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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76 Responses to Nicholas Kristof and the Bad, Bad Chemical World

  1. Matt says:

    This certainly makes it difficult for those of us who are trying to promote honest conversations about chemicals/chemistry. I wish that the FDA/EPA had more resources and power to test things. But a person can go crazy thinking about what chemicals might be in the environment. Its like counting stars.

  2. David Ropeik says:

    Wonderful, as always. There is one other quarrel with Kristof. He buys the arguments of avowed chemo-phobic advocates as expert truth, rather than treating their advocacy with caution. Interestingly, it’s the same flaw with Jon Stossel’s work for ABC saying enviro fears are overblown…advocacy of a point of view masquerading as journalism. Tougher to make that charge against Kristof, who’s work is labeled as opinion, but his naivete about the reliability of experts dangerously feeds public misapprehensions.

  3. Deborah Blum says:

    Agreed on all counts. I think it’s unlikely that we’ll ever catch up on a full understanding of the risks associated with synthetic chemicals (especially if you start adding in low-dose response issues). But I would like to see us invest in stronger response to known bad actors (i.e. lead, mercury) and to work out some reasonable priority list of compounds worth further study. But that, of course, requires both money and a larger investment in environmental science which look to be a hard sell at the federal level these days.

  4. Deborah Blum says:

    And that’s an excellent point, David.

  5. Thank you for this, Deborah. Kristof’s piece made me uncomfortable too, but I couldn’t clearly explain why to anyone else until . I agree that when writing about chemistry, it is the responsibility of the journalist to inform the public about legitimate risks. That’s not easy to do because of complicated policy and emerging science, but we must present the information we can.

  6. Thanks for this, Deborah. I also wish he’d stick with those causes he’s so eloquent in highlighting. As a former researcher in the endocrine-disruption field, I’ve found both columns you mention cringe worthy and not at all useful in bringing public attention to the appropriate concerns. Instead, he just throws up a nonspecific grab-bag, planting general chemophobia in the public mind instead of data and nuance. That way lies hysteria, not effective action. I imagine that many who read that probably found the weight of the generalities fairly crushing and threw up their hands in surrender. Without specifics, we’re left with a lot of vague “threats” and no targets for focus. That doesn’t help his cause *or* promote practical approaches to addressing real threats.

  7. Deborah Blum says:

    Appreciate the comment, Melissa, because I shared your reaction – that the columns, despite their good intentions, made me uneasy. Took me a while (and a lot of reading) to work through to this conclusion.

  8. Alison Bass says:

    I’m glad to see someone criticizing Nicholas Kristof’s sloppy journalistic techniques. I find that he had a similar disregard for the weight of scientific evidence in his argument that the sex trafficking of illegal immigrants is a huge problem in this country. The numbers of illegal immigrants being forced into the sex trade that he presents in his recent book and some columns are clearly inflated according to more meticulous studies. I share his concern about underage prostitution (mostly teenage runaways) and illegal trafficking but his arguments conflating adult consensual prostitution with child prostitution or illegal trafficking are reminiscent of the furor over white slavery around the turn of the 20th century. Back then, most women got into the sex trade by choice, for the same largely economic reasons that they do now.

  9. Justin says:

    Wow. This was eye-opening. Thanks!

  10. Aaron says:

    Kristof seems to lack clarity on the discrepancies among “elements”, “molecules” and “molecular structure”. Also on what exactly “toxic” means. (Also: a “chemical” is an inherently vapid term, though most people seem to identify it with an aqueous or liquid-state)

    My OChem prof defined a “toxic” substance as one that our bodies cannot metabolize, or one that adversely disrupts metabolism. A “toxin”, then, is a substance that is toxic to us (but may not be universally toxic to all living things — consider Eucalyptus, which is poisonous to us, but a dietary staple of Koala Bears).

    Dosage is also a signficant factor in both toxicity and radiation exposure — consume a Very Small(tm) amount of lead or mercury and you’ll probably live through it without noticing. Get exposed to a short burst of low level radiation (ie. the sun’s rays or an x-ray machine) and you’re probably fine. Get too much of ANYTHING (even water!) and Bad Stuff(tm) happens.

    Kristof seems to conflate elements and molecules, though both are of less importance than the structure of the two combined. Our bodies’ ability to metabolize ANYTHING is based on us having the appropriate proteins to manage and excrete the incoming substances. Carbon MONoxide (CO) is dangerous to us because it reduces the efficacy of our pulmonary system (via stealing those O- atoms away from the Oxygen in our bodies) but Carbon DIoxide is less of a problem, since is more inert — too much and we get that burning sensation in our lungs (Carbonic Acid, CO3-, IIRC), which can be handled with a few forceful exhalations.

    Journalists should not be afraid of getting their keyboards dirty with some organic structures — if nothing else, it gives them fancy visual aids. Call up the local university and ask a chemist (heck, even a grad student or TA) for an explanation the significance or danger of a substance. Saltwater, which we can consume with relatively no problems, can be lethal to plants at small doses, since it draws the water from their cells. (Vinegar has a similar ultimate effect).

    It’s far easier to fearfully point to the bogeyman of “chemicals”, which amounts to little more than classic Hearst-era yellow journalism. I would hope that a prestigious publication like the NYTimes would hold their writers to higher standards, but perhaps not.

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  12. James Garry says:

    I work in the applied sciences and applaud your stance against lazy journalism. I’d also like to highlight the sinister way in which the omnipresence of compounds is used in a negative sense. I’m unsurprised that if one were to “Test your blood or urine, and you’ll surely find them there” – even if what exactly ‘they’ are is not clear.

    Modern assay techniques can be exquisitely sensitive. The question surely should be, are the concentrations hazardous? Not, are the compounds present or not.

  13. Mark Spohr says:

    Kristof makes it clear throughout the article (starting with the first sentence) that he is talking about “endocrine disruptors”. I don’t see the problem here.
    Endocrine disruptors have been shown to have powerful adverse effects and they should be studied and controlled.

  14. @Mark, there are thousands and thousands of compounds that are candidate endocrine disruptors, and the term itself is extremely vague, given the broad expanse that is the endocrine system and the seemingly endless opportunities it offers for disruption. The estrogen receptor alone comes in several flavors and the native hormones that can interact with it–inhibiting or activating it–in even more. Mix in the fact that even the *same* endocrine disruptor can have opposing effects depending on concentration, tissue, developmental stage, species, and the presence of other native and introduced compounds, and there pretty much isn’t a term that’s more vague than “endocrine disruptor.”

    There are, on the other hand, a number of specifics Kristof *could* have cited, some top candidates for regulation based on data regarding exposure effects, yet he did not. I don’t know if it was laziness or ignorance, but this latest piece is difficult to distinguish from his 2010 op-ed on the same subject, leaving me to wonder how deep his knowledge about this issue really goes.

