Tag Archives: Danah Boyd

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.



The culture of fear and the attention economy

This video from a conference in New Zealand feature Microsoft Research professional Danah Boyd is, I think, a very important contribution to our understanding of our media and social media world.

Similar to the book “What is Happening to the News,” Ms. Boyd points out the connection between a supersaturated information world and the emergence of fear as the primary tool to break through the clutter. She says (approximate quote):”the more stimuli that competes for your attention, the more likely fear will drive your attention to them.”

Relating to my discussions on chemophobia, food safety, environmental disasters, brake problems on cars–there is a very strong built-in bias to create maximum fear by anyone who is competing for your attention. Headline writers whether they be from NYT, HuffPost or my blog, all work exceptionally hard to capture attention. You’ve got less than two seconds to do it. Viral video studies have shown that the key is visceral emotion–fear works wonders in that regard. So any journalist, editor, broadcaster, or blogger worth their salt is going to get very good at writing the headlines and focusing on those elements of a story that maximize the fear factor.

This is so significant for crisis communicators. When the TV cameras show up, when the reporter calls, when the blogger is digging up a story, what do they really need from you? They need something that will help them either create new fear or heighten existing fear. Yes, a generalization, but not such a broad one.

What does that mean for crisis communication? In short (and much more needs to be said on this): go direct to your audiences and two, be prepared to do all you can to counter the fear, uncertainty, dread and outrage that is the natural consequence of covering important stories today.