Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Who can resist?: #chemophobia in the NYT

Either this is Photoshopped, or that kid
desperately needs an oxygen tank.
Credit: The New York Times
Instead of finding something to talk about on 'grad school Tuesday' (as I think about it), today, I'm just going to post excerpts of this New York Times article by Michael Tortorello on parents and their fears of chemicals harming their children:
First, Ms. MacCleery, 40, a lawyer and women’s health advocate, collected 70 products in a pile: things like makeup, shampoo, detergents and sink cleaners. Then she typed the names of the cosmetics into an online database called Skin Deep, created by the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org/skindeep), a research and advocacy organization. 
The results were not comforting. Ms. MacCleery’s $25 lipsticks contained a dizzying brew of chemicals, including ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, a possible endocrine disruptor. “When I bought them, I thought I was doing something special for myself,” she said. “But then it turned out I was probably eating petrochemicals.” The lipsticks went into the trash bag. For some products, the site listed dozens of exotic chemicals and compounds. There were estrogenic hormones and neurotoxins and bioaccumulators. For other items, there was almost no information at all. What effects could these substances have on her baby? Ms. MacCleery didn’t know and didn’t intend to find out. 
By the time the inventory was over, “I threw out, I would say, all but three or four of the items,” she said. “Everything was toxic. Everything.”
Well, it's good to know that the landfill is toxic now, instead of her living room.  And the best laid plans..:
BACK on the scale of home economics, Laura MacCleery discovered that it’s not cheap to buy a chemical-free bassinet. “We had it made with nontreated wood, by Amish people,” she said. “I think it was 400 bucks.” The organic mattress was hand-stitched. 
“And then the baby was born large,” Ms. MacCleery said. “She was like 8 pounds 10 ounces.” Maya outgrew the nontoxic bassinet in a month.
 It's nice to see that the reporter talked to some rational parents:
Some parents take up the research into chemical safety with intellectual rigor. Adam Zeiger, father to 6-month-old Eyal, is a 27-year-old doctoral candidate in materials science and engineering in Cambridge, Mass. His wife, Danna, 27, is earning her doctorate in molecular and cell biology. 
Even so, “If my Ph.D. process has taught me anything,” he wrote in an e-mail, it’s that “I know absolutely nothing. But at least I can do my homework.” 
Mr. Zeiger’s inquiries have left him unconvinced about the toxic threat. “There are tons of people and forums against this chemical,” he wrote. “Or saying to avoid that product. Or, ‘Don’t touch X, Y or Z because they contain something that resembles something, that came from something, that if used otherwise would cause cancer when given to rats in a million times higher doses.’ ”
First, let me note here that Josh Bloom has a typically sharp and funny response to the article.

The reporter speaks to some academics in need of funding professors of medicine who talk about the issues surrounding industrial chemicals and public health. I think we're all in favor of some sort of TSCA reform; I'm guessing that the argument is about the particulars, implementation and where the costs will lie. I doubt Ms. MacCleery will volunteer to take some of those costs on and she would rather it came out of my paycheck -- 'twas ever thus.

To be sure, I am a parent of small children who works in a chemical manufacturing environment. I'm pretty cautious about chemical hygiene and I really try to avoid taking compounds from the lab or the plant home with me. My work shoes stay at work, I wear a lab coat and I used to do my wash separate from the rest of the household to prevent cross-contamination (I used to manipulate much larger quantities of material than I do now.) Believe me, I am pretty concerned about their ability to metabolize and excrete xenobiotics. I don't believe that most parents run into the risks that I encounter on a daily basis.

There are, of course, major chemical risks in the home. Lead paint, for example, can be a real problem and one that seriously affects infant brain development. When we lived in an older home, you better believe that I had our kids tested and I followed USEPA's guidelines for mopping down your house to prevent lead dust contamination religiously. But cosmetic chemicals? These things are small beer, comparatively.

Ultimately, this is a problem of psychology. In the age of high-investment parenting, threats to our children can overrun any rational defense a parent might be able to construct. For whatever reason, chemical risk seems to appear much more threatening to some parents. I'm much more concerned about my kids falling down the stairs or drowning in a neighbor's swimming pool. Those are the rational fears -- I have irrational ones, too, but we won't talk about those.

As a chemist, I find chemophobia pretty ridiculous. As a parent, I'm in sympathy -- we all fear unknown threats to our kids. I merely ask that parents step back from genuine fear-mongering that we get from Environmental Working Group and the like and try to gain a rational, risk-based perspective on chemicals in the home.


  1. It feels like we're entering a phase where "chemical name" sounds scary so therefore it is scary. It reminds me of last week's article that TBHQ = butane.

