Science Council Debunks Top Environment and Health Scares from 2013
The American Council on Science and Health has identified its “Top 13 health scares of 2013,” with a majority of the false health scares catering to environmental activism. In the first of a multi-part series, Environment & Climate News presents excerpts from the Top 13 list:
Chemicals in Mosquito Spray
Despite an increase in mosquito-borne diseases, many people are terrified of Anvil—an effective killer of adult mosquitoes, which is completely harmless to humans.
People are also very worried about the effect of the spray on the environment. Taken together, there is often substantial protest when any kind of spraying is proposed.
Origin of the scare:
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Ocean Beach, one of 17 summer communities on Fire Island, a barrier beach off the coast of Long Island, New York.
As an incorporated village, Ocean Beach was allowed to opt out of the mosquito control program managed by the Suffolk County Department of Health. Although virtually every other community on the island (and much of the rest of Long Island as well) was being sprayed every summer, Ocean Beach had not done so in decades, primarily based on advice from the village’s environmental commission. The village was playing Russian roulette with people’s health. In 2011 there was a bullet in the chamber.
Having fought a six-year battle with stage four colon cancer, the last thing that long-time Ocean Beach resident Jim Capuano needed was to contract a serious but preventable infectious disease.
Yet, this is exactly what happened. During a one-week vacation in Ocean Beach in August 2011, Jim suffered a grand mal seizure, and he miraculously woke up 10 days later from a medically induced coma.
Doctors determined he had contracted West Nile encephalitis—a potentially fatal condition—from an infected mosquito during his vacation. Given his already-weakened immune system, Jim was more susceptible to any infection, and at times during his time in the hospital he was close to death. Although the rest of the island had already sprayed, Ocean Beach’s mistaken decision to opt out became especially glaring.
This is simply another case of faulty risk-benefit analysis—in this case driven by an irrational fear of chemicals, as if they are all the same. We have maintained for many years that the irrational fear of chemicals is counterproductive and even harmful. One could not find a better example than this one.
Sometimes things just work out. After Mr. Capuano told his story, and after the entire community heard Dr. Bloom’s testimony, the community changed its mind (except for the environmental commission). One week later the Board of Trustees voted unanimously to join the Suffolk County program. The rest of the summer was delightfully mosquito-free.
Genetically Engineered Foods in Hawaii
Hawaiian papayas are grown extensively on the Big Island of Hawaii (also called ‘Hawaii’). The entire production was threatened in the mid-1990s by the Papaya ringspot virus which destroyed the fruit and would have eliminated the crop completely. But scientists inserted a gene from the virus into papayas which conferred immunity on the fruits. Thus the industry was saved.
Origin of the scare:
Last May, a bill was introduced in the County Council proposing a ban on genetically engineered crops on the Big Island. Opponents trotted out the usual list of false claims of damage and risks supposedly caused by such crops, from causing cancer in rats to instigating the production of so-called superweeds. They also cited false reports of suicides among Indian farmers who were beholden to companies producing GMO cotton seeds.
Celebrities such as Roseanne Barr, Dr. Oz, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Maher got in on the act, warning people against eating GMO foods. This ban followed an uproar on the island of Oahu which had been host to seed companies that had been growing and developing GMO crops there.
The whole sorry story of the anti-GMO bill on the Big Island is a reflection of how small a role science plays in the public’s understanding of genetic engineering. The fear-mongers, emboldened by the large and growing organic foods industry, seem to be holding sway. In fact, supposedly scientific studies that purport to demonstrate health risks from GMO foods are typically shown to be bogus or inadequately designed to demonstrate their conclusions. GMO crops are no more dangerous than any other, and they often require less application of pesticides than conventional varieties.
Although the bill did pass in Hawaii, laws requiring labeling of genetically modified ingredients and foods have not been widely adopted. Yet the fight continues, and it remains to be seen whether scientific truth or ideology will win out. ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross recently commented, “These folks would also have burned heretics and hung witches based on the same quality of ‘evidence’ used here [in the Hawaii situation]. They seemed to have bent over backwards to ignore and downplay the science, that is the facts or the truth of this technology, not even bothering to give it lip service while rushing to put their own superstitions into effect.”
GM Corn and Stomach Problems in Pigs
Origin of the scare:
A very flawed and intentionally misleading study by Dr. Judy Carman, of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research in Australia, was published in the Journal of Organic Systems—a journal backed by the organic food industry.
