Consumer Groups Fight Back Against Junk Science Tactics

Consumer Groups Fight Back Against Junk Science Tactics
May 27, 2014

Jeff Stier

Jeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C... (read full bio)

With increasing frequency, activist groups are trying to remove safe and useful products from the
 market. Why? Because they think they can fool consumers, retailers and legislators into thinking that the extensively-reviewed chemicals in everyday products are unsafe.

Remember when the Consumer Product Safety Improvement act banned ATVs and sport bikes designed for youth because of lead in the engines? The rationale, if one could call it that, was that lead in the batteries presented a risk to children, since children are known to mouth their toys. 

Laws and regulations that attempt to set product formulation guidelines through sensationalized headlines, rather than the detailed scientific reviews currently used by regulatory bodies, are bound to lead to absurd outcomes.

Finally, consumer groups and scientists are fighting back with the facts, pointing to the science behind what goes into consumer products. These groups are unraveling the scary, over-sensationalized headlines and providing reliable information to consumers. Groups such as theTexas Consumer Association and the Competitive Enterprise Institute have both released reports in the past month that aim to lift the veil of confusion thrust on the public by the ban-everything activists. Kudos to these groups for standing up against politically correct and scientifically invalid scare campaigns and instead reinforcing a trusted and verifiable system that arms consumers with the information they need to make the right decisions for their families.

The Texas Consumer Association's report outlines case studies of three commonly-used chemicals that have lately been in the crosshairs of activists: BPA, phthalates and parabens. The paper, "Assessing Consumer Product Safety: How Science Can Be Sidelined in Product Formulations," examined the importance of using science to support product formulations and looked at how narrow interest group efforts have forced many manufacturers to seek alternatives that might not be as safe, effective, or affordable as the original well-studied chemical.

The paper provides an outline of where the three chemicals stand in the federal regulatory scheme across the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and others. No longer can scaremongers allege that these chemicals are "unregulated" in their efforts to create a patchwork of state chemical laws.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute's report analyzed the "constant barrage of news headlines" that is instilling fear in consumers about synthetic and natural chemicals. The report is a guide for consumers (as well as legislators and media, who are also consumers) on how to look for facts behind a headline. The report, titled, "A Consumer's Guide to Chemical Risk, Deciphering the 'Science' Behind Chemical Scares," breaks down the rigor and validity of a study to teach readers how to obtain answers to the questions that consumers should always ask when evaluating the meaning of a scientific report.

Questions that look at the integrity of these new agenda-driven studies are essential for understanding what the groups in fact examined and considered in the study. All too often, headlines with over-sensationalized statements drive readers to the articles, but then create a sense of 'consumer alarmism' and fear that is unwarranted.

Activists are increasingly mastering the art of "consumer alarmism" in an effort to push for regulatory policy change through social activism and media headlines, rather than valid scientific evaluations. These tactics are effective at grabbing headlines and advancing expensive and bloated regulatory policies, but they do not help consumers or readers make the right decisions for their families.

Rather, this new culture of fear is creating confusion among consumers as to what is safe and what is not. As the Texas Consumer Association wrote, the discrepancies created by outside interests "put [consumers] in the middle of safety disputes" that should instead ultimately be considered at the regulatory and scientific level, not in the easily manipulated court of public opinion.

Regardless of where one stands on using natural or synthetic chemicals, everyone should agree that science should be the basis of every regulatory decision. Consumers are finding it difficult to keep track of chemicals that were proven to be safe by the FDA or CPSC, but then later attacked in headlines and removed from product formulations because of activist-driven backlash, only to be followed by another report that states the chemicals are safe. With all this back and forth, it's no surprise that confusion and ineffective policies follow.

The only safe way forward is for test labs and a strong regulatory process dominated by sound science to determine consumer safety. It is good to see that consumer groups are stepping up to stop the "whoever yells the loudest" game where the only winners are those who create the most fear (which is good only for fundraising). At the end of the day, that game makes us all losers when it comes to safe, useful, and affordable consumer products.

Jeff Stier

Jeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C... (read full bio)