Jessica Alba and the Chemistry Thing

Incredible as it seems, lawmakers have not sought out my opinion on the proposed Senate Safe Chemicals Act even though – geez – didn’t I just brilliantly blog on the subject last week?

Instead  the woman standing next to chemical bill sponsor U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg this week was film actor Jessica Alba, who turns out to be the new spokesperson for the advocacy group, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

Photo credit: AP

Okay, the resulting, widely circulated photo doesn’t exactly show her at her chemical crusader best here but apparently she was reacting to a buzzer signalling a vote, not trying to explain the importance of the legislation.

Still, The Washington Post couldn’t resist poking fun at her chemical qualifications: Credentials: Pin-up, nerdfare starlet (“Sin City”, “Fantastic Four”), mom now expecting her second child. NPR health journalist and blogger, Scott Hensley, felt compelled to ask his readers how they felt about celebrities advocating for legislation. Mostly they were fine with it, especially if the stars were, you know, sincere.

Still, Henley’s  multiple choice survey and didn’t offer the option I planned to check, the  “I-like-celebrities-who-care-enough-to-crusade-and-she-does-seem-sincere- but–can-I-just-bitch-a-little-anyway?” option.

Because when I read her statements on the subject, they suggest that a) she doesn’t actually know anything about the chemicals in question b) she believes potential followers will be put off by actual, genuine, technical information c) someone else wrote them anyway.

Her post on the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Family website features a lovely picture of Ms. Alba and a heartfelt call to action. Beyond that, it tends to play “guess the compound” with the reader.   There’s a reference to “toxic chemicals in plastics used to make baby bottles”, which I deduce refers to bisphenol-A (BPA), the current poster child for evil compounds in household products. There’s another reference to “brain toxins in children’s toys,” which I puzzled over – I mean, “brain toxins?” – before concluding that she was talking about the heavy metal lead, which as I’ve also noted -  once or twice - turns up far too often in consumer products and is, indeed, a dangerously poisonous element.

On the other hand, maybe that’s not what she means by “brain toxins” at all. But then what does she mean? And – and here is my real bitch/concern/question – shouldn’t the campaign for safer chemicals be wonderfully, usefully clear instead of giving us this this rather alarmist “chemistry thing” call to action?

The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act is, in fact, woefully inadequate and it’s ridiculous that we’ve put up with it this long. And the current push for new legislation, the discussion over how we study, understand, and (thoughtfully) regulate industrial chemicals matters.  I’m glad that, as the  journal Chemical and Engineering News notes,  Alba is injecting “pizzazz” into the conversation. I’m glad that, as Hensley points out, her interest helps lift the Safe Chemicals Act out of relative obscurity.

I’d still like to argue celebrities – and more so the advocacy groups they represent – should be held to at least a minimum standard of responsibility; that we have a right to expect crusaders, famous or no, to demonstrate clear and credible knowledge of their chosen issue.

And that ends my little bitch session. Because on the larger point Alba is right there: “I was shocked to learn that it is perfectly legal to have known toxic chemicals in consumer products that are on our shelves,” she said in the D.C. press briefing with Lautenberg. “Like most people, I thought the government regulated [industrial] chemicals the way they regulate drugs. I was wrong.”

Wouldn’t it be smart to fix that situation? she asked. Isn’t it basic “common sense” to want reasonable testing and evaluation? I believe I will be checking the “yes-works-for-me” option on that one. And on her ability to remind people that these  “chemistry thing” questions that we should all be asking – count me a fan.

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14 Responses to Jessica Alba and the Chemistry Thing

  1. David Kroll says:

    Well-said, Professor Blum.

    My concern is that all chemicals, naturally-occurring or synthetic, have the potential to be “toxic” at a high enough concentration. When celebrities use the word “toxin” without context, they contribute to the chemophobia that is rampant among a public who themselves are composed of – gasp! – chemicals.

    I’d still like to argue celebrities – and more so the advocacy groups they represent – should be held to at least a minimum standard of responsibility; that we have a right to expect crusaders, famous or no, to demonstrate clear and credible knowledge of their chosen issue.

