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Paranoid in Park Slope

Dear Paranoid in Park Slope, we are sorry to read in New York Magazine that you are very, very, very worried about being poisoned by the vinyl rain cover on your baby stroller.

We understand.

In an age and place no longer ravaged by cholera, diptheria, measles, polio, smallpox and tuberculosis, one must have something to worry about; hence your gothic obsession with the “unnatural.” Science is, as Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harper’s magazine, put it, “diabolic;” it has turned the world into a postmedieval horror story of neurotoxic paint vapors, toxic dust, endocrine-disrupting cosmetics, and lethal cleaning products. You are on a mission to find these wmds (weapons of my destruction) before they find their way into you.

And so you attend seminars on “How Your Home Can Hurt You.” You won’t take your child out in the rain because that would mean covering the buggy with PVC. You avoid pedicures, even though you could knock back nail polish by the shot glass and still not come close to absorbing enough phthalates to cause you any harm. (We’re pretty sure, though, that drinking nail polish would make you feel ill – so don’t do this at home).

You’ve thrown out your Teflon cookware, even though you’d have to eat a frying pan to come close to absorbing the merest hint of PFOA, which, incidentally, has not been associated with any adverse health effects in humans at high, industrial exposure levels.

You’re clearly not well; you, yourself, are willing to meet us half-way by admitting that you might be paranoid.

But we need you to take the next step and face up to the full measure of your problem: you’re suffering from Upper Middle Class Syndrome (UMCS).

Upper Middle Class Syndrome is an affliction of affluence. It tends to leave its sufferers haunted by the sense that the manufactured world has bred an army of hidden monsters, and only a tough-minded inquisitorial approach to the coatings on dental floss can avert catastrophe.

One of the hallmarks of UMCS is that it fosters the illusion that when it comes being healthy there is a meaningful distinction between the “natural” and the “unnatural.” An “organic wool rug harvested from the underbellies of yaks in Tibet” is natural; a “Quinn Felted Shag Rug from Pottery Barn” is, apparently, not. But arsenic is “natural” – it wasn’t concocted in a lab; and yet it is far more toxic than dibutyl phthalate, which was man-made (and which San Francisco is trying to ban). 

The point is that chemicals are chemicals – it’s the dose that makes them poisonous, not whether it’s “natural” or “unnatural.” The naturally occurring caffeic acid in a tomato is every bit as carcinogenic as the pesticide hexachlorobenzene, when you force a rat to eat enough of it. In fact, by that standard, tomatoes are more carcinogenic.

But are you ever going to be able to give yourself cancer from eating tomatoes or consuming trace amounts of synthetic pesticides? The likelihood is close to zero; but because science can never say never the absence of total certainty gets turned on its head and becomes so powerful that it is scarier than the things you really ought to be worried about.

For instance, some paranoids smoke cigarettes, even though smoking is the leading cause of preventable cancer in the United States, and the increased number of women smoking is correlated with an increase in the rates of lung cancer, one of the few cancers increasing relative to America’s aging population.

That’s sort of inconvenient, isn’t it? But it’s staggeringly easy to ignore. The same with drinking too, even though increased alcohol consumption is statistically correlated with an increased risk of breast cancer. But like your friends, the paranoids of Marin County, you prefer to look for other reasons to explain why breast cancer appears to be increasing, like the chemicals in nail polish.

You may also be tolerant of drug use, and you may be inclined, or know other paranoids who are inclined, to do the odd line of cocaine from time to time. Hey, it’s fun - we know that. There is nothing like cocaine when it comes to disrupting your dopamine regulation and sending you into a paroxysm of pleasure after that splendid dinner party, where you ate nothing but expensive organic, free ranged food.

But chances are that the coke was cut with other chemicals that it would never occur to you to ingest. Imagine making gravy with talcum powder! Worse, you’re increasingly likely to snort coke cut with phenacetin, a painkiller that is highly restricted because we actually know it causes cancer in humans.

And yet, you prefer to fret about phthalates in plastic because, as you say, they’ve been “linked to early puberty.” Or vinyl, which, as one paranoid you quote says “is evil.”

As far as we can tell, this inconsistency can be partly attributed to one of the stranger psychotropic side-effects of Upper Middle Class Syndrome – the delusion that you’re a whiz at Googling, and are, like, a totally savvy consumer.

In fact, you are deeply, almost absurdly, credulous, when it comes to information you’ve found on the Internet, especially if it comes from activist groups who have taken on the saintly mantle of protecting public health. Despite that, as a typical paranoid, you are deeply skeptical of the mainstream media for its “conservative” bias and corporate ownership, your skepticism evaporates when it comes to Greenpeace or the Environmental Working Group, the Coalition for Safe Cosmetics or the World Wildlife Fund.

Has it never occurred to you that these groups have a vested interest in keeping you worried and that they might not be terribly scrupulous when it comes to scientific accuracy? Consider this BBC report (we know you trust the BBC more than any corporate American news organization), which reported “leading toxicologists” as saying that green groups “are deliberately and unfairly scaring the public” with claims about chemical contamination.

So you never found out that the only study “linking” phthalates to early puberty was flawed and was rejected as worthless by scientists conducting the federal safety review. Or that when it comes to fire retardants, that the two of the most dangerous PBDE’s, octa and penta are already being phased out in the U.S.

True, the vinyl chloride monomer from which PVC is made is carcinogenic, but so are lots of things in the manufacturing stage. That doesn’t mean the process is dangerous to workers (industrial environments in the U.S. are heavily monitored and regulated) or that the end product is itself toxic.

You could try to make a Bugaboo out of driftwood and hemp, but how many months would that take? And how freakish would you look to your friends? Chill.

As for the hypothetical risk from chemicals hypothetically “outgassing,” as you push along Park Slope with your designer buggy, haven’t you noticed you’re breathing in exhaust fumes? Where’s your sense of perspective?

This leads us to one of the least appealing aspects of your condition – and you’re not going to like hearing this. Upper Middle Class Syndrome seems to blind you to the fact that it is your gardener, or maid, or the busboy who takes away your plate, whose health is far more at risk from living near a toxic dump, breathing in particulate pollution from smog, having limited access to health care and health information, and limited nutritional choices.

Unfortunately, unlike those further down the income chain, whose interests you often claim to be concerned about, you tend to have disproportionate access to the media, which feeds upon your paranoia and, in turn, fuels it. And perhaps because so many of your fellow paranoids actually work in the media, this is why so many health scare stories either have no expert scientific commentary, or merely report the expert opinion as being equal to that of a non-expert.

In its most virulently paranoid form, Upper Middle Class Syndrome leads its victims to believe that they know more than the doctors and scientists, that conventional medicine is a corporate scam, and that evidence-based science is a deluded foundational construct with no so special claims to truth.

We were happy to read, though, that you have actually started to worry about your paranoia:

“Perhaps finding peace in an impure world means learning to deal with a little contamination. The medium-density fiberboard shelves in your custom closet will off-gas formaldehyde; your child will visit a friend’s home and be offered nonorganic milk. The neighbors will polyurethane their floors; you will use the laundry machines in the basement immediately after a lover of bleach. Everyone will be better served if you don’t flip out.”

Amen to that; it would be terrible if the monster in the house turned out to be you.