New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof warned us yesterday about Contaminating Our Bodies with Everyday Products, even though his warnings are alarmingly vague and not very well science based. According to Kristof, there are a large array of “toxic chemicals” all around us that endanger our bodies. Which chemicals are they? What research supports this warning? Where was it published? What action should we take?
This is where Kristof gets squishy, because the fact that not all of the “80,000 chemicals” in our environment have been tested does not mean that there are huge dangers lurking in every box or bottle we touch. And all he really says is that
“Unregulated substances, they say, are sometimes linked to breast and prostate cancer, genital deformities, obesity, diabetes and infertility.”
In other words there is no definitive evidence.
Kristof’s main launching point is an opinion piece in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics on “reproductive health impacts of exposure to toxic environmental chemicals.” This is not a research paper and cites no new research in the area. And, note that this journal ranks 67th among obstetrics journals. Kristoff tackled this same theme in 2009, and was taken to task by Peter Lipson in the Science Based Medicine blog.
Much of what Kristof concentrates on are Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) which are frankly somewhat controversial because there is so little solid research in this area, and because of the idea that they do not obey the usual dose-response behavior of other toxic compounds. In other words, some proponents suggest that any amount of these chemicals is dangerous, no matter how small. This has simply not been established, and considering what tiny amounts we can now measure, rather hard to believe. On this topic Kristof cites a report from the National Cancer Institute and one from the Endocrine Society, both of which essentially call for more research in this area.
So without any specific chemicals mentioned or any dosages, Kristof just seems to be flailing at the concept of scary chemicals without any good recommendations, which is much like many of his other highly criticized columns.
Kristof’s closing recommendations include “avoiding touching cash register receipts” and “eating organic food,” both of which are preposterous. The idea that Bisphenol-A is actually dangerous has been thoroughly debunked, as it is excreted in the urine and does not accumulate in the body. And the idea that organic foods are somehow safer is equally silly, as they are sprayed with much the same pesticides as conventional crops are, no matter what fibs the organic industry wants you to believe.
Kristof also recommends believing advice from the Environmental Working Group, whose “Dirty Dozen” lists are debunked by scientists every year as containing residues far below the safety reference level.
In summary, trace chemicals represent an active area of research, but very little has been determined so far. Kristof has simply published a chemical scare article that mentions no particular dangerous chemicals to avoid, nor any action we should take.