July 06, 2006

Mother Earth Exposed ?

The July, 2006 issue of The Scientist magazine of the life sciences features an article by Lee Silver that offers a novel perspective on "...the truth modern people don't want to hear: Mother Nature can be a nasty bitch." This analysis of the harsher realities of life on Planet Earth and the improbable vision of "ecosystem serenity" impacts a wide range of philosophical premises. Chief among these is the problematic idea that Mother Nature is always good, therefore human interference is bad. This "interference" may take the form of genetic modification, for example, a life-changing technology inconsistent with earth-mother sensibility. The magazine editor notes correctly that excluding the possibilities offered by advanced technology leaves no place for evidence, rationality or skepticism. For much more, visit www.the-scientist.com.   

July 6, 2006 in General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 02, 2005

Slippery Teflon Charges Won't Stick

By Gregory Conko and Henry I. Miller

The uncanny ability of President Ronald Reagan to deflect public criticism won him the nickname, "The Teflon President." Ironically, now it is Teflon itself that is facing the heat, as anti-chemical groups and trial attorneys have joined forces to cook up controversy over a product that has become one of America's most trusted consumer icons, as well as an integral part of our language, like Thermos and Kleenex.

The radical Environmental Working Group has charged that the billions of meals worldwide prepared every day on Teflon cookware are being contaminated with "Teflon toxins," and two Florida-based law firms have filed a $5 billion class-action suit in eight states against the manufacturer, DuPont, for "failing" to warn consumers about the product's alleged dangers.

But, like many product-safety scares these days, these charges are bogus. And that really fries us.

The truth is that an EPA advisory panel has recommended more testing of a chemical known as PFOA, which is used to make non-stick coatings and numerous other products, including those trademarked as Teflon. However, both Teflon and PFOA have been the subject of numerous studies, and there is not a shred of evidence that either poses a human health risk.

Only when tested at very high doses on mice and rats, has PFOA been shown to cause cancer, but under the EPA's current policy, such questionable animal data are enough to classify the chemical as a "likely human carcinogen." That high-dose test methodology is unreliable, though, because it is totally irrelevant to real world exposures. In fact, a wide spectrum of naturally occurring chemicals -- including many that are common constituents of our diet -- also cause cancer in lab animals at high doses. At the very low doses to which humans are actually exposed, most natural and synthetic chemicals are completely harmless.

Most compelling of all, PFOA is not present in the actual non-stick cookware coating -- including pots and pans coated with Teflon. A recent peer-reviewed published study confirmed that there is no detectable consumer exposure to PFOA through Teflon-coated cookware. Even the chronically over-cautious European Food Safety Administration recently dismissed the trumped up concerns and allowed the continued use of non-stick coatings in cookware. Studies in Denmark and China also have also confirmed Teflon's safety.

Finally, the risk-averse U.S. EPA has stated quite clearly that it "does not believe there is any reason for consumers to stop using any consumer or industrial related products" as a result of their ongoing investigation into PFOA.

That should be the end of the story. But the persuasive evidence against any injury caused by Teflon doesn't faze attorney Alan Kluger. "I don't have to prove that it causes cancer," he said. "I only have to prove that DuPont lied in a massive attempt to continue selling their product."

What's going on here?

The typical formula used in these big class action suits is to trump up some bogus health claim, demand a quick settlement, and then cut and run before the facts are weighed in litigation. The lawyers know they can count on people's fear of chemicals and their natural concern for the health of their families to generate public outrage. Teflon has been around for half a century and is ubiquitous.

As toxicologist and president of the American Council on Science and Health Dr. Elizabeth Whelan has pointed out, "Teflon, probably more than any industrial product, is the poster child of modern technology, one that has made our lives easier and more enjoyable." It is precisely the product's "stellar success story [that] makes it a very ripe target for those who spew chemical-phobia in their crusade to eliminate the tools modern industrial chemistry has given us -- pesticides, pharmaceuticals, food additives, and more."

Another factor in pursuing bogus claims is that the plaintiffs' lawyers know they can often count on a major corporation like DuPont to capitulate in order to protect its reputation. In 2004, for example, the company paid an $82 million out-of-court settlement to the residents of Parkersburg, West Virginia, who alleged that PFOA from a nearby DuPont plant had tainted their water supplies -- in spite of the lack of any supportive evidence. In fact, a University of Pennsylvania study examined neighbors of the Parkersburg claimants who used the same water source and found no harmful effects.

We hope that this time DuPont fights to the bitter end to expose this class action charade.

Lamentably, whether litigation is involved or not, activists commonly misrepresent environmental or public health risks. Undeterred by the facts, many self-styled public health advocacy organizations like the Environmental Working Group, Greenpeace, Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the Union of Concerned Scientists know that to have an impact, their charges need not be true but merely plausible. The media -- whose motto is "if it bleeds, it leads" -- does the rest: "Are you eating cancer-causing chemicals in every meal? Details at 11!"

