Dawn Levy, News Service (650) 725-1944; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Naturally Dangerous debunks scientific legends with surprising facts about food, health and the environment
Naturally Dangerous: Surprising Facts About Food, Health and the Environment (University Science Books, 2001) is one of the most valuable books on public health policy not merely on environmental policy to have been written for the intelligent general reader in recent years. Its author is James P. Collman, the George A. and Hilda M. Daubert Professor of Chemistry at Stanford. His target is scientific illiteracy and its effects on public opinion about what is hazardous; overblown health scares reported daily by the news media; and futile government efforts to craft consumer protection policies.
Collman asserts that many dire predictions about the future of the Earth and its inhabitants have often been gross exaggerations fanned by environmental groups, organic food faddists, politicians and even physicians.
He argues that some organic foods and herbal medicines are potentially more hazardous than food treated with pesticides. To some degree, almost everything has the potential to be toxic. But the idea that natural foods are safe is taken for granted by almost every television news program and newspaper story, Collman asserts, whether the subject is insect pesticides or herbicides in commercial foods. The fact that some organic foods are not safe because of possible bacterial contamination or that many natural substances can be deadly is often underplayed or overlooked.
The U.S. government, for example, acting under pressure from consumer groups, now requires that labels specify when food has been irradiated. The purpose of irradiated food is to protect consumers from illness and death caused by bacteria, Collman writes. Scientific studies have long concluded that irradiated food is safe. But last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled that produce could not be labeled "organic" if it had been irradiated.
Yet there are 50 known strains of E. coli in organic foods that, if ingested, can cause bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and death. Some species of E. coli are found in dairy cows that carry the bacterium harmlessly in their feces and can contaminate vegetable fields. But consumers who enjoy organic vegetables or rare beef don't know they would be safer if they could overcome their fear of irradiated food.
The doom-and-gloom approach we use to deal with food safety extends to discussions about global warming. The author does not question that some global warming is going on, but instead challenges arguments from both "greens" predicting global disaster and conservatives denying any problem at all. Exaggerated claims cloud the debate and make rational public-policy decisions difficult, he says. The damage extends to supporting the conviction that free enterprise is self-destructive, and so it lurks in the background of every economic discussion as well. Yet this fixation with looming environmental disaster at every level of human endeavor is misplaced, writes Collman, a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Collman's evidence lies in numbers and sources. He examines, for example, an overblown health scare story reported by the New York Times and CBS's "60 Minutes" a decade ago. The topic concerned Alar, a chemical used to synchronize the ripening of apples. An environmental activist group, supported by actress Meryl Streep, claimed that Alar was "the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply" and was a cause of childhood cancer.
Immediately, alarmed parents rushed to dump huge quantities of apples and apple juice, causing the apple industry losses of millions of dollars. Alar was removed from the market. But studies by the National Cancer Institute and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) failed to show that Alar caused cancer, except possibly in doses between 100,000 and 200,000 times the normal amount a child might consume in a day's ration of apple products. Unpasteurized apple juice, Collman points out, actually is a greater danger to children and adults because of bacterial contamination from cow manure.
Collman examines the views of environmental pressure groups simply by consulting the sources they cite, together with the knowledge of the underlying science and other relevant literature. And he finds that the pessimists' claims are not supported by the available literature.
Consider just a few of his examples. In 1958, the Delaney Clause, a stringent federal regulation, was introduced in the United States that ruled illegal in foods any synthetic substance that is claimed to cause cancer in any test animal at any level of application. In 1996 Congress replaced that "zero-risk" clause with a more realistic standard of "reasonable certainty" of no harm.
The 1958 regulation, writes Collman, came at a time when scientists, using highly sensitive tests, had found that plants make their own insecticides, and that of 64 of these tested, 35 were found to be carcinogens. Each day, on average, every American eats a gram and a half of such natural pesticides, an amount that does not appear to cause cancer at such a low dose. Yet this is more than 10,000 times higher than the residues ingested from man-made agricultural pesticides that we have banned.
Another illustrative case is asbestos removal in the early 1970s. Used as an insulator against fire in public schools, asbestos became a major health scare costing billions of dollars. The EPA eventually banned its use in schools to reduce children's exposure to this cancer-causing agent. Many experts believe that, although asbestos presents a minimal threat when left in place, its removal, which results in increased airborne asbestos particles, creates a much greater hazard.
Cellular phones are a source of electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Unfounded claims that cellular phone use contributes to brain tumors prompted manufacturers to sponsor safety studies, which have not yet linked cellular phone to cancer. In fact, the greatest hazard, Collman states, is accidents caused by motorists using cell phones while driving.
Beyond his analyses of statistical probabilities of food and other environmental dangers, Collman brings another intellectual virtue to the task by ranking 30 exposures contributing to deaths in the United States. The data show that cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, motor vehicles and handguns are more dangerous than the risks of pesticides in foods, nuclear power or use of diagnostic X-rays in medicine.
There is no doubt that arguments will be made on the other side, as questions of balance and context are raised by those who disagree with this book's iconoclastic views. The author is not the first one to take a stand against the excesses of the environmentalist movement and the press and their manifestations in matters of science and public policy.
But Collman's bill of indictment is a formidable one a reminder of what powerful institutions may often overlook when they are under pressure by those convinced that the world is headed for environmental calamity. Given the emotions surrounding risk and the environment, even the best scientists with the best motives can be gripped by biases, political beliefs and judgments based on training and values, and also at times their personal economic interests. One would hope that Collman's views are noticed and that Naturally Dangerous succeeds in creating a better perspective on our notions of what is safe and unsafe, and how we develop rational policies to protect ourselves.
Spyros Andreopoulos is director emeritus of the Office of News and Public Affairs at the Stanford University Medical Center.
Editor's note: In the following excerpts from Naturally Dangerous, Collman sets out to debunk popular myths and expose misguided policies:
On the questionable effect of "andro," a testosterone precursor sold in health food stores (page 85):
The FDA has classified andro as a dietary supplement; therefore, it can be purchased in health food stores. Even though its use had already been banned by the National Football League, National Collegiate Athletic Association, and the Olympics, andro was still permitted in professional baseball as of the year 2000. In 1998, andro became controversial after home-run hitter Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals admitted using this potentially dangerous steroid. Because of the publicity given McGwire's 70-homer season, sales of andro in the United States rose to $100 million per year. Then in 1999, a surprising study of males showed that andro may have increased the size of McGwire's breasts but not his muscles! Andro supplements taken by men raised their level of the female hormone estrogen but not testosterone.
On a little-known misuse of cyanide (page 137):
Another nitrogen-containing anion known by most people to be toxic is cyanide. The volatile acid form, hydrogen cyanide, is used in gas chambers. The infamous Nazi war criminal, Hermann Goering (and, over the years, several chemists), imbibed cyanide salts to commit suicide. Cyanide, like azide, acts to inhibit the respiratory enzyme. In the southwestern Pacific Ocean, groupers and related fish are stunned by divers who squirt sodium cyanide at them. Although the dose used is not toxic to people or to the fish, it does kill the sensitive corals that create and maintain the reef habitat. Environmentalists should rightly oppose this practice, but few know about it.
By Spyros Andreopoulos