Issue Date: March 30, 2009
Reviewing 'Poisoned Profits'
I OBJECT TO the misinformation provided in the review of Philip and Alice Shabecoff's book "Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on our Children" (C&EN, Jan. 5, page 34). In her review, Bette Hileman praises the book's inflammatory misinformation concerning adverse effects of environmental chemicals on the health of children. As a longtime chemist, toxicologist, and chemical regulator, I want to provide a few comments in defense of the maligned chemical industry and federal regulators of environmental regulations.
As regulatory toxicologists in developed countries, we reduce acceptable environmental exposures to subthreshold levels, levels that are far below thresholds of adverse effects for the normal population, including fetuses, pregnant women, and the young and old. These actions are generally based on conservative projections of safety from laboratory studies.
As experimental, clinical, and forensic toxicologists, we use adverse effects from high-level exposures in laboratory studies to differentiate low-level safety exposures from high-level misuse exposures (accidents, homicides, and suicides). The media wrongly hype these adverse effects from high exposures as applying to subthreshold effects of safety standards as a way of selling news. (Good news is no news.)
We in developed countries, children included, have thousands of environmental chemicals in our bodies at subthreshold levels. They have been there for many years as a result of improved health and longevity. In fact, we have only recently started recognizing the beneficial effects (called "hormesis") of low-level exposures to many chemicals, including experimental carcinogens, teratogens, and the like.
Finally, it is important to remember that perception of hazards that are not real can readily induce dangerous conditions of bodily stress that become real health problems.
Stanley B. Gross
IN HER REVIEW, Hileman repeatedly cites from the book concerning the difficulty of proving cause and effect. For example, she says, "If a cluster of illness is found ... it is almost impossible to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it came from a specific contaminant" and "because absolute proof of causation is usually impossible to obtain, governments and industry should take a weight-of-evidence approach and apply the precautionary principle."
No doubt this is true, but it's irrelevant both legally and scientifically. Juries in criminal cases are instructed to decide whether one party is guilty of something beyond reasonable doubt. Scientists, especially statisticians, generally regard a 95% probability as quite convincing and a 98% probability as very convincing.
Hileman also presents without comment the authors' view that the 1993 Supreme Court decision that "requires the judge to examine the underlying research that the plaintiffs and defense propose to present and admit only evidence that he or she deems scientifically reliable" sometimes causes judges to disallow valid evidence. This may be true, but surely it is preferable to presenting as evidence material that is scientifically invalid.
I QUESTION HOW you decide on what articles to publish in C&EN. Recently, a book by a George Washington University professor who castigated certain consulting firms was reviewed (C&EN, Nov. 17, 2008, page 77). The theme seemed to be that consulting firms only cared about money and business.
In the book review of "Poisoned Profits," those businesses dumping chemicals in landfills are the culprits. In the review, it says, "If we love our children, we should want to protect them, to give them a safe, healthy environment in which to be born and to grow up." Well, we all know those chemical company officials don't love their children or care about anyone else's. That's why they do these things. Statements like "nearly one out of three children suffers from a chronic disease or debilitating birth defect" also appear in the review. The review goes on to say that "chemicals, even at part-per-trillion levels, can affect the fetus."
Well, we can ban all chemicals and prevent the "crime" companies commit by not working harder to test products before they go to market. We do that with pharmaceuticals, and some still have problems after marketing. We know how hard it is to defuse scaremongers' effects once the public has embraced them. The article on the supposed link between vaccines and autism documents this (C&EN, Dec. 15, 2008, page 34). We can associate the word "hazardous" with every chemical known until we get to the parts-per-trillion level, or we can act like chemical enterprise practitioners and support and defend the various professions within that enterprise.
Robert A. Jerussi
IT WAS ASTONISHING to find two such different descriptions of the regard of the chemical industry to public health and environmental safety in the Jan. 5 issue of C&EN. First, one reads an article about the activities of the American Chemistry Council (page 19). Calvin M. Dooley, the new president and CEO, is quoted as saying, "A risk-based approach to chemical management is still in the best interest of enhancing the environment." He speaks about building a broad-based coalition involving all stakeholders to advance an advocacy agenda for the chemical industry.
Later in the same issue, one finds a review of "Poisoned Profits." There we read that "although there is more and more evidence that low-level toxic exposures harm fetuses and young children, it is still extremely difficult to persuade or force companies and governments to phase out or ban harmful substances." I strongly recommend that when the editor-in-chief of C&EN realizes that a single issue will contain such obviously disparate views on an issue of vital importance to ACS members, an effort be made to include a short article featuring a discussion between the opposing sides.
It would be particularly interesting to read the text of a discussion between Dooley and the authors of the aforementioned book. The refusal of the chemical industry to withdraw products that are harmful to public health is a violation of the ACS Code of Ethics, and it should be publicly admonished to change this behavior.
"POISONED PROFITS" is a seriously flawed and misleading account of the purported role of chemicals in children's health. Moreover, Hileman's review is alarmingly uncritical and amounts to an endorsement of the views asserted by the Shabecoffs.
The authors assert that there is an epidemic of chronic disease in children of massive proportions, all caused by environmental chemicals. But is that really the case? It's impossible to know from reading "Poisoned Profits." The authors present their book as a crime story, sort of an "Eco-CSI." But even the TV versions of "CSI" demonstrate the accumulation and analysis of evidence, whereas the authors' claims are unsupported by evidence.
Moreover, they make it difficult for the interested reader to learn more: There is a paucity of references to the primary literature. Instead, they rely heavily on newspaper articles and reports issued by environmental organizations, which are hardly known for their objectivity. Hence, one is expected to accept at face value their exaggerated claims. But a little investigation shows, for example, that the overall incidence of childhood cancers has declined (www.seer.cancer.gov/publications/childhood).
The reviewer asserts that "both authors are well qualified," but that simply isn't the case. For example, their apparent understanding of the scientific method, of statistical analysis, and of epidemiology is shallow and faulty (pages 5 and 118). It was shocking to me to learn that after more than 50 years as a scientist, I've spent my time attempting to prove a negative when I thought that I was testing hypotheses.
What do the authors propose in order to "obtain justice for the children"? They advocate implementation of the precautionary principle, namely that "when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." Sounds reasonable on the surface, but who decides and what is the strength of evidence needed to invoke the principle? Or how about "some form of social capitalism" (page 252).
It would be easy to dismiss "Poisoned Profits" as just another eco-rant, which it is. Unfortunately, too many people accept such nonsense at face value. But it is easier to scare people rather than to educate them and that is where ACS can play an important role.
Marion W. Anders
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