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Memo to Time Magazine: Infants Don’t Produce Sperm

Report on air freshener health scare stinks.

September has produced some outstanding science journalism and all within a couple of  days of each other : Gary Taubes critique of epidemiology, “Do We Know What Makes Us Healthy”, Andreas Von Bubnoff’s similar but equally worth reading story, “Scientist do the numbers”, and Robert Lee Hotz’s “Most Science Studies Appear to Be Tainted By Sloppy Analysis”, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Rarely, has a reader enjoyed so much thoughtful, considered reporting about the limits of research in the popular press. More to the point, the conclusion one derives from reading these pieces is that a lot of health scare journalism is garbage – a product of data mining and statistical juju that reporters simply fail to spot or are “too” skeptical to investigate.

But, sometimes the problem exceeds even the most minimal expectations of scientific literacy, which takes us to exhibit A: Time Magazine – and its reporting on the risk from air fresheners:

“Studies involving rat and human subjects have suggested that high exposures to certain kinds of phthalates can cause cancer, developmental and sex-hormone abnormalities (including decreased testosterone and sperm levels and malformed sex organs) in infants, and can affect fertility.”

First, infants don’t produce sperm; second, there are no studies showing infants with developmental abnormalities (a correlation between some phthalate metabolites in the mother and a reduced anogenital index in their male babies, yes; but the National Institutes of Health does not consider this an abnormality as no-one has determined what the “normal” range of the anogenital index is).

Reduced sperm levels have been found in (where else?) Chinese vinyl workers, who happen to be exposed to massive levels of phthalates – but, crucially, there is no evidence, as yet, that they have suffered fertility problems as a consequence.

The only living things to have suffered from phthalate exposure are lab rats dosed with massive quantities of the chemical. And it is because of rodent ill health that California law dictates phthalates to be a reproductive toxin, not because there is any evidence in humans.

Time magazine doesn’t bother asking any independent toxicologists what the likely risk from an air freshener is, or suggest how much might realistically be absorbed through being exposed to “freshened” air.

Instead, the magazine cites only the National Resources Defense Council, the authors of the study. And when pushed, even they appear embarrassed by the useless data they’ve compiled. “We're not saying that there's any clear cut evidence here for health effects," says Dr. Gina Solomon of the NRDC. 

Exactly. Which is why Time’s one-source, zero-skepticism, infant-sperm story stinks.


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