  15. Mark Spohr says:

    Hi Emily,
    Since I am a physician, I am aware that there are many chemicals that could be classified as endocrine disruptors and that they act in various subtle ways (some of which may not be harmful).
    Kristof does point out a few of the known bad actors and does call for more study and regulation.
    Our current system of minimal testing and regulation allows far too many harmful chemicals into the environment. They should be tested and clearly shown to not be harmful before they can be used. This does place a heavy burden on the chemical makers but the potential cost to public health is greater.

  16. Jeff Largent says:

    Reporting is no longer about news, issues, or facts unless they can be twisted into something that will sell. Take the most current topic, spin and twist it to bring to the fore front the idea you are pushing, then find away to scare the reader and you have created the modern era news report.

  17. Emily, and Deborah as well,

    Do you mean a non-specialist is using words in a way based on well-understood social convention, rather than strict definition? In a mass publication for non-specialists? Yes I am being snarky.

    You seem to have understood his point perfectly. And the first sentence of the article is also quite clear.

    Instead of railing against someone who doesn’t know as much as you, or didn’t do all the work they should have, why not write something constructive and enlightening (unless your goal is merely to gripe)?

    I wish people in general weren’t so ignorant of science, along with many other things. But I don’t think this kind of criticism helps, said mass audience isn’t going to listen a voice whose first priority seems to be to analyze precisely how idiotic said audience was.

  18. Deborah Blum says:

    No, I don’t think that what either of us meant. My point was that if he really cares about making difference here, he should also care about getting it right. Because that’s how you actually do effect change. This has nothing to do with being smart or even writing for a general audience or not. We tend to often underestimate the intelligence of our readers and their ability to understand key principles and facts. And as long as we write down to them, we certainly don’t offer them a chance to have an informed voice in the conversation.

  19. Deborah Blum says:

    Agreed, Mark, that our current system of testing and regulation is completely inadequate. And, of course, that’s also Kristof’s point. But also agreed with Emily that he’s failing to marshal best arguments and evidence in that regard. She’s right that this column is largely repetitive of one done two years ago – including an almost verbatim reference to DES (without ever explaining why that’s an issue in the BPA discussion). I mentioned that he’d failed to look up the best evidence on PFOA but he also failed to pick up this week’s study on non-human primate studies with BPA. My frustration with him, as I said in the piece, is that he has a phenomenal platform and that if he would just do this well, he might actually make a difference.

  20. Deborah Blum says:

    Some do have powerful effects, Mark, and some don’t. Agreed that they should be better studied and better controlled based on that evidence. My real issue is that Mr. Kristof should give his readers a sense of priority here, let them know what compounds are really an issue, so that we try to get some intelligent priorities in place on how to handle this problem.

  21. Deborah Blum says:

    Thanks, Aaron, Very well said!

  22. @Mark I’m not arguing against that, but to say that Kristof’s mention of “endocrine disruptors” means he was being “specific” doesn’t work for me. He could have been specific and provided a decent argument for the ends I think he’s seeking, but… he did not.

  23. Nope. Not what I meant. In fact, I’m still not sure what point he was trying to make or why he’s even writing about these things. He fails because of vagueness, and that’s not because he “doesn’t know as much” as I do, although he seems to need to know more if he’s going to write about these things. My problem is that his effort to persuade falls to the ground because of his lack of compelling specifics to back it up and make him a trustworthy source of information. That’s a writing critique, not a scientific one.

  24. Deborah Blum says:

    Seconding what Emily says here – which nails the problem in question.

  25. Paul Jones says:

    Deborah,

    Well said.

    As an organic chemist, I am often called into action to explain challenging chemical concepts to my unintiated friends and family. Often, it is in response to some fantastic claim found in the popular press that seems a little too good (or bad) to be true. More often than not it is in response to a chemophobic article.

    The biggest challenge I have is to educate my audience that chemicals are just collections of atoms. Nothing more. They are not good or bad. It is the use of them that is good or bad. Phosgene can kill, easily. It can also make polycarbonates, which we as people like. Also, I try to draw a difference between what is found in the lab and what is seen in the real world. Many molecules are endocrine disprutors, but how many of them pose a real-world threat?

    Unfortunatly, chemistry is a subject most people fear because it is one of those topics that is not easily understood.

  26. Hi Deborah, thanks for your comment. I re-read your article and wish I hadn’t left such a snarky comment. It is a good article. I came to this post via Slashdot, and in retrospect what I wrote here is basically about the conversation there. I agree that it’s very important not to under-estimate people’s intelligence. But I’d also argue that plain scientific ignorance (a lack of knowledge being wholly distinct from one’s intelligence) is one of the main causes if not the main cause of so-called “chemophobia” (new term to me, seems jargony) and/or poor thinking and writing about the sciences in general. Kristof himself may not have the background of scientific knowledge necessary to write well on this issue. U.S. general education does a shit job, frankly, of educating people about chemistry. Along w/math, which is pretty important to feel comfortable understanding ANY science. Working from those assumptions it makes sense people are generally afraid of “chemicals.” It’s not sufficient to get it right, it has to be communicated such that it can be understood by the listener. I read your column as being written for an audience who already knows what they’re talking about, and is comfortable with science because they have a certain base of knowledge. Kristof is clearly not writing for that audience. I dunno if this is an unreasonable or unfair expectation, but I guess my constructive criticism is that I wish your piece was the rhetorical bridge between expert knowledge and the general public (take that to mean what you will) as opposed to an nuanced and expert critique of Nicholas Kristof.

  27. Bill Powell says:

    Mr Kristhoff has also made himself unpopular with sex workers around the world. Mr Kristhoff apparently believes all prostitutes are slaves and must be “rescued”. He has made high profile incursions into the work places of prostitutes in other countries, “liberating” them. Of course, the women report that they didn’t want to be liberated from making a living, and many have returned to their jobs.

  28. Bill Powell says:

    Yikes, I just noticed someone else had posted re: Mr Kristof’s personal war on sex workers. Sorry, I shoulda read all the posts before I jumped the gun…

  29. Hey Emily,
    I’m not a fan of Kristof’s writing – I think on his social issues as well he paints in broad strokes and lacks clarity. But it seems pretty easy to infer, even from a poorly written article, that Kristof is saying there are many products of technology and scientific knowledge which could be or are dangerous, but we are ignoring them because of profit or because its easy not to. I think we all agree on this, and also agree that irrational fear is counterproductive in dealing with what actually is worthy of fear, and that clear & accurate communication is important. In a way the article could be better if it would be more general, since it failed to be specific. Plenty of bad writing (or bad music or bad film or bad design) has successfully persuaded plenty of people in the past, and I’m sure good writing has failed to do so too. I’m not even sure Kristof’s writing is “bad” – if his target audience is lazy thinkers, to pick an example, then it’s great! I see it as a question of audience and intention.

