May 14 2013
When I started writing about chemicals a few years ago, I was driven by my own interest in the subject. As a new mom, I was suddenly hearing a lot more about the seemingly innocuous things that could harm my baby. I’m not talking about obvious things—like unfriendly dogs, child predators, broken playground equipment, and asteroids hurtling toward earth. No, no. I was being told that I needed to worry about plastic sippy-cups, non-organic cotton clothing, genetically modified corn in baby snacks, and…innocent-looking rubber duckies.
Because I breastfed all of my children, I wasn’t interested in the anti-BPA and organic baby formula frenzy that swept the nation a few years ago. Yet, as my child moved to solid foods and other liquids, I was soon reading about the dangers of plastic sippy-cups and plates, bath toys, cribs, baby mattresses, certain foods, and other items like baby shampoos and diaper creams. But it was when one concerned mother warned me that I might be ruining my child’s gait because I put a pair of cheap discount store sandals “made of who knows what!” on my baby’s fat little (and at that point largely unused) feet, that I really began to reject all this…pardon me…CRAP!
I found the scariest claims were made on mommy blogs (ostensibly sites set up to make moms feel better about their demanding jobs and busy lives) and on other popular online news sources (Huffpo Parents is a good example). At first, I was worried, yet my natural skepticism began to emerge when I realized I was trusting mommy bloggers and their non-scientific “feelings” on these matters over real scientist and their hard data and years of scientific research.
I thought it was time to rethink who I trusted on these matters. While mommy bloggers are great sources of information on children’s crafting projects, home organization, tricks to get your kid to clean up after themselves and delicious (yet healthy!) baked goods like muffins made with kale, flaxseed and other hidden healthy ingredients, they might better serve their audience if they reduced the alarmism and considered leaving the topics of chemicals and toxins to the chemists and toxicologists.
Unfortunately, in the years since my flirtation with becoming a scardy-mom and a chemophobe, there has been exponential growth in the existence of non-expert analysis on everything from toxins in our environment to the food we should all be feeding our children. Take actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest book which tells people to eliminate certain items from their diets. I recently wrote about her new cookbook in National Review (subscription required), saying:
Paltrow promotes an “elimination diet” that entails removing a long list of items from the family grocery list, including, but not limited to: coffee, alcohol, eggs, sugar, shellfish, soy, dairy, wheat, meat, and processed food. What qualifications does Paltrow possess that make her an expert on human dietary health? The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that to become a registered dietitian, one must pass an examination after completing an accredited bachelor’s or master’s degree program. According to Paltrow’s Wikipedia entry, the actress “briefly” studied anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, before dropping out to act, but never completed any studies in nutrition or dietetics. This hasn’t stopped her from moralizing on what foods Americans should be eating.
Why do women trust Gwyneth? Why do they take her advice? Who knows but maybe some people are fooled into thinking she’s smarter than them. After all, Gwyneth did play a math genius in the movie Proof, a literary scholar in Possession, and famous and tragic America poet Sylvia Plath in Sylvia.
Similar non-expert advice is being doled out on chemicals in common household products. For instance, in this excerpt from Hollywood actress Jessica Alba’s new book, Alba details her own allergy to laundry detergent, saying:
I noticed the fragrance and thought it was kind of strong. In fact, I started sneezing uncontrollably. I was used to my fragrance-free "eco" detergent, but my mom said this was the bees' knees of detergents, so I kept it moving. Until I folded the first load of clothes--and my hands broke out with itchy red welts. Meanwhile, the sneezing hadn't subsided.
Of course, Jessica doesn’t see this as an allergy—a reaction her body is having to the product. No. Jessica sees this as a problem with the product. It simply doesn’t occur to Jessica that since the product is still on the market and is used by consumers every day (including, as she notes in the excerpt, by her own mother), there probably hasn’t been a major outbreak of sneezing fits and itchy red welts due to use of this product. If Jessica understood the market at all, she might realize that no one would buy this product if it did in fact cause such a reaction. More importantly, Jessica seems unaware that certain regulatory bodies exist to monitor products and if this allergic reaction was happening on a wide scale, this product would be pulled from the marketplace.
Look, I’m happy that well-meaning (and simple-minded) Jessica is welt- and sneeze-free when she does the laundry (uhhh…I mean, when she’s standing nearby as her nanny does the laundry) but are women so gullible that they’ll base their own purchasing decisions on Jessica Alba’s allergic reactions to certain products?
Over at Scientific American, chemist Chad Jones is talking about the increasing problem of what he calls “chemphobia,” saying,
You’ll find that most chemophobic claims are aimed at our health, and this really shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’re an easy target for fraudulent health claims because our health is important to us. Nobody wants illness and death in their family, so we’re easily frightened by a claim that common chemicals can hurt or even kill us. This gives an unfair advantage to “team chemophobia” – the general public is very impressionable when it comes to health claims. This means that “team chemistry” has to be extra vigilant of fraudulent health claims.
Women—particularly the ones reading mommy blogs--must understand that they and their wallets are being misled. If you’re a chemist or a toxicologist or a scientist of any sort, you understand the difference between a legitimate scientific study and one that fails to meet basic scientific standards—like the studies regularly disseminated by these highly political environmental organizations, bored Hollywood actresses (with extra cash lying around), and eager mommy bloggers.
If the goal is regulation or removing items entirely from the marketplace, yet the consensus science states that chemicals are safe for common use, what’s an environmental organization to do? Simple. Quote from and claim legitimate those studies that stand outside the consensus—such as studies which have not yet been completed, are not peer reviewed, or have been dismissed by the scientific community because the study didn’t meet scientific standards.
Women must not be fooled by the chemical alarmism so prevalent on mommy blogs today. They mustn’t be used as pawns by these environmental and speciously named “consumer activist” organizations which understand and take advantage of parents’ natural anxieties for the health and wellbeing of their children. Moms must to resist, like I did years ago, the temptation to join the legion of chemophobes out there today.
The first step to avoiding this expensive, time consuming, and wasteful fate? Don’t rely on mommy blogs for scientific information.