Also, it's hard for the public to shed a tear for the misfortunes of a corporate goliath like DuPont, the creator of the Teflon miracle and the owner of the trademark. The days of "Better Things for Better Living through Chemistry" -- DuPont's advertising slogan until 1981 -- are long gone, as chemicals are now looked upon with suspicion by many people. Moreover, big multinational companies of any kind are largely unappreciated, no matter how many jobs they create or lives they enrich.

Distortion and manipulation of science by self-styled consumer groups in pursuit of political agendas and by voracious plaintiffs' attorneys looking for the next big score erodes our society's capacity to innovate and prosper. It jeopardizes safe and beneficial products and harms manufacturers and their employees. In the absence of persuasive evidence vetted by experts, consumers should reject the attacks on Teflon, as well as on other essential products like vaccines, pesticides, medical drugs, and many others. The charges just won't stick.

Gregory Conko is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, was an FDA official from 1979-1994. Barron's selected their book, "The Frankenfood Myth," as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.

November 2, 2005 in Environmental Guidelines, General, Medical Concerns and Public Health | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 27, 2005

Some Activist Groups Exhibit a “Pathological Scientific” Stance

The following article first appeared in Genetic Engineering News (Volume 25, Number 8, April 15, 2005). It is reproduced here, in it's entirety,with permission from GEN and the author, Henry I. Miller, M.D.

Genetic Engineering News (GEN), the only high-frequency publication dedicated to biotech news, was introduced in 1981, as the first biotechnology trade publication. GEN is now the most widely read bionews publication worldwide.

Henry I. Miller, M.D., is a fellow at the Hoover Institution (Stanford University) and a former FDA official. His most recent book is The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution [Amazon Link]. Phone: (650) 725-0185. E-mail: miller@hoover.stanford.edu.

Some Activist Groups Exhibit a "Pathological Scientific" Stance

Pursued Agenda Is Often Not the Protection of Human Health or the Environment

By Henry I. Miller, M.D.

Chemistry Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir related in a landmark 1953 speech his visit to the laboratory of J.B. Rhine at Duke University where Rhine was claiming results of ESP experiments that could not be predicted by chance, and which he ascribed to psychic phenomena. Langmuir discovered that Rhine was only selectively counting the data in his experiments, omitting the scores of those he believed were guessing in order to humiliate him. The evidence? Rhine felt that some of scores were too low to have occurred by chance, and that it would, therefore, actually be misleading to include them.

Langmuir dubbed this deviation from the principles of the scientific method “pathological science,” the “science of things that aren’t so.”

This sort of chicanery is increasingly common among certain self-styled public interest groups, who are, however, less devoted to fudging data to get the right answer than to grossly misrepresenting the results in order to achieve some hidden agenda.

Most often, that agenda is not the protection of public health or the environment, but intractable opposition to, and obstruction of, whatever research, product, or technology the activists happen to dislike. Often, it turns out, the activists’ targets are socially beneficial and highly cost-effective products or processes.

Activists often try to stigmatize whatever they dislike via guilt by association with greedy or irresponsible corporate interests. But for several reasons, including the importance of corporate branding, avoidance of liability, and a desire to succeed in the marketplace, industrial research most often adheres to high professional and legal standards, including peer-review.

When it doesn’t, the scientific method and market forces collaborate to ensure that, ultimately, dishonesty is exposed and punished.

By contrast, activist-funded research is commonly held to a far lower standard. Their claims are invariably promoted by alarmist press releases and reported by the media, but seldom are they independently peer-reviewed or published in scientific journals. Sadly, policy makers, the media, and the public have come to accept this pathological science as credible, especially after it is repeated again and again.

Examples have become more frequent as special interests promote health scares as a way to support litigation. The distortion of science has given rise to flawed policies and regulations, interference with research that offers potential benefits to society, increased public health risks, unwarranted scares, frivolous lawsuits, and higher costs of R&D.

MMR and Autism

In 1998, British researchers published a study that suggested an association, but not causation, between the administration of MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and an increased risk of autism. In spite of the fact that that initial study was based on only 12 children, its results were widely publicized, causing some parents and hospitals to stop or delay vaccinations for newborns and children.

Subsequent studies of much larger groups of children have not confirmed such an association, however, and the overwhelming consensus among scientists and physicians is that no such link exists. Nevertheless, this incident inflicted incalculable damage on the public’s confidence in vaccination, and on individual children deprived of protection from life threatening diseases.

Video Display Terminals

In 1980, a Canadian newspaper reported that four women in the classified ad department of another newspaper had given birth to children with birth defects, including a cleft palate, underdeveloped eye, club-foot, and heart defects.

The fact that all the women had worked with video display terminals during the early stages of their pregnancies gave rise to speculation that radiation from such terminals, most of which are based on common television technology, was responsible.