    This standard should be put on a plaque and given to every celebrity who chooses to hold forth on scientific issues. In return, I promise not to act or sing.

  2. Chemjobber says:

    I suspect (without much research) that they’re referring to the potential neurotoxicity of PBDEs (i.e. flame retardants).

  3. Chemjobber says:

    in reference to the ‘brain toxins’ in children’s toys.

  4. @DrRubidium says:

    I agree that celebrities and advocacy groups should be held to a minimum standard of responsibility – a standard that should include NOT “dumbing down” science. The goal of communicating such issue should be plain language and scientific accuracy. However, it often seems corners are cut in scientific accuracy under the guise of making things “simple to understand”. This assumes people are scientifically illiterate – an unsafe (and insulting) assumption to make.

  5. Deborah Blum says:

    Oh, completely agree about the insulting assumptions made about how little people know or care about actual facts. It does a disservice to everyone following the issue. And it’s also insulting to suggest that the rest of us will just blindly follow a well-known name – again, we’re smarter than that.

  6. Deborah Blum says:

    Could definitely be. Or still could be lead. Or I’d considered cadmium, actually, which is used in pigments still for some children’s toys and glasses. Maybe I should make a list.

  7. Deborah Blum says:

    Appreciate that, Professor Kroll. And I’d like to see this:

    When celebrities use the word “toxin” without context, they contribute to the chemophobia that is rampant among a public who themselves are composed of – gasp! – chemicals.

    put on a plaque as well. And I’ll join you in that acting/singing pledge (to the huge relief of everyone who knows me!)

  8. At least she’s campaigning for something reasonable, and not, say, against vaccines. I can’t get upset. And isn’t it precisely because we’re composed of chemicals that some chemophobia is justified?

  9. Deborah Blum says:

    Totally agree and that’s why I framed it as a “here’s my minor bitch” and then ended on that note of applause. It takes some guts, actually, to take on a geeky issue like this one and I admire that.

    And sure – we’re made of chemicals which react with other chemicals. It’s the primary reason why we’re vulnerable to “toxic” compounds. So being cautious about industrial chemical exposure is just smart on one level. If I define “chemophobic” in that sense, I don’t have a problem with it at all. If I define it as “all chemicals to be feared” then I’m going to do a lousy job of protecting myself and others.

    Although, of course, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

  10. Rihana Max says:

    The potential for chemical reform is quite exciting, but it should be done in a way that doesn’t sacrifice millions of animals (for toxicity testing) in the name of better protection for human health and the environment. The revised bill should mandate and create market incentives to use nonanimal methods. We need to ensure that chemical testing is in line with the 21st century and relies on modern, human cell and computer-based methods that provide accurate data on how a chemical acts and what the impact on human health may be.

  11. astrobiologiste says:

    With a little research, the campaign managers could’ve ended with a good looking celebrity with an actual knowledge of the topic. Supermodel Claudia Schiffer studied chemical engineering…

  12. Casey says:

    I’m torn here. On the one hand, I’m happy that a celeb is using her powers for good, not evil, and drawing attention to an issue that is fairly well ignored by the general populace. On the other hand, why use the scare tactics and incendiary language? I’m a high school science teacher which I know puts me near the bottom of the scientist totem pole, but I deal with this issue daily. Students think science is hard (and maybe scary) because it’s full of big words that they don’t understand until, shocker, someone takes five minutes to explain it to them. Why do the PR arms of the government and any cause trying to get their word out always cater to the lowest common denominator and assume they have to dumb down everything? How about this – let’s use the actual terms and try to explain them…like school! I think we should give the general public a little more credit. Wouldn’t it be great if people were scared of something because they understood it instead of being scared of something because someone pretty used big and scary words to incite fear?
    Also, this story reminded me of this video clip of Penn and Teller getting people to sign a petition to ban a dangerous chemical – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yi3erdgVVTw

  13. Julie says:

    Jessica’s face looks a bit like my chemistry newbies in lab. Totally uncomfortable and out of their element (pun intended).