Health News Digest

September 13, 2010

Scaring People For Fun And Profit

Scary clown

By  Michael D. Shaw

Fear entrepreneurs have probably been around since the beginning of commerce. While their most common activity these days is in donation-style fund raising—by scaring you into supporting their cause—products are also sold on this basis.

Baby boomers will surely remember the nuclear war scare of the 1950s and early 60s, in which some people were convinced to build bomb shelters (also called fallout shelters) in their backyards. Indeed, swimming pool contractors took advantage of the situation, and quickly got into the shelter business. Since the shelters cost about as much as a typical pool, many surveys were taken asking folks which they would rather buy.

A notable proponent of the shelters was Nobel laureate (for Carbon-14 dating) and former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Willard F. Libby, who constructed a “poor man’s shelter,” consisting of railroad ties, old tires, and bags of dirt at his West Los Angeles home, around the time of the Cuban missile crisis. As it happens, though, the much more likely southern California hazard of a brush fire destroyed the shelter a few weeks after it was constructed.

Not surprisingly, the fallout shelter craze ended soon after this incident.

Libby’s street cred was founded on his eminent scientific background and decades of accomplishment. Nowadays, things have changed—and not for the better. Based at least in part on a public education system that favors self-esteem over knowledge, or even developing practical marketable skills, self-proclaimed “experts” are upon us like a plague of locusts.

Aided and abetted by social media and clueless journalists desperate to appear hip, far too many of these would-be know-it-alls become fear entrepreneurs. Which brings us to the strange case of Siobahn O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt, the co-authors of No More Dirty Looks, a remarkably uninformed and sophomoric attack on the cosmetics industry.

In O’Connor and Spunt’s fantasy world, your cosmetics are chock full of dangerous chemicals, and in many cases, the regulators are doing nothing to protect you. But don’t worry. Based on O’Connor’s extensive technical credentials as a magazine editor, and Spunt’s scientific background managing fashion models, they’ve got your back.

We are told that the book was inspired by the authors’ discovery that their hair treatment—a Brazilian Blowout—contained formaldehyde, a “known carcinogen” and an embalming agent. Since this epiphany apparently put our intrepid authors on the quest, it bears some scrutiny.

First of all, according to many sources, a true Brazilian Blowout does not contain formaldehyde, although some faux versions might. One would hope that for what these women allegedly spent ($400), they got the real thing.

But the undeniable harm here derives from simply mentioning an ingredient, and then trying to scare people. Thousands of chemical compounds, including the authors’ beloved sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), can be toxic based on dose. We remind them of the fundamental precept of all toxicology: The dose makes the poison.

The carcinogenicity of formaldehyde is controversial—to say the least—and is based on giving lab rats outrageously high doses of the chemical, orders of magnitude higher than they could ever encounter in nature. Moreover, when the doses are lowered to only exceedingly high levels, no cancers are observed. As to humans, most scientists believe that formaldehyde poses essentially no risk of any form of respiratory cancer.

It is noted that formaldehyde is a natural metabolite in virtually all organisms, and can be found in most fruits and vegetables—organically-grown or otherwise.

The book takes aim at phthalates, which are found in many cosmetic products. Phthalates, like formaldehyde, are among the most extensively studied chemicals on the planet, and concern over phthalates arose under the voodoo rubric of “endocrine disruptors.” There is perhaps more junk science published about endocrine disruptors than any other subject in biology.

Here are but three examples of hundreds that could be cited:

One of the early papers on this topic described genital abnormalities in alligators, supposedly caused by these compounds. Later, however, one of the researchers admitted that the alligators could have been misidentified both as to their maturity, and even their sex.

A recent particularly awful study looked at urinary levels of phthalate metabolites in a cohort of pregnant women, and attempted to relate this to certain newborn neurological tests. To say the findings were inconclusive, and the study design poor is to be overly kind. I was able to speak to the lead author, who readily admitted the deficiencies, but did not seem to see a problem. Frustrated, I finally told her that thirty years ago, her work would not have passed muster in a high school science fair. She replied, “Well, it got published, didn’t it?”

The third one is the charm. This work was published in a prestigious journal, and reputed to prove that if several endocrine disrupting chemicals act in concert, their effect is synergistic, rather than just additive, as conventional toxicology would predict. However, a number of other scientists tried to duplicate the results and could not. Eventually, the researcher admitted making up all the data, and the article was withdrawn. He was banned from getting NIH grants for five years.

The phthalate that is most frequently used in cosmetics and personal care products is diethyl phthalate (DEP), which has a clean bill of health from essentially every regulatory body around the world.

As to ingredients in cosmetics, the authors make the ridiculous claim that these do not have to be disclosed, making it difficult for consumers to make informed decisions about what they buy. In fact, Federal regulations require ingredients to be listed on cosmetic product labels in descending order of concentration.

Trade secret issues may exist for fragrances, but the palette of a perfumer is limited to the ingredients and usage levels that have been assessed and deemed safe. Earlier this year, the industry published the complete list of over 3,000 ingredients used to make fragrances to demonstrate its commitment to transparency.

Although the authors imply that fragrances contain chemicals which have not been sufficiently analyzed, the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) has a database of over 100,000 studies on fragrance ingredients.

Finally, let’s get real. Given our litigious environment, not to mention the rather obvious fact that cosmetics manufacturers scarcely wish to harm their paying customers, why do people continue to buy into the sort of claptrap proffered by O’Connor and Spunt?