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When Journalism Becomes a Health Hazard: Star Tribune Advocates “Self Education” on Consumer Safety, Chemical Risk.

Evironmentalists dominate media coverage on supposed risks from cosmetics. Call for European Union-style ban on chemicals. Why shouldn't Americans enjoy same protection? But leading scientists say environmentalists mislead public over the risks.

British toxicologists are fuming, according to the BBC – and it’s because groups like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Greenpeace “are deliberately and unfairly scaring the public” about the risk from trace amounts of chemicals.

“In particular, they criticised a WWF campaign that has highlighted the presence of certain chemicals in blood, food and in babies' umbilical cords.

The scientists said the minute levels detected did not warrant the group's focus on health dangers, but WWF has denied it was scare-mongering.

The tests have formed part of WWF's campaign to strengthen proposed EU legislation, called REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Author-isation of Chemicals), on the testing and phasing out of chemicals.”

The European Union’s draft REACH legislation follows the precautionary principle in regulating chemicals: if you can’t prove a chemical is safe, it can be banned. REACH is routinely, if sometimes obliquely, cited in the U.S. media as evidence that federal standards on chemicals are somehow out-of-date or overly lax, and that the American public is at risk, especially from cosmetics.

The Los Angeles Times in a story titled “Banned Elsewhere, Compounds Still Used in US” reported that

“Although chemical bans overseas have prompted some manufacturers to reformulate all their products worldwide, many toys and cosmetics are exceptions.

Europe banned or restricted six phthalate compounds in toys. In beauty products, Europe has eliminated 900 compounds, including two phthalates, suspected of causing reproductive disorders, cancer or genetic mutations….  

…Low levels of phthalates, used mostly to soften plastic, are in the bodies of nearly all Americans tested. Animal studies and some human research show that they block testosterone and cause reproductive abnormalities in male newborns.

Federal officials have concluded that the low doses in toys and cosmetics pose little risk…

…Orly International, which sells nail lacquer in 66 countries, decided to be "better safe than sorry" and immediately removed DBP from all formulations, said marketing director Mia Jenner.

‘If they remove it there, why shouldn't we remove it here?’ she said. ‘It's a no-brainer.’”

The Arizona Republic’s “Earthtalk” column recently noted

“Another common yet toxic ingredient in conventional nail polish is a chemical plasticizer known as dibutyl phthalate (DBP). According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit research and advo-cacy organization that campaigns to educate consumers about the health risks of cosmetics, studies have linked DBP to underdeveloped genitals and other reproductive system problems in newborn boys.

As such, DBP is banned from cosmetics in the European Union, but the Food and Drug Administration in the United States has taken no such action.”

The San Francisco Chronicle also recently published a story warning about phthalates that relied on information provided by the Environmental Working Group and other activist groups, and The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently published an editorial titled “Lagging assurance on product safety,” which noted,

“America's relatively relaxed standards on pesticides, compared with Europe's, are an old story. A newer one involves cosmetics containing phthalates -- chemicals used in plastic-making -- that are thought to interfere with human hormones and cause reproductive disorders. The risks are high enough to justify bans in the EU but not in the United States.”

But now look at what these news accounts failed to report:

None of the newspapers told their readers that an investigation by the National Toxicology Program last year concluded that there was no evidence that phthalates harmed infant reproductive systems.

Nor did any paper note that the Environmental Protection Agency published a review on June 27 of the safety data on DBP (the phthalate in nail polish) that recommends raising the human oral exposure guideline from 100 to 300 micrograms per kilo of bodyweight per day because the scientific data shows diminished risk to humans. The average human exposure to DBP is less than one microgram per kilo of bodyweight per day.

Nor did any paper explain to its readers that the overwhelming majority of phthalate exposure comes from food, and that a ban in cosmetics will do absolutely nothing to change that. (As for the Star Tribune’s concern for pesticides, The Carcinogenic Potency Project at Berkeley University has compiled a ranking of possible carcinogenic hazards from average US human exposures to known rodent carcinogens, and finds that synthetic pesticide residues pose a very low risk.)

But worst of all, given that these news accounts cited the authority of the European Union, none of the these papers noted that the EU’s own Risk Assessment Report of DBP conducted by its Institute for Health and Consumer Protection, found that there was no risk to consumers from DBP in nail polish (see page 108).

Ironically, The Star Tribune advocated “considerably more self-education” on product safety over reliance on official consumer safety inspection in the U.S.; but if the public is going to educate itself it would help – enormously – if journalists made some effort to educate themselves first.

For instance, they should try following the scientific literature on these various risk topics, instead of the latest press release or campaign by an environmental group; they should note that the European parliament, just like congress, is capable of making bad laws or ignoring scientific data; and if they want to make the EU a de facto regulatory body in the U.S – or just an authoritative source in a story – they really ought to read its risk assessments, even the ones European politicians ignore. And, finally, if all this is just too much to accomplish on deadline,  they could, like the BBC, quote an expert on chemical risk:

Professor Richard Sharpe, an expert in endocrine disrupters from the Medical Research Council Human Reproductive Sciences Unit, in Edinburgh, said: "By and large, I think people shouldn't be worried. Most chemicals will not do any great harm at these very low levels. You have to put this into perspective."

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