Saturday, May 29, 2010

Fears: Plastics and Vaccines

1. Jerome Groopman in the New Yorker tackles the question: are we right to fear plastics and certain other man-made chemicals, to spend fortunes studying them, when all indications are that, with the possible exception of people who have intensive long-term exposure, the harm they do is marginal at worst?

Long-term studies have provided the most compelling evidence that chemicals once considered safe may cause health problems in communities with consistent exposure over many years. Researchers from SUNY Albany, including Lawrence Schell, a biomedical anthropologist, have worked over the past two decades with Native Americans on the Mohawk reservation that borders the St. Lawrence River, once a major shipping thoroughfare, just east of Massena, New York. General Motors built a foundry nearby that made automobile parts, Alcoa had two manufacturing plants for aluminum, and the area was contaminated with PCBs, which were used in the three plants. Several Mohawk girls experienced signs of early puberty, which coincided with higher levels of PCBs in their blood.

The piece does have a section of "on the other hand":

Critics such as Elizabeth Whelan, of the American Council on Science and Health, a consumer-education group in New York (Whelan says that about a third of its two-million-dollar annual budget comes from industry), think that the case against BPA and phthalates has more in common with those against cyclamates and Alar than with the one against lead. “The fears are irrational,” she said. “People fear what they can’t see and don’t understand. Some environmental activists emotionally manipulate parents, making them feel that the ones they love the most, their children, are in danger.” Whelan argues that the public should focus on proven health issues, such as the dangers of cigarettes and obesity and the need for bicycle helmets and other protective equipment. As for chemicals in plastics, Whelan says, “What the country needs is a national psychiatrist.

To illustrate what Whelan says is a misguided focus on manufactured chemicals, her organization has constructed a dinner menu “filled with natural foods, and you can find a carcinogen or an endocrine-disrupting chemical in every course”—for instance, tofu and soy products are filled with plant-based estrogens that could affect hormonal balance. “Just because you find something in the urine doesn’t mean that it’s a hazard,” Whelan says. “Our understanding of risks and benefits is distorted. BPA helps protect food products from spoiling and causing botulism. Flame retardants save lives, so we don’t burn up on our couch.”

Several studies also contradict the conclusion that these chemicals have deleterious effects. The journal Toxicological Sciences recently featured a study from the E.P.A. scientist Earl Gray, a widely respected researcher, which indicated that BPA had no effect on puberty in rats. A study of military conscripts in Sweden found no connection between phthalates and depressed sperm counts, and a recent survey of newborns in New York failed to turn up an increase in a male genital malformation which might be expected if the effects from BPA seen in rodents were comparable to effects in humans. Richard Sharpe, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, and an internationally recognized pioneer on the effects of chemicals in the environment on endocrine disruption, recently wrote in Toxicological Sciences, “Fundamental, repetitive work on bisphenol A has sucked in tens, probably hundreds of millions of dollars from government bodies and industry, which, at a time when research money is thin on the ground, looks increasingly like an investment with a nil return.”

With epidemiological studies, like those at Columbia, in which scientists observe people as they live, without a control group, the real-life nature of the project can make it difficult to distinguish between correlation and causation. Unknown factors in the environment or unreported habits might escape the notice of the researchers. Moreover, even sophisticated statistical analysis can sometimes yield specious results.

But Groopman loops back to the "progressive" view:

The inadequacy of the current regulatory system contributes greatly to the atmosphere of uncertainty. The Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976, does not require manufacturers to show that chemicals used in their products are safe before they go on the market; rather, the responsibility is placed on federal agencies, as well as on researchers in universities outside the government. The burden of proof is so onerous that bans on toxic chemicals can take years to achieve, and the government is often constrained from sharing information on specific products with the public, because manufacturers claim that such information is confidential. Several agencies split responsibility for oversight, with little co√∂rdination: the Food and Drug Administration supervises cosmetics, food, and medications, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates pesticides, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission oversees children’s toys and other merchandise. The European Union, in contrast, now requires manufacturers to prove that their compounds are safe before they are sold.

My question: are "natural" products like tofu and soy going to be subject to the same test? I saw a documentary once that stressed how dangerous radon, a source of naturally occurring radiation, can be. If it is in your basement, and you sleep in the house every night, the effect builds up. So they started questioning a woman who was picketing the Three Mile Island site. How many people have ever been harmed by Three Mile Island? Probably none. Are you aware of radon, natural radiation? Not really. Your neighbourhood in Pennsylvania is known to have a lot of it. Have you ever been checked? No. But that radiation is more of a threat to you than Three Mile Island. That can't be: surely the artificial stuff is more dangerous than the natural stuff.

Groopman's big finish:

How do we go forward? Flame retardants surely serve a purpose, just as BPA and phthalates have made for better and stronger plastics. Still, while the evidence of these chemicals’ health consequences may be far from conclusive, safer alternatives need to be sought. More important, policymakers must create a better system for making decisions about when to ban these types of substances, and must invest in the research that will inform those decisions. There’s no guarantee that we’ll always be right, but protecting those at the greatest risk shouldn’t be deferred.

He is close to supporting the so-called precautionary principle. Nothing should go forward until it is tested, and nothing should be in daily use unless it is proven to be free of risk. Of course, this is insane. If we knew an individual who lived that way, we would call them insane (in our ruder moments). They would almost certainly not have children; if they did, the children would be kept indoors, in a padded room without paint; food would be God knows what, and exercise would be on a padded hamster's wheel. Why should we expect governments to act in a way that we otherwise regard as insane?

Also in the past week or so: Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who almost single-handedly created the scare suggesting that the MMR vaccine caused autism in children, has been stripped of his licence to practice medicine in the UK. He based his sensational conclusion on a study of 12--yes, 12--children. In the face of repeated reputable studies showing the MMR was safe, he stuck to his conclusions. He subjected children to dangerous and unethical tests--proving he was a torturer as well as a quack.

The real question is how this nutbar could have persuaded so many people. Obviously there is an openness to the possibility that man-made products and actions are harmful to children, unlike mother nature who protects Bambi. This is nonsense, but it is extremely popular nonsense today, especially with boomers. For people who continue to support Wakefield, see here and here.

By the way, I don't agree with the plastics person that obesity is a dangerous epidemic, and of course I have issues about viruses and alleged pandemics as well.

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