could pose dangers when misused. The chemophobia epidemic keeps gaining momentum.
Whelan agreed: Over the last several years the level of fear, misinformation and media hype surrounding the use of safe chemicals in everyday household products has swelled to a level which we feel must be addressed in detail before this situation gets even further out of hand.
Whelan pointed to a widely publicized study released Jan. 14 by the monthly journal Environmental Health Perspectives. That study emphasized that detectable levels of eight types of chemicals were present in the blood or urine of most pregnant women. Whelan said the study failed to show a definitive link between the presence of those chemicals and any particular health concerns, she said.
Whelan called the EHP study a perfect example of this overhyped media misconception.
Entine concurred. Although advocacy groups play an important role in focusing public attention on potential environmental hazards, some [non-governmental organizations] consistently exaggerate the threats, he wrote. Such stories are the calling card of many advocacy campaigns and are given credence in the media.
EHP is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. NIEHS is part of the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
Whelan said several activist anti-chemical groups have made it their mission to incriminate phthalates as a deadly poison responsible for various health maladies, including developmental and reproductive effects following fetal exposure.
But the reality, she said, is that a vast amount of scientific data already exists on the safety of phthalates, and currently there are no known adverse health effects from the use of phthalates in consumer products. Exposure does not necessarily indicate risk, she noted.
Similarly, she said, bisphenol A actually promotes public health when used as a can liner to protect us from otherwise dangerous food-borne diseases, like botulism.
When you look at the scientific evidence [on BPA], there is nothing that suggests anything but a strong safety record, said Whelan. Yet seven states now have instituted a ban on the use of BPA in the sale and manufacture of baby bottles and sipping cups.
Eighteen state legislatures have passed 71 chemical safety laws in the last eight years, said the Washington Toxics Coalition in Seattle and the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition, which represents 11 million people.
What's more, 30 states collectively announced Jan. 19 their intention to introduce legislation in 2011 to protect children and families from harmful chemicals, said the two groups.
But the rush to ban chemicals and denounce them as unsafe can lead to the introduction of chemicals less tested and potentially more harmful, said Whelan.
This kind of panic can and historically has led to potentially dangerous outcomes and unintended consequences, she said. The implications of this insidious and irrational fear of trouble distracts Americans from what they should be worried about getting them to buckle their seat belts and wear bicycle helmets.
It always strikes me at these anti-chemical gatherings that they never have an alternative in mind as to what they want to use in place [of the chemicals] they want to ban, said Whelan.
She placed part of the blame for today's perceptions on the media, and part on the reluctance of scientists to discuss issues surrounding chemical safety.
U.S. scientists are [too often] mute to the subject of the safety of chemicals, said Whelan. They are all so specialized that they fear speaking out of their direct field, and they fear that their words would be scrambled by the media.
But it is time, she said, that members of the scientific community step up to the plate.
The scientific community has a moral obligation to attack junk science, said Whelan, adding that she hopes the ACSH position paper will serve as a resource for media, parents, consumers and policymakers to put risk into proper perspective and reduce public support for harmful, unnecessary regulations.
Chemophobia is rising even while the actual danger of chemical contamination or harm from everyday exposures, particularly in the workplace, has decreased sharply over the years, said the position paper. There are toxic threats in our environment and it's important to identify them and take appropriate action. But the picture painted in some quarters far overstates the actual dangers.