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What’s in a name?: evolving our reactions to chemicals

In 2011, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC) released a report featuring a baby covered in bubbles and sitting in a bath with the words “Baby’s Tub is Still Toxic.” The warning was in response to the discovery that Johnson & Johnson’s baby shampoo contained trace amounts of formaldehyde. Because formaldehyde was classified as a probable human carcinogen by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the report immediately stirred up fear that using this shampoo would cause cancer in children. However, what the report did not acknowledge was the dosage of formaldehyde required to be cancerous. Data has indicated that no tumours have been found when occupational exposure is below 2.4mg of formaldehyde per cubic meter of air. In response to this news release, Joe Schwarcz, Director of McGill’s Office for Science and Society (OSS), decided to take a closer look at this discrepancy. According to Schwarcz, even assuming that there is zero ventilation in the bathroom, the concentration of formaldehyde would be at most 0.2mg per cubic meter—not even a tenth of the amount shown to cause tumours.

This story is not unique. The OSS receives many calls each week concerning questions related to scientific misinformation. “People look up information as it is so terribly easy now with search engines—and likely many are not familiar with evidence-based sites and take whatever they read as the gospel,” explained David Harpp, McGill professor and Tomlinson Chair of Scientific Education. “It is the old ‘I heard that’ syndrome—like the game of telephone—as [people] are apt to tell friends and so on. By the time it reaches the nth person, the message is quite distorted.”

“It’s quite unfortunate that ‘chemical’ has become a dirty word,” Schwarcz said. “If you read lay publications, the word is almost always preceded by an adjective—usually a derogatory one. You know, ‘poisonous chemical,’ ‘toxic chemical,’ ‘dangerous chemical.’”

According to Schwarcz, the public’s perception of science began to change after the 1960s.

Rachel Carson’s novel Silent Spring, published in 1962, played a pivotal role in sparking an environmental movement and facilitating the ban on dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), a commonly used insecticide that was found to harm reproductive development and threaten wildlife. For the first time, the public became aware of the potential effects of chemicals found in commonly used products. Today, groups like the David Suzuki Foundation are lobbying for the removal of a host of chemicals in cosmetics, while particularly emphasizing the idea that natural is better than synthetic. By voicing their concerns, these groups are starting conversations about the importance of consumer awareness.

With so many differing viewpoints readily available, critical thinking is key. Because any source of information could have potential biases or conflicts of interest, it is crucial to take a closer look at its origin. The David Suzuki Foundation and the CSC both cite some of their research from the Environmental Working Group, a foundation funded by a number of charitable groups, such as the Winslow Foundation and the Civil Society Institute. The OSS receives funding from the university and the Lorne Trottier Family Foundation and states on their website that they “accept no funding from any vested interest.” As a responsible consumer, it is essential to recognize any possible implications and biases that might accompany organizations’ funding.

Consumers consistently make choices that are affected by science. While we should be continuing to pose questions about product safety, it is important to be well-informed. With the wealth of information that is often available online, the average person is cast into an arbitrary guessing game of judging whether or not a scientific claim makes sense, because he or she usually does not have the background knowledge to gauge if, for instance, trace amounts of formaldehyde in baby shampoo would have a carcinogenic effect.

Since the 1960s, a growing myth has emerged that chemicals are either ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and that natural is better than synthetic. Both these expectations are based on a naïve understanding of science. Nature is not benign. Anthrax, botulin, and castor beans—some of which are used in bio-terrorism—are naturally occurring products, and it is through synthetic drugs that people are treated for these agents.  Nature can be just as harmful as it is good to us, and the public should not be fooled by the ‘safe’ connotation it has acquired. Chemicals, too, cannot be classified as either good or bad.

“One of the challenges we face is to emphasize to people that chemicals are just things. They’re not good or bad, they don’t make any decisions—people make decisions,” Schwarcz said. “Chemicals are nothing else but the building blocks of matter. There is no such thing as a safe or dangerous chemical; there are safe or dangerous ways to use chemicals, and that’s where education and knowledge come in.”