Other such clusters of birth defects came to light, leading to aggressive anti-VDT activism that in both North America and Europe caused management to be pitted against workers. In Canada and Sweden, merely the belief that harm could be caused by VDTs was considered to be grounds for refusal to use them.

Over the next two decades, several large studies and repeated analyses concluded that the use of VDTs is not associated with birth defects or spontaneous abortions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that the clusters were random occurrences—that is, the function of probability.

(If you flip a coin a million times, you’ll likely come close to half a million heads and half a million tails, but along the way, there will be occasional long runs, or clusters, of heads or tails.)

Electromagnetic Radiation

Supposed hazards of electromagnetic radiation, which is emitted from a variety of sources including overhead power lines, electric blankets, computer terminals, and electric razors, has excited the imagination of many.

For example, after a Florida woman developed a brain tumor behind her right ear, where she usually placed her cell phone, her husband blamed her illness (and subsequent death) on radiation from the cell phone and filed suit against the phone’s manufacturer. After his 1993 appearance on CNN’s Larry King show, other, similar lawsuits followed. None were successful and within several months the scare was forgotten.

This kind of health scare is an example of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy (believing that because two events are temporally related, they must be causally related). Fallacy it might be, but it lends itself well to the way that Americans these days often learn about safety and risk: “Could your cell phone give you cancer?” Details at 11!”

In fact, at the current rate of occurrence of brain cancers, about 3,600 cases would be expected to occur among 60 million owners of cell phones whether or not they use them.

Environmental Working Group

In 2003, a nebulous entity called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) claimed to have evidence that the farm-raised salmon eaten regularly by millions of Americans contains high levels of PCBs. PCBs were identified in the press coverage as a toxin, probable human carcinogen, or a cause of cancer and nervous system damage.

These reports were grossly misleading. At levels of environmental exposure, PCBs have not been shown to cause cancer or any other disease in humans. The study, which was based on a sample of only ten fish, was condemned by genuine experts at a variety of institutions, including the Harvard School of Public Health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the highly respected American Council on Science and Health.

Unfortunately, the criticisms came only after EWG’s report had generated national media coverage, and received little attention from the media.

On its website, the EWG makes no pretense about its possessing scientific credentials or expertise, and its president once admitted to a journalist that there was not a single physician or scientist on its staff.

Genetic Modification

Environmental activists lately have taken to claiming that conventional crops have been contaminated by the finding of minuscule amounts of DNA from genetically modified—by which they mean gene-spliced—varieties. Their methodology is flawed, but even if the claims were accurate, they should elicit from the public nothing more than a collective yawn.

Genetic modification is not new. Virtually all of the 200 major crops in Canada and the United States have been genetically improved, or modified, in some way. Plant breeders, not nature, gave us seedless grapes and watermelons, the tangelo (a tangerine-grapefruit hybrid), the canola variety of rapeseed, and fungus resistant strawberries.

In North American and European diets, only fish and wild game, berries, and mushrooms may be said not to have been genetically engineered in some fashion.

North Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods that contain gene-spliced ingredients, with not a single untoward reaction. In fact, when conventional and gene-spliced seed materials are mixed, arguably the former should be thought of as contaminating the latter.

What makes false alarms hard to expose is the virtual impossibility of demonstrating the absolute safety of any activity or product: There is always the possibility that we haven’t yet gotten to the nth hypothetical risk or to the nth dose or the nth year of exposure, when the risk will finally be demonstrated. It is logically impossible to prove a negative, and all activities pose some nonzero risk of adverse effects.

Moral Equivalence

Pathological science may confuse not only the public but also policy makers, who may themselves be scientifically challenged. Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science, president emeritus of Stanford University, and former FDA commissioner, chides bureaucrats: “Frequently decision-makers give up the difficult task of finding out where the weight of scientific opinion lies, and instead attach equal value to each side in an effort to approximate fairness. In this way extraordinary opinions are promoted to a form of respectability that approaches equal status.”

This kind of undeserved moral equivalence frequently compromises governmental decision making and has given rise to unscientific and inconsistent regulation of pesticides, biotechnology applied to agriculture, silicone breast implants, herbal dietary supplements, and innumerable other products and technologies.

No one should mistake activists’ misdemeanors for naive exuberance or excessive zeal in a good cause. Their motives are self-serving and their tactics callous, an ongoing example of the sentiments expressed by a character in the Peanuts comic strip, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.” People who understand these issues need to do a better job of educating the large segment of the public that is uninformed, not only about the science, but also about the sophistry of those who would abuse it.

May 27, 2005 in General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 12, 2005

Measurement Analogies

Exactly how small is parts-per-million, parts-per-billion and parts-per-trillion? We have recently added a new page of these measurement analogies to give you an idea of the (minuscule) scale we are referring to with ppm, ppb, and ppt.

Measurement Analogies

These analogies will be added to over time. If you have any accurate analogies of this sort, please send them to us!

May 12, 2005 in General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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