As expected, this one hit the jackpot. A typical headline, from Natural News:” GMO feed turns pig stomachs to mush! Shocking photos reveal severe damage caused by GM soy and corn.”
The media bought this hook, line, and sinker. Virtually every headline (except for those from a few clear-thinking bloggers) said the same thing. The only problem was that it was completely wrong.
There are studies, and there are studies. They range from excellent to bottom of the barrel. This one was under the barrel.
One way of getting the result you want when the experiment or study does not support it is to use selective reporting of data. Dr. Carman painted a masterpiece here. This could easily be used as a model to demonstrate how data can be manipulated to at least nominally produce results that can be turned into a simple, but misleading headline.
A group of 168 pigs was divided into two groups—half ate a “normal” diet, and half ate the identical diet, except the corn and soy in their diet were genetically modified. After 23 weeks, the pigs were sacrificed and examined. This is where it gets interesting.
The paper is entitled “A long-term toxicology study on pigs fed a mixed GM diet. Adverse effects of GM crops found.”
They sure did find some “adverse effects” because the dice were loaded. The study was set up to find them. But are they real? A look at the data on stomach inflammation gives us the answer: No way.
Let’s take a look at the numbers:
The purple star indicates statistical significance—a measure of the quality of the data.
The figures under the red arrow are the number of pigs that ate the normal diet. The blue arrow indicates the number that ate the GM diet.
The authors selected eight separate categories of stomach damage (all determinations were made by sight) and compared the two groups.
Taken at face value, the data are nonsensical. For example, eight pigs on the GM diet had no stomach inflammation at all, but that was true for only four of the non-GM-fed pigs. Can you conclude from this that GM food actually protects pig stomachs?
Pigs that ate GM food also appeared to be protected from mild inflammation (23 GM vs. 31 non-GM) and moderate inflammation (18 vs. 29).
But when severe inflammation (this made the headlines) was measured, the GM-fed pigs seemed to have much more of it. Yet in the next two categories, erosions and ulcers, the trend flips once again.
How to explain these contradictory up-and-down trends? Nonsense numbers and selective use of data. If you combined moderate and severe inflammation into one category, there would be little or no effect at all. But by selecting different levels of inflammation, they stumbled across one category that, on its own, appears to be real, but when taken together with the rest of the data, it is clear that it is not. This is a standard trick for manipulation of results and headlines. Fortunately, they got caught.
Phthalates—chemicals used in many plastic products to make them more flexible, and commonly found in toys, medical devices, and some cosmetics and fragrances—have long been attacked by environmental activist groups who have labeled them as “endocrine disruptors.” These activists claim phthalates cause developmental and reproductive defects. It seems there is a new scare about phthalates each year, and 2013 was no different.
Origin of the scare:
This time, the phthalate scare came from companies that, in an effort to “give the consumer what they want,” (in reality, succumbing to pressure created by activist and environmental group), have decided to ban these chemicals from their products or plaster them with labels with the chemical “offenders” in them.
The most recent reactions to these claims came from Procter & Gamble and Walmart. In response to the claim that phthalates somehow disrupt the endocrine system, Procter & Gamble chose to ban them from the cosmetics they sell. Walmart has decided to require full disclosure of chemicals used by companies selling cosmetics and cleaning products. Stacy Malkan, cofounder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, says, “Walmart would not have taken this bold step were it not for the aggressive corporate campaigns and grassroots organizing efforts of nonprofit organizations.”
Decades of widespread use of these “toxic” chemicals indicate they are safe and do not pose any danger to human health. The actions taken by Procter & Gamble and Walmart are simply responses to activist groups posing as scientific experts, repeating baseless allegations that have turned into public hysteria. Furthermore, the studies used to “show” detrimental effects of phthalates are not based on sound science. There is no biological hypothesis put forward for how these harmless chemicals endanger anyone’s health.
As we’ve said before when we’ve covered the scare about phthalates, there is no mention of what is replacing phthalates as they are removed from cosmetic products. Phthalates are completely safe. ACSH’s Dr. Josh Bloom says, “This is the ‘scientific’ equivalent of three card monte: No one can ever win; remove one chemical just to shut these guys up, and they’ll be coming for another one next year, or more likely next week.”