“Scared to Death” by Jon Entine should be mandatory reading

Unless you are brand new to crisisblogger you know that I think far too much of what parades for journalism today is bad for us. The competition for declining audiences leads even the most respected news organizations to resort to hyperbole, sensationalism, and shallowness. Stories too often have to create visceral emotions of fear, uncertainty, doubt or outrage–whereas the truth frequently is far more complex.

This, in my opinion, is one of the key drivers in the remarkable decline of trust in our nation. The public doesn’t trust big companies, CEOs, government agencies and certainly not Congress. But trust is lowest, ironically, in the news media.

So I think today’s media environment, while toxic for corporate reputations, is harmful. Now, I see that it is also probably quite harmful for our health.

Jon Entine, of the American Council for Science and Health, has written a powerful book called “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health.” This organization’s focus seems to be combatting junk science and situations where politics and public opinion intervenes in good policy making relating to science and health. The list of prominent scientists and physicians involved is long, impressive and fully disclosed.

I can’t summarize the basic message better than Entine:

“Belief in the relative benefits of chemicals, trust in the industries that produce them and confidence in government regulators have never been lower. Corporations that produce chemicals are often portrayed as greedy and indifferent. Questions persist about the government’s ability to exercise its oversight responsibility.”

The result, says Entine, may very well make us less healthy than healthy. One of the examples he provides to support this hypothesis is the clearly political nature of the President’s Cancer Panel Annual Report for 2008-2009. While 1.5 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed each year, and over a half million Americans die of cancer each year, and the societal cost if nearly a quarter trillion dollars, the report falsely focused on chemicals in the environment. How can he and I say “falsely”? Entine carefully answers that question, demonstrating that the consensus among epidemiologists is that the primary causes of cancer are tobacco, obesity, infections, radiation, stress and lack of physical activity. These numbers leave about 4% of cancers caused by toxins, contaminants and pollution. But, reports like this, so eagerly used by the media, activists and tort lawyers takes focus and dollars away from the real factors, thereby threatening our health.

But I found Entine’s detailed case studies on BPA and atrazine the most compelling.

BPA or bisphenol A is an industrial chemical used to make plastic products stronger and more flexible. It has been used in plastics manufacturing for over 50 years.

A sponsored link at the top of the Google search for the chemical gives an idea of the campaign against this chemical: Healthychild.org:

Plastics are everywhere and in most cases are very affordable and convenient. But, increasingly scientists are finding that a hidden cost may be our health. Some common plastics release harmful chemicals into our air, foods, and drinks. Maybe you can’t see or taste it, but if you’re serving your dinner on plastic, you’re likely eating a little plastic for dinner.

Even the wikipedia article on it gives substance to the government and scientific studies involving this chemical including the fact that it has been banned in Canada. But Entine tells a very different story. He notes that the studies, as with so many other chemical products, involve serious hormonal effects on rodents. But those tests are with injected chemicals at a rate 500,000 times of that consumed by humans–which do not inject BPA. Entine makes a strong case that the scientific evidence does not support concern over BPA and highlights the efforts of many from the European Union, to the Komen Foundation, to the FDA to try to calm the public fears about this substance. Here’s the CDC on BPA for example: “In animal and human studies, bisphenol A is well absorbed orally…in humans, little free bisphenol A circulates after oral absorption due to the high degree of glucuronidation by the liver. The glucucorinidated bisphenol A is excreted in the urine within 24 hours with no evidence of accumulation.”

Despite efforts by organizations like the FDA and CDC to calm the fears, the media pays no attention to such reports. Not when they can when “bushels” of awards like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has done by publishing more than 50 stories “excoriating the government for not restricting or banning the use of BPA.”

The ban by the Canadian government provides a great example of politics completing overwhelming science when activists and sensationalist media combine to scare us to death. Entine reports:

“When Mark Richardson, the chief scientist and head of the study [by Health Canada on BPA]. unofficially concluded the evidence showed that the dangers of BPA were ‘so low as to be totally inconsequential’ and compared its estrogenic effects to tofu, activists and the media, led by The Globe and Mail of Toronto, mounted an attack on his credibility that led to his reassignment.”

But, when the Health Canada report came out it echoed Richardson’s conclusion: “Bisphenol A does not pose a risk to the general population, including adults, teenagers and children.” So what did the Canadian government do? Health Canada, reflecting on the role of public anxiety also said: “Even though scientific information may be inconclusive [a strange statement given the fact that this is one of the most studied chemicals on earth and none have shown a danger except by injecting 500,000 times the amount used by humans in rats], decisions have to be made to meet society’s expectations that risks be addressed and living standards maintained.” So, of course, the Canadian government banned it for use in infant products–but not for any other use. And now, the fact that it is banned in Canada, gives credence to the activists and media reports, strengthening the loop.

Score one for the activists and fear mongering media. Science loses, and so does the public interest.

The case study on atrazine is equally compelling, but I won’t go into the details here.