    I certainly am in favor of TSCA reforms - especially with regards to MSDSs. People can't read those to save their lives and end up sowing confusion.

  2. Better not tell Ms. MacCleery about DHMO, she may have a heart attack 8-)


  3. I bet MacCleery eats unfermented soy products and uses tea tree oil, too, which are perfectly natural endocrine disruptors.

  4. ethyl-hexylmethoxycinnamate or whatever sounds benign. I like working with cinnamony aldehydes and other crap. They smell nice. So, you never took ethanol from the lab as a disinfectant for cuts? Or NaOH for unplugging a drain?

  5. I'm not surprised that the first mother in the story is from the metro Wash. DC area - people down here are very risk-adverse, and they want the government to solve all problems.

    I know a woman who works on Capitol Hill, college-educated, very dynamic person. She is a chemophobe - obsesses constantly about avoiding chemicals. She's convinced that food preservatives cause cancer (where she got this from, I don't know). Naturally, Whole Foods is a godsend to her.

    She once showed me a bottle of hand lotion and proudly said "It doesn't have any chemicals in it!" {I could see the long list of ingredients on the back of the label] It was made by the Origins company, which is just a division of Estee Lauder, and they put the same damn ingredients in the Origins line as they do all their products. But customers like the woman I know are a gift from heaven for companies like Estee Lauder - it's a whole new consumer base to exploit.

    1. Thanks for the stereotyping. Much appreciated.

    2. "It doesn't have any chemicals in it"? Was she holding a vacuum flask?

    3. Oh, I think I can explain. It so happens that in almost every other European language the root used is not "preserve", but "conserve". You see where I am going with that?

  6. I always like to mention "Hey, you know there's benzene in all the gas you slosh on your hand, right?"
    "Just go ahead, google 'benzene'..."

  7. I've had people tell me they didn't want exposure to any chemicals.

    And then protested when I tried to cut them off from oxygen.


  8. Funny you should mention EWG - just a few days ago a cooking forum I frequent eruption in a teflon battle and someone pasted an EWG-produced paper in its entirety. And these people, who call themselves chemists and put Ph.D's after their names write: "...non-stick coatings break down to a chemical warfare agent known as PFIB, and a chemical analog of the WWII nerve gas phosgene..."
    As a side note - I have long since come to a realization that Google has been an absolute disaster, as every half-educated moron can now find anything to support his point of view, especially in matters of public health and nutrition where first page results are usually dominated by advocacy groups.

    1. Ugh. That teflon comment makes my skin crawl.

    2. I found that here: http://www.ewg.org/reports/toxicteflon

      It's a really disappointing mishmash.

  9. I am Anon 5:38 pm from yesterday, who made the comment about people in the Wash DC area being risk-adverse -

    Perhaps I should have written - People in the DC area are more risk-adverse than people up north in New Jersey and Philadelphia, where I used to live. In my 5 years in DC, people just seem more tentative about making decisions, and overly concerned about making the wrong ones. And it extends to things related to chemophobia -

    Just in the last six months I've heard the following from well-meaning friends:
    1. I'm getting rid of all the plastics in my house because they are toxic (said to me by a woman as she drinks water from a plastic bottle).
    2. My husband told me that the EPA says don't drink water from plastic bottles (the EPA has made no such statement).
    3. What is the EPA going to do about lead in lipstick? (asked by a woman who is an executive in the environmental crimes division of the Justice Dept. I told her it's the FDA who regulates cosmetics, so go talk to them).

    And they aren't joking - they view these as very serious issues and they want the government to do something about them now. My telling them to step back and put things in perspective is useless. They're just part of the 'Worried Well'.

    I read through a number of the comments on the NY Times site for the article. Very good reading.

    1. Interesting how residents of each mid-Atlantic metropolitan area exhibit a distinct level of risk aversion. I'm curious...How does Baltimore rate? Maybe you don't have enough anecdotes to make your judgement on a city of half a million people.

      I think maybe, just maybe, you're letting your biases color your conclusions. But perhaps I'm wrong and you're actually a former Georgetown sociologist who studies regional differences in risk aversion. If that's not the case, please stop talking through your hat.

    2. Oh, I think he speaks not so much about people who live in Washington, as about those who commute there.

  10. Many chemicals are toxic simply because we evolved as a species in their absence and our bodies did not have to develop defenses. So I am cautious about many synthetic substances. Lead in gasoline is a good example that you mention--big companies did all they could to say a harmful product is safe (like cigarettes companies.)

    So even though a chemist, I have quite a bit of chemphobia but I believe I am not over reacting. I know aspartame (simply two amino acids) is no problem, but chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA); stuff in cosmetics and some food additives etc should be avoided.

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