  30. Also, if persuasion is really the goal then why are facts necessarily important? Facts are only one component of successful rhetoric. Food for thought – Which is more important – persuasion or getting the facts right and what is the relationship between the two? Historically they don’t necessarily have to be coupled.

  31. Hi Deborah,
    I hope you don’t mind my continued comments, but this has been a really intriguing dialogue. I think the key phrase of your piece is the last ” I wish he would focus and do it right. Or not do it at all.” The question you seem to be raising there is if an inaccurate, potentially fear-mongering (in your article combating irrational fears of science seems coequal to advocating for increased regulation of toxic compounds, and also seems like part of your beef with Kristof) and rationally not-wholly-compelling, yet strident and well-distributed advocacy for increased caution of, well, maybe all chemicals (take that term how you will) is better than none at all. Your argument is Kristof’s writing is counterproductive since it does not meet certain standards of clarity, accuracy, and factuality. Thus the reader will be disinclined or unable to consider the _real_ concerns apart from the fool’s gold by their side. Or dismiss the whole argument.

  32. Deborah Blum says:

    Well, I didn’t expect my post to be loved by all so I’m not surprised by the discussion at slashdot. And I appreciate your thoughtful follow up. There’s really two issues here for me. One is how we best illuminate an issue for our “audience.” I mostly write for general interest publications myself – in last year, Time, Slate, Los Angeles Times, etc. – and I try not to underestimate the readers. I think most (emphasis on most) appreciate clear and tangible facts, ones that give structure to an issue. But I’ve also taken a lesson from being book tour and talking about toxic substances (book is The Poisoner’s Handbook). I’m constantly surprised by how smart the questions are from the audience and how much people know. In February, I wrote a post here about chocolate toxicity for dogs. But I had a head start on that from a discussion at one of my book readings. The second issue is whether we, as writers, want to influence policy for the better. And here I think, given the history and power and influence of the chemical industry, we as journalists have to be very good and, as I suggested, meticulous in order to bring the kind of credibility to the discussion that might actually influence change. A terrific example of this (not from a columnist, obviously) is the ongoing series by the Chicago Tribune on flame retardants: http://trib.in/JrgxFI. I don’t hold Kristof to that same standard of investigation but I do think it’s reasonable to ask a columnist to hold to same high standards of integrity in his reporting. And if he doesn’t hold to such standards he can be easily dismissed by those holding opposing views and miss his chance to make a difference. That’s holding him to an exceptional standard, admitted, for columnists in general but, as I said, I think this is an issue that matters.

  33. Well spoken. I am definitely a reader who appreciates writers who think as you. And caring about the arts, well that is an area where the “general public” is constantly considered (wrongly) to be an ignoramus, in terms of mass culture. I wasn’t clear before – slashdot liked your post and if anything over there they went at Mr. Kristof with ferocity. But it’s slashdot :). Chicago is my hometown so big ups for the Trib, and I will check that series out. And considering the degree of influence major publication op-ed writers appear (perhaps that word should have special emphasis! I dunno…) to have, it would be nice if they did have to meet investigative reporting standards. Though you are probably right, it’s unrealistic.

    I’m curious about the model of change and persuasion you imagine occurring. Increasing awareness of said issue in the national conversation or the public at large? Being read by those with power? I’m curious as there are many different models. In social progress, there is Saul Alinsky – people power politics at its finest. There is change through the political system, educating and influencing political leaders or getting sympathetic politicians elected. There is Occupy Wall Street’s model, which is not interested in the political process at all. They seem to be an outsider social movement hoping to apply power & pressure to the system from outside it, mainly through engaging w/the culture at large rather than the establishment.

    It’s in that context I’m interested in persuasion and rhetoric, and the intention of a given piece of writing. I don’t agree w/Kristof’s style choices, but I think an argument could be made that he is effecting a certain kind of persuasion, and also that you and him have overlapping – but different priorities, which is kind of silly for me to even state I guess since he is an opinion columnist and you are a science journalist.

    One thing that seems important to many commentators on this blog is the “irrational” fear many people have of chemicals. I put irrational in quotes because I think it makes perfect sense that people would be afraid of “chemicals” in the context of poor education, FUD from various sources, real danger, history of deceit (tobacco), and often poor outreach & communication by the scientific community. It is that gap in communication I am interested in too.

  34. John Lowe says:

    Deborah,

    I saw earlier that you were being taken to task for criticizing Nicholas Kristof, but your criticism of him is justified. The example of the government scientist who no longer microwaves plastic food containers and doesn’t eat canned food, presumably to reduce his bisphenol-A exposure, leading to the punchline “I’m taking my cue from the experts and I wish the Obama administration would as well,” wasn’t just stunningly naive. It also was a missed opportunity to make the story of BPA important to millions of readers. Imagine, a toxicant that nearly all of us carry around in our bodies; with uncertainties in the low-dose toxicity that are the subject of intense debate among experts; with health risks – neurobehavioral effects and cancer – most related to early-life exposure, so that we’re talking about potentially exposing our most vulnerable members of society – infants and young children – to risks that might affect an entire generation (note to Nick: you might have scored more points by saying that the government scientist no longer fed his kids canned food); with the fact that it is difficult to observe the low-dose adverse effects in laboratory studies, overlain with the concern that how different scientists assess the risks of BPA may depend in part on who is funding their research. The whole dilemma of the precautionary principle is exposed here; is it better to take steps now to control BPA exposures in the face of uncertain evidence of widespread adverse effects? Or is that an excessively conservative step that might cause economic harm, representing something to be avoided because poverty can also produce risks to human health. In the hands of a skilled journalist, this might have been an interesting and compelling story. A shame, really.

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  36. Deborah,
    Great post and comments.
    I was just pointed at your blog today by my daughter. I will be back.

    I have been having your side of the discussion about ‘evil chemicals’ for years. I even coined a term to describe the position of people like Kristof–Bambism. Bambism is the idea that nature is benign and no chemicals produced in nature will hurt humans. It includes the idea that a molecule produced by a plant is ‘good’ while the identical molecule produced by man is ‘bad.’

    As a biochemist and chemist, I know that some chemicals, natural or manmade, hurt humans while others help humans. I know that some of the most hurtful (cancer causing and lethal) chemicals are produced by plants, snakes, and fish. I even know that gluten’s role in nature is to cause a reaction in animals so that the animals do not eat all of the plant’s seeds. Chemicals have roles in the biosphere. The roles are complex.