Though it is in our best interest to strive for total safety, Schwarcz explains that this is not a demand that can be guaranteed by science.

“Risk and hazard are not the same thing. Hazard is something inherent that you cannot alter. A lion is a hazard, but the risk associated with the lion is different whether you meet up with it at the zoo or on the plains of Africa. The hazard is the same [in both situations] but the risk is different.”

Oftentimes, the focus is not on risk, but on hazard. For instance, David Suzuki’s list of “Dirty Dozen Chemicals in Cosmetics” suggests that chemicals such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and parabens are hazardous substances. Suzuki’s site states that “the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies BHA as a possible human carcinogen.” However, the risk of using any of the aforementioned compounds in a cosmetic is not only a function of hazard, but also depends on exposure, dosage, and personal liability. The 2010 Health Canada Status on Cosmetic Ingredients of Interest reported that “BHA […] was found to not present a risk at current levels of exposure [in cosmetics at a concentration of 0.1 per cent or less.]”

One question that is not getting asked is what is going into our products to replace these so-called toxic chemicals that companies have removed due to public pressure. Schwarcz explained that the chemicals we are using in the first place are being used for a reason. If a company is adding a preservative to their product, it’s often not because they want to add a potentially dangerous and expensive chemical to their make-up, but because this preservative serves a function.

For instance, when you use your finger to apply a cream, bacteria are transferred from your skin to the product. Creams—due to their moisture content—are a perfect medium for bacterial growth unless there is a preservative present. Parabens happen to be a very effective antimicrobial agent. So, the alternative to taking out the parabens is either to have a cream with limited shelf life—possibly giving rise to infection—or replacing it with another less-tested preservative.

Evidently, scientific illiteracy remains a problem, and it’s not one that will be quickly solved. However, both Schwarcz and Harpp emphasize that one of the most important steps the public can take is knowing whom to trust. The media often plays a large role in shifting the public’s perception of science, especially within the past few decades.

“The basic formula is likely to be strongly associated with the media—putting up misleading and dramatically exaggerated headlines for what is not always a story that [deserves it…] The editors are looking to sell the article, so clever headlines often take over,” Harpp said.

Schwarcz suggests Health Canada’s website as a useful resource. This agency publishes a cosmetic ingredient ‘hot list’ that  indicates which chemical ingredients manufacturers are told not to use or should use in limited amounts. These hot lists are compiled based on extensive tests and research. While it is more important to question what goods to consume, we should ensure that our choices are based on the scientific method—testing and re-testing a hypothesis until it is reproducible—rather than hearsay and anecdotes.

“Many government websites are, in my opinion, not out for headlines but for facts and conclusions based on facts,” Harpp said. “The Internet is a gigantic swamp [filled] with ‘facts’ and real facts. Usually, just [reviewing] the organization associated with the site is a good indicator [of its reliability].”

In the end, there is no simple solution. In order to make informed decisions as consumers, it is imperative that we move away from trying to evaluate the field in terms of binaries—good or bad, safe or dangerous—and recognize that there is a risk associated with all science. It is how science is used that determines its hazard.

“In […] science, it is not enough to be smart and be a critical thinker; you have to have data to analyze which you apply critical thinking to,” Schwarcz said. “Science is not white or black—there are varying shades of grey. If you really want to be informed you have to dig and do the work.”

The Office for Science and Society started the World of Chemistry courses in 1982 and since then over 30,000 students at McGill have taken one or more of the four courses in the suite (Food, Drugs, Environment and Technology). For more information on science literacy, McGill students are encouraged to attend the ‘Is that a fact?’ Lorne Trottier symposium to be held from 5:30-7:30pm on Oct. 28 to 29 at Centre Mont Royal at 1000 Sherbrooke.

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