Yesterday, the Drudge Report featured an alarming story about endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are in nearly every product we use. Yahoo News’ story “Massive US health tab for hormone-disrupting chemicals“ was just the sort of article that sends people into a panic and will cause many to toss out perfectly harmless and affordable everyday products.
In summary: a new study alleges “endocrine-disrupting chemicals” cause ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, fertility problems, diabetes, and obesity. Holy cow! All that and cancer, too. “So-called endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are found in thousands of everyday products, ranging from plastic and metal food containers, to detergents, flame retardants, toys and cosmetics.”
Yet if you go to the leading experts on autism, ADHD disorders, and other neurological problems, those experts actually don’t know the cause of many of these conditions (although most tend to think genetics plays a major role). As for diabetes and fertility problems, there’s lots of chatter (and very bad studies) associating these conditions with chemicals in plastics, but no actual connections have ever been found.
People who suffer from diabetes and fertility problems aren’t told to live in a shack in the forest, far away from modern conveniences that might include plastics that contain chemicals. Doctors recommend a host of other treatments and lifestyle changes, but avoiding plastics doesn’t make the list
Likewise, the American Cancer Society lists several factors that increase the risk of cancer: genetics, tobacco use, diet and lack of physical activity, sun and UV exposure, radiation exposure, certain infectious diseases, and some pollutants (like diesel exhaust, secondhand smoke, lead, and radon). Want to know what’s amazing? Endocrine disruptors are not on the list.
I’m the Only Doctor in the World Who Knows The Truth
Sadly, while the media tends to hype these flawed studies, they rarely provide information on the safety record of these chemicals. Nor do they mention that the leading international health and safety regulatory agencies, drawing on thousands of studies, have concluded that chemicals used in manufacturing and as food preservatives are safe.
For instance, the chemical Bisphenol-A (BPA) has been the subject of hundreds of safety studies over decades and it has been found (over and over again) to be safe. Those agencies include: The World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the European Union’s Food Safety Authority, Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Norway’s Scientiﬁc Committee for Food Safety, France’s Food Safety Agency, Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, Canada’s Health Agency, Australia and New Zealand’s Joint Food Standards Council.
Yet apparently, in opposition to all the work done by these agencies and many independent toxicologists who have studied these issues, “lead investigator” Dr. Leonardo Trasande knows exactly what causes all these ailments: It’s all plastics’ fault.
Given Trasende’s supposed command of nearly every medical field, I decided to take a closer look at him and his background. His biography reveals a great interest in both public policy and environmental issues. He has a master’s degree in public policy, worked in the office of Sen. Hillary Clinton (where have I heard that name?) and has testified before the Senate’s Environment and Public Works committee.
Wait for the Kicker
In what’s left of Trasende’s free time, he’s also an activist for environmental causes and is listed as an advisor to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Not familiar with the EWG? The EWG is a very influential and quite radical environmental organization that makes a ton of money scaring people with their yearly “Dirty Dozen List.”
This list tells moms that conventionally grown fruits and vegetables sold in grocery stores (conventional simply means farmers can use synthetic pesticides on their crops—you know, so they’ll grow) have dangerous levels of pesticide residue on them and that, to be a good mom, they should buy the much more expensive organic produce (organic crops are also grown with the use of pesticides—a inconvenient fact the EWG always fails to disclose).
While promoting this list, the EWG often leaves out some pretty important details, such as that there’s zero nutritional difference between organic and conventionally grown food and that a child would have to eat 1,500 servings of, say, strawberries in a single sitting to reach the safe level of exposure of pesticide residue. That’s right: my kid could gorge himself to the point of making himself sick on strawberries and he still wouldn’t hit a dangerous level of exposure. Now tell me again why it’s harmful for my child to eat three or four conventionally grown strawberries (that are far cheaper than the organic brand)?
If Trasende is really concerned about public health, here’s another study he might want to read:
New peer reviewed research published in Nutrition Today shows fear-based messaging tactics used by activist groups and some organic marketers that invoke safety concerns about non-organic produce may be having a negative impact on consumption of fruits and veggies among low-income consumers…
‘We were surprised to see how informational content that named specific fruits and vegetables as having the highest pesticide residues increased the percentage of shoppers who said they would be unlikely to purchase any type of fruits and vegetables,’ says Britt Burton-Freeman, associate professor of food science and nutrition at ITT’s Center for Nutrition Research. ‘The concern is that depending on the structure of the communication about pesticides and fruits and vegetables this could turn people away from wanting to purchase any fresh produce.’
That’s great work, EWG: making people who live at or under the poverty line (ya know, the folks with the highest rates of obesity) pass on healthy fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. Well done!
Ever Heard of ‘Correlation, Not Causation’?
Trasende and his colleagues relied on computer models—a questionable and often flawed way to do scientific studies. Trasende also likes to draw correlations between a substance or environmental cause and a disease. A firm rule in scientific research is that correlations, while sometimes interesting and instructive, do not mean causation. In other words, just because two things are related, it does not mean A caused B. To see why correlation is not a good measure of causation, take a look at this graph.
The graph shows that as organic food consumption has gone up, so has the rate of autism diagnosis. Wow. That must mean organic food causes autism, right? Of course not.
Yet, clearly, Trasende and his colleagues don’t think it’s important to inform people about the limits of his latest study. In fact, earlier this year, Trasende found a correlation between pre-term births and air pollution. His system is pretty simple. He looked at the number of pre-term births in a particular area and then looked to see if that area had a higher level of air pollution. And VIOLA! A connection!
But in a well-designed scientific study, researchers consider other factors that could cause pre-term birth—like the health of the mother, her health during pregnancy, the mother’s economic situation, her diet, and educational levels. Trasende doesn’t bother to consider how these factors come into play. In fact, reporting on this study, the journal Nature said the researchers tried to control for these factors:
The authors of the latest study made efforts to control for socioeconomic and lifestyle factors that might skew the results. However, some of those adjustments had limitations. Not all centres included information about whether the mother smoked during pregnancy; maternal education and address were used as proxy measurements to give an idea of socioeconomic status; and the mothers’ exposure to air pollution during pregnancy was estimated rather than measured directly.
So, basically, they made up data and succeeded in showing a connection between pollution and bad health outcomes. This isn’t useful if you want to know if pollution actually causes the problem, or how to prevent such problems, but it serves its purpose if the real goal is to create frightening headlines that make air pollution seem like a huge and very costly problem.
Trasende repeats this pattern with his latest study on endocrine disruption: suggesting these chemicals (and the diseases they cause) are responsible for $340 billion in health-related costs each year. Never mind that the study lacks actual evidence that the chemicals in question are actually contributing to these health problems.
Trasende is an activist scientist, trotting out junk science at rapid speed to further his political, policy, and regulatory goals. That’s not good science. It’s a troubling trend that will create onerous, burdensome, and wholly unnecessary regulations. Systems are in place to protect consumers from coming into contact with harmful chemicals, and a great body of scientific work has already been done to confirm the safety of these chemicals in everyday products and food packaging.
The scientific community must do more to reign in activist scientists and dubious scientific studies that create fear and alarm where no documented danger exists.