    I wish that Kristof and others would do better fact checking and would leave the world of Bambism. I hope that this blog will help their exodus.

    On the other hand, I am comforted by the knowledge that without the ‘evil chemicals’ the human population of the earth would be less that 150 million persons, people living on that earth would have an average lifespan of 27 years and would be hungry most of the time, and civilization would not exist. I, who am older than 27, would be dead or more likely would never have been born.

    So, to me, carefully regulated chemicals, natural or unnatural, are fine. At each year’s birthday celebration with my family and friends for which chemicals from modified grains to preservatives and medicines aid the celebration, they become more fine.

    Cheers,

  37. medskep says:

    I see no benefit public benefit to giving a new chemical nor a new drug a free pass. I think in the long run that the strategy of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ is significantly better than ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

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  39. @medskep
    1. New drugs do not get a free pass. They get very expensive and long testing.
    2. “guilty until proven innocent” sounds good until you realize that sometimes many people are dying who would not have to die if good drugs got to market more quickly. These deaths are more poignant if they are the deaths of relatives or friends. To me, you have to include their unneeeded deaths on the balance sheet of evaluating drugs and getting them to patients in an ethical manner.

  40. medskep says:

    Eric,

    Allowing the corporation which will profit from sales of a drug to do the testing and then allowing them to conceal the data is not a very good way to insure public safety.

    Your other points beg a few questions: What good drugs have not gotten to the market quickly enough? How many people have died as a result? If drugs are approved more quickly would more live because of rapid approval or would more die? Would more benefit or would more be harmed?

    Certainly, you can see that with a rapid approval system, not all Rxs that make it through quickly would be beneficial.

    By the way, all of the above is pertinent to new chemicals as well. How many times do we have to discover the dangers of a chemical decades after it’s use has become widespread? (DDT, tetraethyl lead, radium, etc )

  41. Why coin a term? How can classifying people like that possibly be constructive? It seems like “bambism” is an easy way to dismiss the fears people hold without engaging with them and understanding why people _are_ afraid, and does nothing to educate people. All I can imagine “bambism” doing is de-legitimizing other peoples feelings or beliefs and avoiding the need for dialogue with others.

  42. @medskep To me, underlying the use of chemicals, manmade or existing in plants or animals, e.g. tamoxifen, by humans is a cost benefit analysis. So, for my own understanding, I make a complex spreadsheet that includes short term and long term benefits of a new chemical in order to decide what to do next. It takes a while and a lot of feedback from others to decide what path is ‘best.’ With reference to Kristof, it is important for journalists to convey some of the complexity and subtlety of evaluating the ‘worth’ of new chemicals.

    @zeroreference
    ‘Bambism’ was not meant to delegitimize but I can now see how it might. It was meant to be a catchall term to capture the people whose world view is that nature is always good and benevolent while man and his or her inventions are always bad.
    As to DDT, lead, radiation etc., I have made good discoveries on DNA replication, DNA transposition, and DNA repair. Many of the discoveries in these fields were hard to put in context for decades. For instance, radiation of humans started in the 1890′s and became more public after the invention of atomic bombs in the 1940′s. The discovery of the structure of DNA was not known until 1953. The fact that radiation damaged DNA in particular ways did not occur until the 1960′s. Scientists have a hard time anticipating worries whose basis will not be known for decades. Scientists also have a very hard time getting funding for risks that might be true but that seldom are. For instance, a friend asked whether current science could determine the effects that certain gene deletions might have in his daughter’s life. I answered that it could. He then asked the key question, “How long would it take to determine these effects and what would it cost?” I answered, “Ten years and $3,000,000,000.” That answer, my best, refocused the discussion.

    I am not saying that drug companies, chemical companies, agricultural companies, or even organic farmers do things right. I am just saying that the nuanced and diverse story is much more important to us than Kristof seems to think.

    Thanks for the comments on my thoughts.

  43. Peter Kinnon says:

    While most of the comment above is both pertinent and sensible, such tut-tutting between the members of an informed peer group is not likely to remedy this problem.

    I would suggest that to effectively counter the barrage of chemophobic rants of the media one needs to get down and dirty and meet them on their own ground by means of shock tactics, anecdotal accounts and the like.

    This is the approach I have used in a chapter of my book “Unusual Perspectives”. I will paste the relevant passage below. With deliberate whimsy but, I believe, no great loss of accuracy I make propositions such as
    “Dioxins may be good for your health”. Not entirely tongue in cheek.
    Others may well be able to make better contributions to this effort, but here is mine: I am open to comment.

    Toxic risks:

