Okay ladies, get your tissues ready. It turns out, we’re all being poisoned by…well, everything. According to a bunch of news stories last week, chemicals are lurking in just about everything, leaching into our bodies, and that of our children, which is leading to an increase of diseases, infertility and many other disorders.
Now, to the average consumer, this might seem alarming and if it were true (spoiler: it’s not), I’d be freaking out too (I’ll get to why this report is flawed in a bit). But of course, people reading about this report were only given the scary news—because the media failed to include any opposing opinion on the issue.
Why is that important and deeply troubling? Because there’s significant evidence that this latest report is motivated, not by facts, but by anti-chemical researchers pushing a political agenda. And there’s significant data that shows this report is flawed and ignores well-respected, peer-reviewed studies that show just the opposite of what these researchers have suggested.
Shouldn’t consumers be given that evidence as well? Where are the science reporters? Oh…that’s right; their simply cutting and pasting from the researchers’ press release, because who really wants to dig down and actually read this stuff, right? And bonus, scary stuff gets the page views so why in the world would a reporter include some reassuring information.
But it isn’t just that the report itself is flawed, there’s basic information about human health that casts doubt on this report. For instance, in order to believe this latest “CHEMICALS ARE KILLING US” report, you’ll have to ignore the empirical evidence that worldwide, people are healthier than at any time in history and that we’re living longer than ever before.
But, of course, we should just forget all that and read our clickbait stories about scary chemicals and settle into feeling scared.
So, what does this report actually say?
First of all, contrary to how it’s being cast in the media, this isn’t a study. Rather, it’s a report issued by the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) stating the opinions of several researchers who have cherry picked studies to advance a certain theory.
It’s actually very easy to pick studies that advance a certain agenda—in this case, promoting fear of chemicals and pushing for more regulations on chemicals. The report’s authors have done this before. For example, Linda Guidice is listed as one of the authors. As my colleague pointed out in an article for Forbes, Guidice loves to find “correlations’ and “relationships” between chemicals and disease without any actual evidence that the chemicals she’s freaking out about actually cause these diseases:
First, the authors did not find a cause-and-effect relationship, they simply found an association, and it was pretty weak. Researchers express the strength of such associations numerically as a “risk ratio.” In this study, the risk ratio for the highest risk group was 1.83, which is low and suggests that the result may have arisen by accident or researcher bias. “Although any measure of risk would follow a continuous distribution and there are no predefined values that separate ‘strong’ from ‘moderate’ or ‘weak’ associations, relative risks below 3 are considered moderate or weak,” points out Paolo Boffetta of the The Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in an article on the topic of relative risk.
The study’s promoters are aware that the findings are inconclusive, yet they advance alarming claims with clever rhetoric. For example, Dr. Linda Giudice, president of the ASRM, commented to the press that although the study proves nothing, it adds to the “biological plausibility” that BPA affects fertility and health. It is true that if something also has a biological explanation (plausibility), researchers can make a stronger argument for a cause-and-effect relationship—particularly if their study discovers a reasonably strong association. But using biological plausibility to rationalize a weak association is itself, pretty weak!
Giudice and her colleagues have used this same strategy with this latest report. In short, they’ve selected a few studies done by other scientists that rely heavily on associations and correlations to make a case against chemicals. The abstract of the opionion paper states:
Exposure to toxic environmental chemicals during pregnancy and breastfeeding is ubiquitous and is a threat to healthy human reproduction. There are tens of thousands of chemicals in global commerce, and even small exposures to toxic chemicals during pregnancy can trigger adverse health consequences. Exposure to toxic environmental chemicals and related health outcomes are inequitably distributed within and between countries; universally, the consequences of exposure are disproportionately borne by people with low incomes. Discrimination, other social factors, economic factors, and occupation impact risk of exposure and harm. Documented links between prenatal exposure to environmental chemicals and adverse health outcomes span the life course and include impacts on fertility and pregnancy, neurodevelopment, and cancer. The global health and economic bur- den related to toxic environmental chemicals is in excess of millions of deaths and billions of dollars every year. On the basis of accumulating robust evidence of exposures and adverse health impacts related to toxic environmental chemicals, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) joins other leading reproductive health professional societies in calling for timely action to prevent harm. FIGO recommends that reproductive and other health professionals advocate for policies to prevent exposure to toxic environmental chemicals, work to ensure a healthy food system for all, make environmental health part of health care, and champion environmental justice.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the sentences in that statement. First, it states: “There are tens of thousands of chemicals in global commerce, and even small exposures to toxic chemicals during pregnancy can trigger adverse health consequences.” Yet, this “small exposure” theory has yet to be proven and in fact, there’s a growing body of evidence that shows the exact opposite. For instance, let’s consider a ubiquitous chemical used in manufacturing—Bisphenol-A (BPA).
