Nicholas Kristof and the Bad, Bad Chemical World

Source: Silsor, Wikimedia Commons

I’m a long-time fan of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. To be more specific, I’m a long-time fan of his work in social justice journalism, his passionate reporting of problems of others ignore, his dedication to helping people in traumatized regions of Africa.

It’s outstanding work and, oh, how I wish he would stick to it. Because his secondary crusade of the last few years, you know, the one against evil industrial chemicals, is really starting to annoy me. This is not saying that he’s entirely wrong – there are evil industrial chemicals out there. And, in many cases, they aren’t as well researched or as well regulated  as they should be.

But if we, as journalists, are going to demand meticulous standards for the study and oversight of chemical compounds then we should try to be meticulous ourselves in making the case. And much as I would like it to be otherwise, I don’t see enough of that in Kristof’s chemical columns. They tend instead to be sloppy in their use of language, less than thorough, and chemophobic enough to undermine his legitimate points.

In the matter of chemophobia, I’d like to refer you to a piece I wrote two years ago following a Kristof column of May 2010: Here’s a short excerpt: “After proposing a link between too much chemistry and not just cancer but diabetes, obesity and autism, Kristof goes on to say “This is not to say that all chemicals are evil…”.  I still cannot read that line without rolling my eyes.

Because, how do you define a good or an evil chemical? Hydrogen (H) is an essential element of water (two hydrogen atoms, one oxygen= H2O) which comprises more than 90 percent of our own bodies and sustains most of life on earth. It’s also found in the incredibly poisonous formula of HCN (hydrogen cyanide). Oxygen in a doublet (O2) keeps us alive. In a triplet (O3) it’s known as a toxic pollutant called ozone. And while ozone is dangerous in ambient air it’s also essential in the upper atmosphere for blocking ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

Yes, there are unambiguously dangerous materials – the naturally occurring element lead (Pb) comes to mind. But mostly, it makes no sense to randomly throw the word “chemical” around as if it had any meaning in terms of human health. And when we have influential journalists using the word chemical as a synonym for spawn-of-Satan then we have journalists who’ve missed their opportunity to inform the public as to what is a legitimate risk and what is not.

Instead we – by which I actually mean Kristof  – run the risk of teaching nothing more than a generalized chemical anxiety.  To this instance, I cite another of his columns from 2010, “Do Toxins Cause Autism?”, which notes the upward trend in autism diagnoses and speculates that “one culprit may be chemicals in the environment.”  As our environment is, in fact, nothing but chemical compounds this fails what I might call the helpfulness test. Or, as the blogger Polly Palumbo of Momma Data put it, “How do you scare parents silly? Mention toxins, prenatal development and autism together.”

Which brings me to Kristof’s column of this month, which is titled “How Chemicals Change Us.” Right. But let’s not just roll our eyes. Let’s try inquiring as to what he means. So, you say, which “chemicals” do you mean precisely? He answers in the first paragraph:  “common hormone producing chemicals”? Oh, you respond, and what are those precisely? “A widely used herbicide,” he replies in the second graph, one that apparently feminizes fish and gives alligators tiny penises.  Oh, you try again, what herbicide exactly? But here, reader, you are just out of luck. Because he is just not going to tell you that. Not in that graph or anywhere in the piece.

I’m going to guess that it’s (a) the herbicide Atrazine which was linked ten years ago to “hermaphroditic, demasculinized frogs.”  But it could be (b) Roundup, instead, according to this one of many scientific studies on that subject.  Or it could be (c) another glyphosate pesticide. Glyphosate (a chemical cocktail of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen and phosphorus) is the central ingredient in herbicides such as Roundup. It’s also the endocrine disruptor in question,  the actual reason for concern. Or it could be (d) all of the above.  You tell me, reader, because the New York Times column doesn’t.

Kristof does cite some other endocrine disrupting compounds here such as BPA, best known for its use in plastic bottles and packaging,  and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), used in everything from non-stick cookware to fire-retardant materials. But he breezes through their possible risks. Oddly, the one specific claim he makes against PFOA is an iffy study suggesting that prenatal exposure could, possibly, make girls – but not boys – overweight later in life. He ignores entirely a recent finding that the compound may be a more potent carcinogen than had been suspected.

You would think that a writer who wants to win a fight with “Big Chem” (as Kristof refers to the makers of these compounds) would choose the best ammunition at hand, wouldn’t you? Perhaps he needs a better researcher. Or perhaps, as Palumbo suggests at Momma Data, he needs a better fact-checker.  Or perhaps he needs to consider what he’s really trying to accomplish here.

Consider the conclusion to his most recent piece. He quotes a government scientist who no longer microwaves his food in plastic and avoids canned food (presumably because cans are lined with BPA although that isn’t clear here). And then he adds:”I’m taking my cue from the experts and I wish the Obama administration would as well.”

That the Obama administration would what exactly? Abandon canned food or better regulate regulate toxic chemical compounds? Are we talking household hints or policy implications?  If I didn’t believe we actually need smarter, more thoughtful regulation of toxic compounds, I wouldn’t find Kristof on chemicals so annoying. He’s wasting his opportunity and his outstanding platform on this half-researched, half-thought out muddle of a crusade.  I wish he would focus and do it right. Or not do it at all.

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