    The various industrial activities that have arisen in the course of development of our civilizations have been associated with the release into our living space of considerable amounts of toxic materials. The use of the very common element, lead, has been widespread throughout history. The Romans were particularly prodigious users of the metal, their applications being numerous, and included, to their cost, drinking vessels. Indeed, there are some who attribute this practice to the eventual fall of the empire. In still greater folly, ôsugar of leadö, the sweet tasting but very toxic compound we now know as lead acetate was commonly used for sweetening their sauces. In fact, lead acetate was still being used in England to flavour candies even at the end of the nineteenth century. Which should give pause for thought to those who lament the demise of the good old-time ônaturalö sweeties, which were also quite likely to contain for colouring, not todayÆs very carefully screened range of permitted synthetic food dyes, but rather, such delightful compounds as cadmium oxides and sulphides. Aaah for the good old days!
    The expression ômad as a hatterö derives from the effect of exposure to high levels of mercury in the process of converting fur to felt and the subsequent forming into hats. Application of a strong solution of mercuric nitrate resulted in the mercury binding to the proteins of which fur is composed, thus changing their shape in such a way as to roughen the surface of the hairs so as to permit matting. The fur was then shaved off the pelt, and immersed in boiling acid before being pressed and steam formed into the required shapes. These high temperature processes produced the high levels of mercury vapour inhaled by the hatters. Apart from that also accidentally ingested from traces of the solutions. Mercury poisoning affects various bodily organs and enzyme processes, but the brain is one of the most seriously damaged. There were presumably many mad gold miners, too, as a traditional way of winning this coveted metal from panning sediments was to dissolve it in metallic mercury. The mercury was subsequently boiled off over a fire to leave the pure gold. Plenty of vapour to be inhaled there.
    Right through to the 1970s, even in Western countries, many were involved in the mining, manufacture and use of the naturally occurring materials known as the asbestoses, fibrous polymers of compounds of silicon with various metals.
    Again silicon, here in yet another guise, was to be a very important part of technological development. With its ability to be formed, woven and compounded into all manner of products for which thermal insulation and fire resistance were required or essential. In the middle of the twentieth century ôasbestosö was ubiquitous and hailed as ôthe modern wonder materialö. Despite shameful attempts to suppress the knowledge accumulating by direct experience of miners and the greater body of Common Sense, the terrible sting in the tail of the amphibole varieties of the asbestoses gradually gained public recognition and tight regulatory controls were finally enforced. The kind of lung cancer caused, mesothelioma, occurs almost inevitably in those who have regularly inhaled high concentrations of amphibole. The onset of the disease, however, typically occurs many years later, sometimes forty years after the last contact with the substance. This delay period, together with the effects of that common component of the human psyche, greed, greatly hindered the timely recognition and rectification of this situation. Many such true horror stories can be recounted.
    Today, the efforts of such champions of Common Sense as pharmacologists, chemists, biochemists and medical researchers, have brought a much greater understanding of the nature of toxic materials, together with the ability to detect and quantify incredibly tiny amounts of the offending compounds in soil, water and living tissues. Early warning of potential problems is generally very effective and in, the western world, at least, regulatory controls are swift and tight. Perhaps too tight. The main problem with the present situation is, in fact, that the pendulum has swung too far, and such regulatory control is now often excessively severe. Many draconian and unnecessary controls have been precipitated as political reaction to a wave of public chemophobic hysteria rather than by reasonable reference to Common Sense.
    But surely one canÆt be too careful? Of course one can! Do you refrain from taking your car or bike or a train to go to work because of the appreciable, if rather small, risk involved in using those? Or not stay at home in case your house burns down or becomes the epicentre of an earthquake? Of course not. Always, in any activity, or inactivity for that matter, we must accept some degree of risk. Most of the pressure generating this climate of chemophobia comes from generally well-meaning but uninformed or misinformed souls. Often manipulated by some who have their own agendas. A classic example is that of an author who no doubt did very well out of a book which sensationally condemned the use of the insecticide DDT.
    This substance was claimed to be deleterious to human health, a significant cause of human cancer, incapable of biodegradation, to seriously disrupt the reproductive cycles of sea-birds and to cause disastrous thinning of their egg-shells. The wave of public hysteria generated in this way resulted in a total ban, in Western countries, on the use of the compound. Despite the fact that the claims had no basis in Common Sense. Far from being deleterious to human health, DDT is estimated to have saved half a billion human lives by its role in the prevention of typhus and malaria alone. Far from being a significant cause of human cancer it has, after being exposed to enormous scrutiny by health authorities, been categorized, solely on the basis of animal studies, using very high exposure levels, as being a öprobable human carcinogenö The AIRC, in fact, rate this as a Group 2B carcinogen.
    In other words it has been given exactly the same rating as the synthetic pesticide 3-(3,4-Dihydroxyphenyl)-2-propenoic acid. This compound has been found to be present in appreciable quantities in lettuce, tomato, garlic, coffee and other common foodstuffs. The plants in which this chemical is synthesized are very good at making this and other poisonous substances with which to protect themselves against parasites and predators. They should be, too, for they have been engaged in chemical warfare for millions of years. Perhaps, containing, as they do, carcinogens of the same class as DDT, these foodstuffs should also be banned?
    The specific claim that DDT was the direct cause of the near extinction of the Bald Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon has also been discounted. The more likely reason for the severe challenge to those species is now believed to be lead. Specifically, the very damaging high velocity form fired from the barrels of guns. The dire concerns that were expressed regarding serious disturbance of the reproductive cycle of predatory birds and the thinning of eggshells also have been shown to have little substance. Some studies seem to show some effect and others show none. The consensus of informed opinion seems to be that, if there is any discernible change, it is of no great significance and is swamped out by more powerful influences.
    Being high up on the food chain, such creatures as predatory sea-birds do tend to build up appreciable levels in their bodies. For, while DDT can completely biodegrade by microbial mechanisms in soil and water, it does bio-accumulate in animal fatty tissues. Because of its very low toxicity, however, that is of no great consequence. If the reader happens to be one of the many who will be shocked by the last remark, let me point out that a heaped tablespoonful of DDT swallowed down with a glass of water is most unlikely to have much effect on you at all. Instances of attempted suicides have shown that, even to have a fifty-fifty chance of dying, about ten tablespoonfuls need to be consumed. Think about it! And, while youÆre at it, think about the effects of swallowing the same amount of table salt. But donÆt try either at home!
    Table salt is actually a rather good comparison, even as a chronic poison. There are vastly more folk who have died as a result of hypertension accentuated by excessive salt consumption than by ingestion of DDT. Furthermore, common table salt is listed in Materials Safety Data Sheets as an experimental human teratogen and mutagen. For DDT, an intensive search for reproductive effects in humans has uncovered nothing of significance.
    While the banning of DDT owed much to public hysteria and very little to Common Sense there is no doubt that the insecticide had been greatly overused and that controls were long overdue. Not because of its negligible toxicity but because of premature loss of effectiveness. Malaria, had in 1963, been almost eradicated from Sri Lanka. By killing mosquitoes with DDT, sufferers were reduced from several million before 1950 to a couple of dozen within little more than a decade, only to bounce right back again after another six years. The mosquitoes, and the disease, had returned with a vengeance. This rebound has been attributed by some to the pressure to stop spraying, but the emergence of a newly evolved population of resistant mosquitoes seems to be closer to the truth.
    For nothing in Nature is simple, none of her wonderful processes, including those we may disfavour, can be represented in terms of black and white, but rather a whole spectrum of hues. Any insecticide, pesticide, or antibiotic that can be used fairly safely in the presence of other life-forms, will, sooner or later, start to lose its efficacy as resistant strains of the target species evolve. And over-use may accelerate the process. The prudent approach would be to now permit the controlled use of DDT as a component of the armoury with which fight the disease. Because of the hysteria and misinformation regarding this substance which still abounds it is, even now, a hot political football, and it is unlikely that relaxation of the draconian regulation will occur. In some parts of the world it is still being used, and probably, I have a rather cynical suspicion, often over-used.
    Sometimes human societies seem to have great difficulty in getting the balance right.
    The class of compounds known as dioxins are another favourite target of the misinformed hysterical chemophobes, whose fervent clamour unfortunately becomes spread through the mass media into folk mythology, even overflowing to infect some members of the community who should know better. ôBut everybody knows that dioxin is one of most toxic substances knownö
    Do they? In actuality, as toxic substances go, itÆs a pretty innocuous compound. There are a number of dioxins, but here I will mean by TCCD the 2-3-7-8 variety, which is considered to be the nastiest member of the family and the only one to be classed as a known human carcinogen. People who have been exposed to extremely high concentrations as, for instance, in the notorious explosion of a trichlorophenol manufacturing plant in Seveso, Italy, suffered severe chloracne, a very unpleasant condition characterized by massive pustules over the body. But they eventually recovered from this.
    There were no human deaths resulting from acute exposure from the Seveso accident or from other incidents. Some affected cows and rabbits died soon after the accident, certainly, but not humans. Even those with the worst chloracne. Over the years it was found that the excess rate of cancer among these unfortunate folk was slightly higher than the background population level. But the great majority of those exposed did not develop cancers.
    There was one significant reproductive effect which did emerge from all the studies carried out on the Seveso incident, however. This did not involve ill health of any kind. The children born of those exposed to the dioxin containing cloud emitted by the plant appeared perfectly normal in all but one respect. There were far more girls than boys, forty-six females, twenty-eight males! The sort of thing that might be linked to some sort of change in oestrogen function.