The FIGO researchers make no mention of the European Food Safety Authority’s recent and very highly regarded re-evaluation of the safety of BPA. EFSA found that BPA poses no risk to consumers of any age group, including unborn children, infants and adolescents at current exposure levels. The agency also stated that exposure to BPA from food and a range of other potential sources (dust, cosmetics and thermal paper, school supplies) “is considerably under the safe level.”
EFSA’s finding mirror that of the FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR), which has been conducting in depth studies of BPA since ’08. FDA states:
The level of BPA from food that could be passed from pregnant mothers to the fetus is so low that it could not be measured. Researchers fed pregnant rodents 100 to 1,000 times more BPA than people are exposed through food, and could not detect the active form of BAP in the fetus eight hours after the mother’s exposure. Exposure to BPA in human infants is from 84 to 92 percent less than previously estimated.
NCTR’s researchers report that they were able to build mathematical models of what happens to BPA once it’s in the human body. These models showed that BPA is rapidly metabolize and eliminated through feces and urine. They found that BPA is “exactly the opposite” from other toxins, like dioxin, that can stay in the body’s tissue for months or even years.
The centers’ toxicology research has not found evidence of BPA toxicity at low doses in rodent studies, including dose that are still above human exposure levels.
The use of Phthalates (another widely used chemical) in products has also been found to be safe by none other than the Centers for Disease Control. Agreeing with the CDC are researchers from the The Children’s National Medical Center and George Washington University School of Medicine, all of which state that the human body metabolizes phthalates too quickly for it to accumulate in the body and pose any sort of health hazard.
Yet, this FIGO report doesn’t mention this reassuring information, nor do the press stories covering this new report.
FIGO’s statement also says that health professionals should “advocate for policies to prevent exposure to toxic environmental chemicals” and should work to “ensure a healthy food system for all” and should “champion environmental justice.”
What does that mean exactly? Well, it means doctors should start pushing for greater limitations on chemicals used in everyday products and bans on the use of certain chemical preservatives in food and food packaging (which would very likely lead to a food poisoning problem as many of these chemicals keep food safe from bacteria and other pathogens that do actually harm). As for champion environmental justice—I suppose that means getting behind certain environmental regulations such as carbon taxes or Cap and Trade. Considering this language, is there really any doubt that FIGO's "opinion report" pushes politics, not science?
But there's something much more disturbing at work here. The FIGO report goes on to suggest women exposed to trace levels of chemicals increase their risk of “miscarriage and still birth, impaired fetal growth, congenital malformations, impaired or reduced neurodevelopment and cognitive function, and an increase in cancer, attention problems, ADHD behaviors, and hyperactivity…”
What an absolute load of rubbish. Talk about just dumping a whole lot of diseases into one bucket and blaming one thing. It sounds like the same people who blame soda for all the world’s obesity problems. It’s a bit simplistic and incredibly irresponsible to suggest that all of these problems stem from chemical exposure. Especially when there’s absolutely zero evidence that this is actually the reason women and children suffer from these disorders.
I would think an organization like the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, which exists to advance the health of women, would take care before advancing such garbage science to masses of women who deal with the pain of infertility, the loss of pregnancies and babies and who deal daily with children who suffer from developmental and learning problems.
This is, quite simply, a betrayal of women by the scientists that claim to care for them and a sad trend in science today.