July 18 2012
More Junk Science on Chemicals
Last month, a new study, published in the journal NeuroToxicology, examined human exposure to two chemicals which are currently the darlings of anti-chemical activists groups: phthalates (which I’ve written about here) and BPA (which I’ve written about here and here).
This new study on "lifestyle behaviors" made headlines because it showed a small population of Old Order Mennonite women (who live much like the Amish and reject modern technology) have lower levels of exposure to chemicals as compared to CDC data on the general population (NHANES 2007–2008).
In other news, kids like ice cream.
Before I take a look at the study itself, let’s just consider whether it was really necessary to conduct a study to confirm the pretty common sense conclusion that if you limit your contact with chemicals and products that contain chemicals (as the Mennonites generally do), your body will likely have lower levels of exposure to chemicals. Is anyone really surprised that a community that rejects modern conveniences—like the many provided to by chemicals—will have lower exposure levels to chemicals?
Why does this study scream “federally funded.”
Alright-y, let’s take a look at this study. First, the so called “study” only included ten (as in you can count the total number of humans included in the study on two hands!) women from an Old Order Mennonite community in New York State. The study describes the Old Order Mennonite community as adhering “to a simpler lifestyle than the general U.S. population. They grow most of their own food, do not apply pesticides, consume few processed foods, use many fewer household chemicals and personal care products, and depend on automobiles for transportation much less than the general population.”
In order to make their no-doubt Nobel Price nominating discovery, the study’s researchers asked this sewing circle’s worth of women to provide urine samples over a 48 hour time period (that’s not a typo…the study was conducted in a matter of hours--not weeks, months or years).
I’ll wait until you stop laughing.
Okay, so to review, we have a study with a laughably small sample size and a miniscule time period. Moving on to the results; not surprisingly, the study found that these chemical-rejecting Mennonite women had less chemical exposure levels.
In other news, kids like puppies.
What really amazes about this study is that anyone actually took it seriously. I seem to recall more rigorous scientific experiments being done in my Jr. High School science class (Go Mrs. Ruby!). But the problems associated with the study’s design didn’t mean much to the mainstream media who was quick to promote this new study as the latest damning evidence that chemicals are bad. In fact, the study generated headlines at United Press International, WebMD, Businessweek as well as other online publications and blogs.
The lead researcher, Shanna H. Swan, PhD (who is associated with well-known anti-BPA activist Frederick vom Saal) admitted the small sample size saying “Despite the small sample size of this study, the results are remarkably robust and consistent.” Remarkably? What’s so remarkable about a study’s conclusions being “robust and consistent” when the sample size is ten women living in the same community? I’d say a better word to describe it might be “predictable.”
So, let’s take a look at Ms. Swan’s totally reasonable and workable recommendations for living a chemical-free life. She suggests:
- Consuming mostly homegrown produce and as she suggests “living like a Mennonite.” (because busy moms and dads have enough time to plow, plant, and harvest massive quantities of produce every year, as well as grinding grain for bread, canning enough summer-grown food to last throughout the winter. I mean who doesn’t want a cow living in their backyard to provide milk and a few chickens that need tending. What homeowners association would object to the slaughtering of several animals a year? I mean, c’mon, its super fun to listen to a pig squeal!).
- No cosmetics and limited use of personal care products (Ms. Swann, not everyone is an academic; some of us like to look and smell nice).
- Transportation primarily by sources other than automobiles (that’s a super idea for those living in urban areas with access to metros, and buses and taxis but because of recommendation #1, most families needed more acreage to tend to their land for crops and animals).
There is a lot more to say about this new study--like a very serious discussion of how "detection" of trace amounts of chemicals does not equal harm to humans (I've discussed the dose/poison issue here). It should also be noted that this lifestyle behaviors study fails to mention the acronym "ppb" which stands for parts per billion--the standard measurement used to determine safe human consumption levels for particular chemicals. Omitting any discussion of the EPA-approved exposure levels (ppb) makes sense as this study simply uses "detection" as the measure for danger (if it's there, you're toast!). If Ms. Swan and her partners were honest, they would mention that while these chemicals were detected in these Mennonite women, they are present at levels far below what's considered safe. If people choose not to trust the EPA and nearly every other world health organization, including the WHO, that's their decision but they should be given the information that multiple health organizations have found a certain level of chemical residue to be perfectly safe for humans.
But scientific honesty seems to be taking a back seat these days to political activism. This study is just one more tool to be used by the environmentalists and anti-chemical activists to hurt regular moms and dads who are terrified of these scientifically dubious claims.
Parents simply deserve the facts and the honest truth, not some “study” conducted by hippy activists in a lab coat.