    WeÆll just bring in another player here for a moment. A chemical called indole-3-carbinol, an insecticide synthesized by plants of the cabbage family. It is a suspected carcinogen, but despite that, it is being touted as an anti-cancer compound. Now is that silly, or what? No it’s not silly at all, actually! The apparent paradox arises only as a result of a gross over-simplification. There are entirely different biochemical mechanisms involved in the initiation of different kinds of cancers in different organs. So, while indole-3-carbinol has a tendency to throw the spanner in the works for a particular metabolic pathway used in the course of liver function, it may, nevertheless, be just the very thing for reducing the risk of breast cancer. It appears to do this by locking into certain metabolic sites (aryl hydrocarbon receptors) and preventing unwanted interaction with oestrogens.
    Interestingly, TCCD reflects a very similar pattern. The liver is its target organ in terms of such very limited human carcogenicity that it has. It also has been shown to lock into aryl hydrocarbon receptors in the same way. This involvement with oestrogen activity may be a consequence. So, particularly if you happen to be of the female persuasion, you might actually be better off increasing your dioxin intake to prevent breast cancer and thus reduce overall cancer risk. In proposing that TCCD might actually be beneficial to health I have my tongue partly in my cheek, so again, donÆt ever try this at home! Instead, trust the good Common Sense biochemists and medical workers to best figure out the pros and cons. Better still, if you have the opportunity, take the necessary steps to become one yourself.
    Myriad compounds are found in nature which are far, far more toxic than TCCD. A few examples are Botulinus toxin, cobra venom, alkaloids from members of the potato family, tetanus toxin, strychnine, cicutoxin (hemlock), amatoxins (mushrooms), certain kinds of box jellyfish toxins, Amatoxins, Cicutoxin, Aflatoxins are produced by naturally occurring fungi, Aflatoxin B1, the most deadly, causes cancer in mice, rats, hamsters, rainbow trout, ducks, marmosets , tree shrews, guinea pigs and monkeys. Ricin is a toxin beloved of the CIA and terrorists. A millionth of a gram of ricin could be enough to kill a human adult. It is a lectin which can quite easily be extracted from castor beans although, in the US and some other countries, it is illegal to do so. Abrin, derived from the rosary pea is more toxic still.
    NatureÆs creatures have no compunction about engaging in chemical warfare and have been involved in the synthesis of a vast range of offensive and defensive chemicals of high toxicity for aeons. Many of those have acute toxicities that leave TCCD at the starting post. Indeed, a large number of them such as saxitoxin, a substance produced by marine algae and implicated in mass whale extinctions ,as well as human deaths, far outshine that of the most effective chemical warfare agents we humans have yet manufactured (Sarin and VX). Saxitoxin is one thousand times as deadly as Sarin. Epibatidine is a very nasty substance produced by a poisonous frog. Botulinus toxin is perhaps the most acutely toxic substance known, with a lethal dose of about 200-300 pg/kg, meaning that just one tea-cupful of this natural chemical warfare agent, synthesized by a bacterium, has the capability to kill every human living on this planet today. One tea-cupful!
    So, ô Dioxin the most toxic substance on earth, other than plutoniumö? Absolute nonsense! In reality, TCCD is just a pussy-cat compared with the vast number of toxic chemicals that have always been with us in plants, other organisms, and in our natural environment.
    There is an interesting irony here. The origin of early scares concerning dioxins arose when some Common Sense guys first started to check them out as health hazards. They used guinea pigs for these trials and, by a strange quirk of fate, it turned out that dioxins have far greater acute toxicity to these particular animals than to most other species. The hamster, for instance, is typically around 1000 times less sensitive.
    For over half a million years, we humans have had a close association with wood fires which produce quite appreciable amounts of these substances, and also, unlike other animals, we are in the habit of cooking foods. Because of this we have, during all those millennia, been regularly absorbing quite considerable amounts of these kinds of compounds by both inhalation and ingestion. It is to be thus expected that appropriate adaptations would have occurred which would explain the exceptionally low toxicity of TCCDs towards our species as compared with many other mammals. It might well be even 1000 times less toxic to we human cooks than to hamsters.
    There is another very common example of the grossly exaggerated propaganda that causes unnecessary public fear and worry today. This is the generation of very small amounts of organo-chlorine compounds, particularly chloroform, as a by-product of the provision of town water supplies that are made safe from bacterial contamination by the process of chlorination. This is how chloroform is typically portrayed. ôChloroform is a disinfection by-product. Potential health impacts associated with chloroform include cancer, cardio-vascular or blood toxicity, developmental toxicity, endocrine toxicity, gastrointestinal or liver toxicity, kidney toxicity, neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, and respiratory toxicity…ö
    Not stuff you would want to go within a mile of, Huh? Sounds really deadly!
    Depending on the method of administration and the concentrations involved, all this can be true. But it is also true of the air we breath and of pure water. Water injected into the blood stream can kill. ThatÆs why isotonic saline solutions are used for intravenous administrations. Air, too, if injected will produce fatal embolism. Inhalation of water, drowning, kills thousands each year. And even our essential oxygen, inhaled at particularly high concentrations, is found to be remarkably toxic. I have, during my lifetime, played the unwitting role of guinea pig in the assessment of the practical toxicity of this demonised trichloromethane, so I am well placed to give a real-life perspective of the true risk-level.
    The assaults on my health by chloroform occurred from the days of my earliest childhood memories. My maternal grandmother was a strong advocate of a very popular medicine, Dr Collis BrownÆs Chlorodyne, promoted widely as a cure for all ills. This insane witchesÆ brew incorporated chloroform, cannabis, morphine, alcohol, peppermint oil, capsicum, and, to liven it up a bit, a dash of cyanide. We would visit Gran several times a week and on each occasion I would be dispensed a spoonful as a ôtonicö or, if I had some minor ailment, several spoonfuls. Surprisingly, it tasted rather pleasant and, on a cold winterÆs day, would give a welcome sensation of warmth.
    A little later I had to experience the then almost universal ritual of tonsillectomy. The standard method of inducing anaesthesia in those days was to stick a sort of rubber funnel over the victimÆs face and to pump copious quantities of chloroform/air mixture into the lungs. Meanwhile, I continued to regularly consume tap water which had, no doubt, been chlorinated much less carefully than today. Around the time of adolescence I developed a great enthusiasm for swimming and, from then on, very regularly frequented chlorinated swimming pools which certainly contained much higher levels of chloroform than tap water. Starting in my late teens, I was employed for many years in a Government Public AnalystÆs laboratory. This involved, primarily, the checking of foodstuffs for quality and the presence of chemical contaminants. Large numbers of food samples collected by inspectors from shops and market-places needed to be screened for, among other things, the presence of lead, copper and zinc. Today this can be done semi-automatically using instruments, but then it was all carried out in test-tubes, and the test for lead involved the use of copious quantities of chloroform. These operations were not carried out under fume hoods in those days and the pleasant sweet smell of chloroform was all around. Yet more was used for all manner of other methods involving extractions and the like. The chloroform, as with the various other organic solvents we used, was recovered by distillation in the lab. Typically we would recover four or five litres a week. All that was fifty years ago and through the intervening years I have used chloroform in laboratory as well as the basis for a cement for joining acrylic parts on innumerable occasions.
    Well, I am still here, and suffer from none of the horrific symptoms listed above. Living proof of the importance of interpreting data in their proper perspective. You can rest assured that, today, the majority of those involved in regulating such things usually fully understand any risks and their appropriate management. Those officials who may be somewhat less well informed can today be relied upon to err way, way on the side of caution and to set limits far higher than those actually required for safety. A single dose of my old grannyÆs medicine contained more chloroform (half a gram) than, drinking two litres a day, you are likely to ingest from the average town water supply in a whole year. To equal my total granny-sourced input alone you would have to imbibe that supposedly awful toxic tap water two litres a day, for around six hundred years!
    Like lightning, and land-slips, these minor hazards have always been around us and, most of the time, we survive them pretty well. We have recently emerged from a phase of industrialization which, for many centuries, had the unfortunate side-effect of very markedly increasing the amount of additional toxic substances present in our environments with very untoward results. But those bad days are, for the Western world at least, past. Indeed, the overall toxic risks of our environment are probably lower than ever before in the history of humankind. The path of technological progress of the developing nations, learning from both our mistakes and our achievements, can be expected to be far less littered with the debris of pollution than was our own.
    This particular kind of challenge has already been largely overcome and what remains is, apart from the marked tendency towards over-regulation, all moving in the right direction. It remains only to monitor pollutions potentially produced by any of the few remaining irresponsible industrialists motivated by excessive greed and also, to contain the more recent phenomenon, the chemophobic scare-mongers with hidden agendas and similarly greedy motivations. This is important for several reasons, one being that of increasing the chance that misplaced fears can distract researchers and administrators from far more serious issues, and over-zealous regulation can discourage or seriously hinder developmental projects of great potential benefit to us all.

