Tag Archives: Chemophobia

Tide, Procter & Gamble and the Forbes story on “probable carcinogen”

Earlier today I was asked to comment on the Forbes piece on Tide using a “probably carcinogen” 1,4 dioxane and Procter & Gamble’s response to it.

First of all, I say shame on Forbes for giving this story its prominence. It is one thing for an activist group like “Women’s Voices for the Earth” to make unsubstantiated health claims and deceptive tactics, but it is another for respectable media outlets to cynically use these tactics to get eyes on their screens.

Let’s look at the facts.  The Forbes article puts the deadly claim in its first paragraph: “surprising discoveries including the presence of 1,4 dioxane, a solvent the EPA calls a “probable carcinogen.” That statement, combined with the apparently fair and unbiased headline “Proctor & Gamble Defends…Carcinogens” does all the necessary damage. All those who are so quick to believe that every chemical is carcinogenic and all big companies like P&G somehow live for profits only and are knowingly killing people at every opportunity will take this Forbes story and run with it.

If Amy Westervelt, the author of the Forbes’s piece, or her editor, had taken the two minutes I did to look up the EPA article that is referenced, they would have seen this:

EPA uses mathematical models, based on human and animal studies, to estimate the probability of a person developing cancer from drinking water containing a specified concentration of a chemical. EPA calculated an oral unit risk estimate of 3.1 × 10-7 ( µg/L)-1. EPA estimates that, if an individual were to continuously drink water containing 1,4-dioxane at an average of 3.0 µg/L (3 x 10-3 milligrams per liter (mg/L)) over his or her entire lifetime, that person would theoretically have no more than a one-in-a-million increased chance of developing cancer as a direct result of drinking water containing this chemical. Similarly, EPA estimates that drinking water containing 30.0 µg/L (3 x 10-2 mg/L) would result in not greater than a one-in-a-hundred thousand increased chance of developing cancer, and water containing 300.0 µg/L (3 x 10-1 mg/L) would result in not greater than a one-in-ten thousand increased chance of developing cancer. For a detailed discussion of confidence in the potency factors, please see IRIS. (7)

(I haven’t done the conversion from micrograms and milligrams yet, but it looks like I would have to “continuously” drink an awful lot of water with Tide in it to run any sort of risk of getting cancer.)

Like so many scare stories, the “probable carcinogen” story is based on extremely high doses. Water kills too, in too high a dosage. Which means that maybe EPA should label all water bottles “probably lethal.”

The underlying problem is that we have activist groups who are in business too and need success stories like getting their attacks published in major media in order to attract more funding to keep their employees at work. This is a major coup for Women’s Voices. But, of course, media outlets like Forbes need to attract readers, so stories like this play very well. As Microsoft researcher Dana Boyd makes clear, fear is the strongest weapon media have to attract audiences in today’s oversaturated environment. She calls is “the culture of fear and the attention economy.”

Which doesn’t answer the question of what Procter & Gamble does about it. They are between a rock and a hard place—which is just where the activists want them. If they replace it, the activists can say, “See, you knew for years this stuff could kill you but you did nothing about it. Proves you put profits before people.” If they defend it, as they are weakly trying to do, it just proves that they don’t care that their detergent has a carcinogen in it. And people will switch to something “safer.” At least something that hasn’t yet been the target of the activist’s enterprising scare tactics.

Jon Entine, author of “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health” puts some of the blame for this problem on the companies who are so quick to bow to the fears amplified by media and deceptively created by activists. He gives an example of Campbell’s soup removing BP-A from their cans and replacing it with BP-S. BP-A has 50 years of study behind it showing it to be safe (except when injected into lab rats at 500,000 times any exposure that a human might have). BP-S is similarly formulated but is new and so doesn’t have the study. So it may not be as safe and is certainly not proven safe But people have been scared witless about BP-A based on the deceptive (but effective in generating audiences) media reports and activist attacks. So Campbell’s may be doing the right thing to protect their product and sales, but not be doing the right thing to protect health. And certainly not doing the right thing to continue this nonsense of chemphobia.

So Procter & Gamble is in the same tight spot. I hope they take advantage of this controversy to say: “We make safe and healthy products. We suggest you do less than 1000 loads of laundry a day and that you do not drink Tide or 1,4 dioxane by the gallon–at least not over your lifetime as the EPA suggests if you do, you have a very, very slim chance of getting cancer from it. If you follow these simple instructions, you will be perfectly safe. In fact, you may very well be safer than when using newer products which use newer formulations that don’t have the benefit of extensive testing.”

I wish they would also say: “Shame on you Forbes for cynically using the deceptive attacks of Women’s Voices for the Earth simply to attract audiences to sell your ads. Tell the truth about the 1,4 dioxane. Help expose the fear tactics that drive the business of activists groups. And help put an end to the chemophobia that may be threatening public health and adding unnecessary burdens on our economy.”

But, they don’t have the mission of righting some serious wrongs in our society. They need to sell Tide, so they will probably get rid of 1,4 dioxane. And the nonsense will continue.



How the media create irrational fear–an interview with Jon Entine

I blogged recently about Jon Entine and his book “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health.” Following that I had the opportunity to interview Jon via skype and record it. I’m presenting that interview to you in the hopes that it will aid understanding of how today’s media’s need to attract audiences can be harmful. Not just to reputations, as we talk about here frequently, but even to our health.

This is one more of a continuing series of video interviews with interesting thought leaders and crisis communication experts. I encourage you to add your name to the email list at agincourt.us as I will be sending out notices when valuable new training and education tools like this become available.

View video on website.

10 minute edited video

Full 45 minute discussion


“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.