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Better Living Through Chemistry (If Permitted)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The overwhelming body of scientific evidence supports the safety of myriad chemicals in use today.

A fusillade of recent items by the New York Times, US News, CNN, and others purports to show how certain common pesticides lead to reduced IQs among children of women exposed to these chemicals while pregnant.

Dismayed, I carefully went over the paper that lies at the ground zero of the media frenzy. It is a study of the organophosphate (OP) class of pesticides by a group of researchers based at the University of California at Berkeley and led by Brenda Eskenazi.

OP insecticides were in widespread use from the mid-1960s until about ten years ago, when they were replaced in many applications by more effective chemicals. They are known for their brief persistence in the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to monitor these compounds for toxicity, and the permissible levels used have demonstrated no adverse effects at thousands of times their approved concentrations in laboratory animal testing. They work by inhibiting an enzyme needed for nerve conduction—but the levels effective against insect nerve function are orders of magnitude lower than any conceivable effect in humans. (A large 2008 U.S. study specifically seeking evidence of human health effects from the most commonly used OP pesticide, chlorpyrifos, found no such evidence.)

The Berkeley study is riddled with errors of commission and omission. It glibly assumes conclusions based on no science at all.

The Berkeley study is riddled with errors of commission and omission. It glibly assumes conclusions based on no science at all. For instance, despite the weak effect detected and the lack of any biologically plausible hypothesis of sufficient scientific merit to link pesticide exposure and IQ, the authors assert such a link; there is, simply, clearly no basis for implying a cause-and-effect relationship between the pesticide and change in IQ. Merely calling a chemical a “neurotoxin” does not justify such a leap.

Further, allegedly toxic byproducts of a pesticide are acknowledged to be of indefinite source: the authors admit that the breakdown products of the pesticide they analyzed—supposedly valid proxies for the levels of the pesticide itself—could not be definitively traced back to any individual pesticide, nor even to any group of pesticides, but may have arrived pre-formed in the mothers’ diets. Adding to the confusion—the uncertainties given short shrift by the authors and the breathless media coverage—the study ignores potential confounders (factors known to influence IQ that are unrelated to pesticides) as significant as parental smoking and alcohol intake—indeed, any paternal characteristics at all.

Most egregious, the study makes no acknowledgment of the overwhelming body of scientific evidence that supports the safety of currently approved uses of the organophosphate class of pesticides, including the 100-plus gauntlet of tests our own EPA requires of them (as stringent as pharmaceutical testing mandated by the Food and Drug Administration). As Jon Entine recently explained in The American, journalists in thrall to the politically correct environmentalist camp often ignore a wealth of studies showing no health risks for certain products, instead focusing on a minority of alarmist studies that allege health risks, thus fitting neatly into their prepackaged agenda.

Most egregious, there is no acknowledgment of the overwhelming body of scientific evidence that supports the safety of currently approved organophosphates.

The organophosphates are “neurotoxins,” environmentalists say, so of course they affect IQ. But these agitators should know that, at the minuscule levels found in our food, the organophosphates are neurotoxic only to pests (anti-vaccine activists have used the same “logic” to incriminate mercury as a neurotoxin, although the dose of the bygone mercury-containing preservative was far too minute to have caused any such effect).

Similarly, environmentalists—despite voluminous evidence of the insecticide’s safety—continue their well-orchestrated drumbeat of attacks on DDT. Banning DDT is perhaps the best example of their perverse credo: ostensibly treasuring “nature” and “the earth” while evincing scant concern for the people inhabiting it. They don’t care that their politically based prohibition of DDT has led directly to the needless deaths of perhaps 50 million human beings, mostly women and children under the age of five in sub-Saharan Africa. The ban spared those of us in malaria-free North America and Europe, lands where superior sanitation and DDT had already done their job. Worst of all, DDT has been shown, over and over again, to be a safe chemical, free of the heinous but fallacious charges leveled against it by Rachel Carson and her acolytes. Activists calling themselves “environmentalists” continue to agitate against DDT’s use; yet, when used as part of a multi-tiered approach, DDT could finally help to eradicate malaria and other insect-borne diseases.

Analogously, pesticides kill pests—insects, weeds, fungi—and increase crop yields and the safety of our food. Yet the anti-pesticide, anti-chemical, anti-technology crowd says the opposite.

These same “friends of the earth” oppose genetically modified (or biotech) agriculture, again for no science-based reason. This technology is another potential method to increase production of desperately needed staple crops—yet the opposition stems from a fear of “frankenfoods,” despite these crops’ demonstrated safety over the past 15-plus years—echoing the never-ending crusade against DDT.

Their perverse credo ostensibly treasures 'nature' and 'the earth' while evincing scant concern for the people inhabiting it.

The attack on organophosphates, DDT, BPA, mercury, biotech, and more springs from the same environmentalist agenda—if there’s a shade of a doubt of a substance’s safety, ban it, never mind the consequences—which supersedes science and petty human concerns and is to be promulgated by any means necessary.

When the EPA was founded 40 years ago, high on its agenda was banning the insecticide DDT, the main target of the nascent environmental movement. The 1972 ban of the sale and export of DDT—thanks to the EPA’s first administrator, William Ruckelshaus—was a triumph for the green movement (Ruckelshaus, a former environmental activist, simply ignored the voluminous findings of his own committee documenting DDT’s safety and unique lifesaving qualities). The few who, at that time, realized the deadly consequences of that act were shouted down by those who fancied themselves the stewards of “the earth.”

It was a sign of things to come, as the EPA expanded its search for “toxic” problems to fix—even if it had to invent them. Now the law of diminishing returns has set in: fewer serious (or even real) problems to fix, so the search for “toxins” to justify the huge EPA budget has become increasingly desperate. Is this know-nothing obstructionism what being “earth-friendly” means today? 

Gilbert Ross, MD, a former clinician-internist, has been the medical director of The American Council on Science and Health since 1998.

FURTHER READING: Ross previously lamented “An Empty Nod to Tort Reform” and wrote “Two Cheers for the FDA.” Jonah Goldberg discusses “Cooling on Global Warming,” Steven Hayward says “Saving Species as the Climate Changes: Blame Partisan Environmentalists,” and Jon Entine considers “Biotech: Is Organic GM the Answer?”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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