  44. Dfreedman says:

    I am grateful to Nicholas Kristoff for drawing attention to the use of BPA in bottles and cans. My 12 year old daughter has cerebral palsy and gets all her nutrition from formula. Until she was 10, she got 4 cans per day, and these formula cans contained BPA. After reading an article by Kristoff we found a different product in a BPA free bottle. Actually, if she was younger at the time, we wouldn’t have any choice but to continue with the same formula. I find it infuriating that the company that makes the formula chose to remove BPA from their infant formula product, but continues to use BPA cans in the enteral feeding formula. It’s all about marketing.

  45. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bisphenol_A

    Here is a reference to what is known about Bisphenol A. I tracked this down because I wanted to know the science about BPA and wanted others to be track it down as well.

    When I read the entry and bring my biochemical and toxicological background to it, I see lots of caveats and unknowns as to the effects of BPA in humans. Politicians may push the science in some politically advantageous direction, but, to me, the science around BPA is not strongly conclusive and is very hard for someone, even someone in the field, to assess. Others may have different views.

    Going back to Kristof, I want journalists to be aware of these subtleties and reference them in the journalist’s articles. I do not expect a journalist to understand the subtleties implicit in even the Wikipedia article. I do expect them to realize that the subtleties exist and to try hard, in their writing, not to reduce the role of chemicals to a simple manmade versus natural, good versus bad dichotomy, even though a false dichotomy may sell more papers or magazines..

    Is this what other readers think?

  46. Steve Heilig says:

    Perhaps if everybody concerned here would read at least the abstract of the very extensive review paper which seems to have spurred Kristof’s column, and note that it is co-authored by many leading researchers in the field from many fine institutions, it might become a bit clearer that Kristof was correct in his assertions, even if not precise enough for some readers:
    http://edrv.endojournals.org/content/early/2012/03/14/er.2011-1050.abstract

    (also note that Dr. Myers is not a ‘government scientist’ – see? everybody gets some lesser points wrong sometimes….)

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  49. @Steve,

    Thanks for the link. I downloaded a free PDF of the entire article. Since the article is 78 pages, it will be a while before I have digested it. I am hoping that this review article clears up a lot of the uncertainties that were in this literature when I last studied it 10 years ago.

    I would like some reader of this blog to discuss in more detail what a journalist should say or not say about emotionally important fields of study where the data is complex, not definitive, and not as comparable from study to study as we all would like it to be.

    For instance, should a journalist make conclusions stronger than the underlying science supports or might she or he just reference the results and let readers go to the underlying literature and make their own conclusions even if the readers do not have the background to make these conclusions.

    Thanks.

  50. Mark Spohr says:

    I think Kristof has taken the right stance considering that he is a “mainstream” journalist writing in a general circulation publication.
    He points out that a class of chemicals, endocrine disruptors, have been shown in studies to have the potential to cause problems. He gives some examples. He then points out that these chemicals are not adequately regulated and cites experts who have pointed out this problem (The Endocrine Society should be unbiased and have the necessary expertise). He also points to an extensive review by a large group of academic experts who also have concerns.
    Finally, he calls for action, citing additional experts who have also reached the conclusion that there is inadequate regulation of these chemicals.
    He draws no conclusions himself other than citing experts. He does not extrapolate and become alarmist (unlike Deborah Blow who goes off on a tangent about hydrogen and oxygen). He does attack “big chem” for their efforts to suppress findings and weaken regulation. (If you don’t believe that “big chem” exists, I can point to a lot of lobbyists and a big pile of money for proof.)
    The role of a general circulation journalist should be to research the experts and bring this to the attention of the public. I think Kristof has done a good job here of researching, citing experts, not being alarmist and calling for action.
    He does not do a full scientific review but rather leaves that to his references. He does alert his readers that there is a problem with endocrine disruptors as a class of chemical (and he is very clear and specific that he is talking about these chemicals only). There may be a lot of these chemicals to investigate and regulate but that problem is the creation of the chemical industry, not Kristof.