Chemicals kill, no doubt about it. Chemicals that occur in the natural world and that are created in the lab and factories. Everything we taste, touch and experience involves chemicals. The danger always comes in the amount of exposure and what that particular chemical does to us. And we are continually finding out more about the risks as well as dramatically improving our ability to detect chemicals and their risks. That is all good. Plus, there have been some horrible examples in the past where greedy corporate managers have overlooked risks to the public for the sake of profits. That’s why effective government regulation is essential, and we must hold our elected officials accountable for that.

Given all that, I fundamentally agree with Entine and the Council’s position. Too much junk science is pushed by activists and attorneys. Too many journalists and now bloggers and commenters are eager to scare the beJesus out of us in order to attract eyeballs and be seen as crusaders. Too many politicians care little about the science and what is real in their eagerness to be seen as the white knights out to save us all. Too many educators and academic scientists pass on their 1960s and 1970s values of distrust. The result is a world filled with false fears. It is endemic in our youth in particular. It is evident in far too many anonymous comments on the web. There is outrage, fear and mistrust that is stoked by too many institutions and fear mongers who have much to gain.

We are being scared to death and it is hurting all of us.

8 thoughts on ““Scared to Death” by Jon Entine should be mandatory reading”

  1. Pot meet kettle. Joe Entine and the American Council on Science and Health are scared to death of the truth that Americans now have access to; the truth that reduces the undeserved power that their organization has; the truth that reduces the industry funds that pays for their bogus reports. They then point their fingers and use name-calling (like chemophobia) and complain that others don’t “do science”.

  2. Brian, you talk about the truth. Have you read the book? I’m interested in the truth as well and Mr. Entine presents a very convincing case. I’m convinced that BPA, for example, presents a minimal to no risk despite the high level fears and government bans. That is based on the near unanimous consensus of hundreds and hundreds of scientific studies. So what “truth” are you referring to?

  3. Brian – Try finding a list comparable to ” The list of prominent scientists and physicians involved is long, impressive and fully disclosed” in this report with CSPI or anything similar organization. It will be a waste of time for you I am afraid.

    Standard eco-activist response. Attack the messenger not the message. Show us your proof the report is wrong.

    The science is on our side. You don’t, can’t and will not.

  4. “Entine carefully answers that question, demonstrating that the consensus among epidemiologists is that the primary causes of cancer are tobacco, obesity, infections, radiation, stress and lack of physical activity. ”


    Correlative risk factors.

    “The” primary causes?

    Where are old age and genetics?

    It would be so much better if those professing to be on the side of science didn’t bullshit the other way. I’ve got these Florida alligators here with something wrong with their testicles… perhaps they aren’t exercising enough…

  5. I worked in the media for 50 years and must add that most journalists are gullible and have little sense of the sciences, never having taken courses in the sciences and buy into press releases they cannot comprehend.

  6. Despite no scientific training other than links to the pesticide industry Jon Entine has suddenly become an expert on pesticides and toxicology. Unfortunately his scientific perspective is very one side and pro-industry.

    In his books “Crop Chemophobia” he tries to defend atrazine and BPA in “Scared to death” – both books have zero academic standing and are industry PR only.

    A publication by Hayes et al (2011), authored by 22 scientists from 16 institutions debunk the spin that atrazine is harmless:
    They conclude that “Atrazine is prevalent and persistent in the environment. There are many other documented reproductive effects of atrazine in laboratory rodents: induced abortion and impaired mammary development and the induction of reproductive and hormone-dependent cancers, and as well as other non-reproductive effects including impaired immune function (also observed in multiple studies across vertebrate classes) and impaired neural development. Thus, with the additional the indirect effects of atrazine on habitats atrazine can have dramatic effects on ecosystems, environmental health and public health.”

    On BPA, even the NIH and FDA have in 2013 started raising concerns of its effect: “However, on the basis of results from recent studies using novel approaches to test for subtle effects, both the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health and FDA have some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.”

    Furthermore, the Genetic Literacy Project website Jon runs is funded by Searle and Templeton which are supposed “independent philanthropies” but are not. They have been linked to “…funding and the creation of U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations” in a peer reviewed paper by Brulle (2014) in Climate Change (impact factor of 3.634) http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-013-1018-7#
    In addition to this the AEI think tank Jon is proudly a member of (http://www.jonentine.com/conferences.html) is listed in the same paper as a “climate counter-movement” organization.

    Jon Entine is a pay for play industry PR machine.

  7. David, your information about NIH and FDA concerns are on point–although they strike me as expressing very cautious concern. Certainly nothing to warrant the fear generated by use of BPA. It’s one thing to counter an assertion with scientific facts, its quite another to say the assertion is not correct because the asserter is paid by someone I don’t like. Ad hominem attacks are generally considered a logical fallacy. I don’t know Jon Entine’s background or who pays for what, but what matters is what is true and what can be verified scientifically.

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