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Mass Hysteria About “Toxic” Toys is Spreading

The Huffington Post’s “Fearless Voices” just don't want to listen to science or reason.

Recently, Time magazine examined  Why We Worry About The Things We Shouldn't... ...And Ignore The Things We Should. According to the piece, we are hardwired by evolution to take fright first and ascend towards rational evaluation later (if at all). Such a hair-trigger mechanism was rather useful in a brute world populated with random lethal threats, but it can be a hindrance when it comes to accurately determining risk in subtler, more complex times.

If we can thank the Enlightenment for taking aim against superstition and hysteria with scientific method, it is, now that signature Enlightenment product of mass rationality, journalism which stirs our irrational selves.

And if there is an argument to be made that blogging is simply journalism devolved to a kind of nervous medievalism of bugbears, devils and sea monsters, it comes from reading the latest piece by Lexy Zissou and Deirdre Dolan on the Huffington Post: The Safest Toys Are From San Francisco.

The post advises that “parents who want to buy their babies the safest toys possible” should order them from San Francisco, as the city has instituted a ban on baby products containing “toxic chemicals.” The authors continue:

“This ban touches on one of those hot button issues with big business and government all tied in an uncomfortable, back scratch-y knot. For every scientist proving these harmful chemicals are flowing out of your baby's bottle into her little tummy, there are other scientists (hired by plastic manufacturers perhaps) claiming they're perfectly safe for a child's fragile system.

I don't believe the latter. And I'm in good company. The European Union enacted a similar ban earlier this year. (The EU is currently also way ahead of the United States in limiting potentially harmful chemicals in cosmetics, but that's a whole other discussion.) Besides, in the highly unlikely event the these-chemicals-are-harmless scientists turn out to be right, why would I willingly allow my baby to be a guinea pig while people in lab coats take the time to figure it out? When it comes to cancer and developmental issues and babies, I'll err on the side of caution.”

But how many scientists have actually proved that there are “harmful chemicals are flowing out of your baby's bottle into her little tummy?” As with any scientific dispute, it is vital to know where the consensus lies and who is challenging it. And if there is a challenge, how good is the data - what does it actually tell us? Herein lies the first of many problems with Zissu and Dolan’s thesis. When it comes to phthalates in the plastic of baby bottles, it is far from clear that there are any scientists who believe that there are chemicals migrating from baby bottles and being ingested by babies in a manner that constitutes a health risk.

The evidence that has been used by activist groups to drum up support for a ban on phthalates has come from a study of exposure to some phthalates in utero. And that has been over-egged. At the same time, there are non-industry scientists who have found no threat to children from the phthalates in toys.

But Zissou and Dolan don’t believe them because these scientists are probably wrapped up in some big industry-government conspiracy, and the chemicals are “highly unlikely” to be safe anyway. How could you frame a rational challenge to such a position when it has all the aggressive paranoia of a McCarthyite witchhunt?

The writers, it seems, don’t feel they have to defend their suppositions (by checking out who has done the research – aka reporting – or by suggesting some mechanism by which it is likely that phthalates are toxic at current exposure levels) because – voila! – they have been banned in Europe. Therefore, phthalates must be dangerous and U.S. regulation must be defective.

The only problem with this narrative is that the European politicians who voted on the ban did so against the recommendation of the scientific advisory board they had commissioned to investigate the risk to health. Thus the logic of the ban is precautionary, which is far different from saying that the reasons for the ban are scientific. And after Europe, there is that Salem of precaution in the the West, San Francisco:

“Parents wanting to counter these fears must become hyper-educated consumers. Our government just isn't protecting us and our growing babies the way it should be. Think I'm paranoid? A recent article about the ban in the San Francisco Chronicle stated, "The Food and Drug Administration, which controls chemicals that may touch food, and Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is responsible for toy safety, haven't limited the chemicals in baby products for years. Representatives say they have no plans to impose new restrictions." Ouch. The article also mentions that the EPA admits its own guidelines for safe human exposure to the chemicals are "decades old and don't take into account the new research."

As STATS has tirelessly pointed out, the San Francisco Chronicle is no more of a scientific authority than the EU parliament – and its editors, when questioned by STATS, seemed unaware that the EPA has in fact been updating its safety evaluations on phthalates. The Consumer Product Safety Commission also looked at phthalates in 2003; and they relied on the most extensive research ever done on the way children suck toys to determine that there was no risk. Hyper-miseducation occurs when you rely on sloppy reporting for material to blog.

Furthermore, the EPA uses the most conservative method of determining toxicity of any regulatory agency – linear through zero extrapolation. While many chemicals have a threshold level where toxicity occurs, the EPA’s exposure guidelines assume that the risk from any chemical determined to be toxic at high measure is linear: that is, the risk decreases with a decrease in the level of the chemical, but never entirely disappears. So when the EPA decided this summer that the risk from the phthalate DBP is less than previously thought, even the most hardened environmental hysteric should have stopped to catch their breath (which, we hate to point out, is a toxic activity as respiration results in cell oxidation).

The final absurdity of Zissu and Dolan’s position is that, to be consistent, they should avoid tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, coffee – basically any food that contains a naturally-occurring chemical which has been shown to be harmful in rodent studies. By avoiding food (including organic foods with naturally-occurring pesticides every bit as toxic [sic] as synthetic pesticides), Zissu and Dolan will also avoid the main source of phthalates in the environment, according to the National Institutes for Health.

And if – for the sake of erring on caution – they could avoid eating, drinking and possibly breathing, they could, theoretically, become "toxin" free-zones for one dazzling if implausibly brief moment.