  51. @Eric Falfield,

    Hi Eric – thanks for your thoughtful counter-response. I didn’t know about the history of when conclusive proof came along w/things like radiation, it’s interesting. Especially from someone knowledgeable. Thanks. I do agree that the best story would be nuanced and diverse, and don’t want to defend whatever generalizations Kristof may have made. I guess I do believe that, say, with Kristof’s article, that it’s worth remembering he’s essentially writing propaganda (I’m using the word in a neutral sense to talk about the promotion of a belief), and that has a specific value of its own – one I don’t always agree with, but I understand what it is and its purpose. Various other groups do the same thing.

  52. Thanks for the info Steve. Looking @ abstract, gonna do my best to understand. Would appreciate it if more knowledgeable readers would chime in, if they have the time, with their thoughts on this article. The end of the abstract is pretty direct:

    Whether low doses of EDCs influence certain human disorders is no longer conjecture, because epidemiological studies show that environmental exposures to EDCs are associated with human diseases and disabilities. We conclude that when nonmonotonic dose-response curves occur, the effects of low doses cannot be predicted by the effects observed at high doses. Thus, fundamental changes in chemical testing and safety determination are needed to protect human health.

  53. All,
    So that I don’t take up blog space on a technical discussion of the review article, I created an entry on my blog (which is accessed by clicking on my name in the response header). If people want to have a more in depth discussion of the subtleties of EDC and toxicology research, we can do it there. If this blog owner would like, we can bring concise conclusions of that discussion back here.
    My reason for suggesting moving the technical part of the discussion is that this technical discussion strikes me as off topic for the original post about the responsibilities of general audience journalists.
    Let me know what might be of interest.

  54. OK, gonna do my best. I’m gonna focus on Op-Ed writers, as a journalist proper is (supposed to be, at least) held to a higher standard, as Deborah points out. Furthermore, I’m going to expand the scope of your request to include any emotionally important (or just plain important) field where data is complex, not definitive. Social issues of the day, political issues, etc. I see all of these essentially the same (for our purposes at least) as science-issues because we are dealing with complex issues, incomplete data, and the general public being dependent on expert opinion. For example, no matter how smart I am if I’m not a chemist I’m going to depend on the findings of chemists, and even more importantly how those findings are interpreted to me since I’m not able to interpret the raw data myself. In all theses cases there are also various interests with degrees of power who often are just as interested in convincing people they’re right and getting their way than in subtle, nuanced description (this may be true even of a group who is on the “right” side of an argument).

    Wow. Now that I’ve written all that, I guess the most important thing is that there are multiple objectives at work, and compromise is inherent to the situation. I see the objective of an op-ed writer in this context as to influence their readers and ultimately influence the issue itself in the manner they desire. Classically, this is done by appealing to logic, emotion, or character (logos, pathos, ethos – cribbing from Wikipedia). Now I’m not a fan of Kristof’s style – but it seems to me that it is a certain kind of rhetoric which can be effective for lots of people.

    I think the question you asked is a pretty sophisticated one, since it’s all about the role of the intellectual (we’ll call Kristof an intellectual, which by class I think he qualifies as) in society, about the ethics of rhetoric & persuasion (is it OK for my favorite presidential candidate to run really negative ads? Is their winning worth it or is the lowering of discourse a greater loss?), and about rhetoric and communication (communicating specialist subjects to a general audience). And I didn’t really answer your question…..sorry for this rambling post.

    For what it’s worth I think John Mcphee is a great example of an author who succeeds in talking about specialist disciplines to a general audience (that sets a pretty high bar – he is great). The Wikipedia page on rhetoric is also cool. The Socratic Dialogues are tangentially related here, I think.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhetoric

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  56. N says:

    Without getting to far into this article, Ms. Blum really frames what the underlying problem with this blog site it. When she says, “…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…” really identifies the problem.

    When a journalist demands in the course of their article anything they are moving from journalism to at best are editorializing or at worse lobbying. In journalism present the facts in a clear an concise manner from multiple unrelated, independent sources.

    This is a problem in journalism today. One of the reasons people use to go into journalism is to be a first hand observer of history in the making. Today many want to make the history. Others take the saying that the Press is the fourth branch of government too literally.

    Ms. Blum’s article on a whole is a pretty good one about the difficulty in evaluating and reporting risk.

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  58. Great discussion! Psyched to get to use the term Chemophobia – I obviously need to hang more with the chem-lab crowd. – but hope it won’t have to be in reference to Mr. Kristof. His breezy briefs on toxins makes me wonder what else he’s not protraying quite accurately, a worry somewhat confirmed above.

    Thanks for reading my blog.

  59. Deborah Blum says:

    Thanks – and back at you. You’ve got a terrifically smart blog going. Plan to keep reading!

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  62. mike says:

    And yet chemical companies continue to spew out millions of tons of chemicals, most with absolutely no testing to see what effect they will have on the environment or humans when impregnated into our clothes or furniture or carpets.

    Chemicals that have never before seen the face of the earth are now interacting with all the other chemicals that eventually make their way into our environment. We are creating oceans of garbage of petrochemical plastic chemicals that are killing fish, birds and mammals. And still, no one is doing anything about it.
    And humans have a bad history of creating first and finding the problems much later. Then ignoring them. So while he may have the specifics wrong, the argument is overall correct.

  63. Mike,
    Humans can stop doing all the things that you complain about. They can change the laws and reinstate animal testing and they can stop making any chemicals.

    Then what happens?

    An estimate of the carrying capacity of the planet under the terms that you propose is 100,000,000 people. What should be done with the other 6,900,000,000 who can no longer be fed, clothed, or medicated?

    If you have a good answer, I would love to see it.

  64. a fellow scientist says:

    Deborah,
    I think your criticism is on point. Have you considered contacting Kristof and offering to coauthor these types of articles? His heart is in the right place, but there’s certainly some room for guidance. You would be an ideal person to work with him.
    Best,
    a fellow scientist

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  67. Jackie says:

    Peter, I read your post. I may be the only one. I liked the story of “Granny’s tonic” best of all. Most of it was quite interesting, and I can see the challenge of saying what you have to say in a shorter way without sounding trite. But, really, isn’t there a shorter way to make your point?

  68. Jackie says:

    I found a study on the website “Environmental Health Perspectives” that looked at a variety of plastics containing BPA and BPA free–they found that estrogenic activity is found in many chemicals used in making plastics, and that alternatives for plastic production are available and at similar cost. This study tells me BPA is not the only thing to be wary of, and that it is possible to make plastics without EA chemicals.

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  75. Burnout says:

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