A recent op-ed harangue in the Washington Post — "Scientists know plastics are dangerous. Why won't the government say so? — by radical activist Paul Thacker seeks to create concern about the health effects of plastics and plasticizers. It reads like a cross between a trial attorney's plea for action and the sort of alarmist propaganda that Russian trolls publish to sow discord and fear in the West about products like chemicals, vaccines and genetically engineered plants.
The article is worth discussing in some detail, because it's typical of the sort of mendacious, anti-science, anti-corporate activism that we see increasingly.
Thacker's diatribe, which claims there is a schism within the science community, relies on a false equivalence between a few detractors with no relevant training and an axe to grind versus the expert consensus. It depicts cardboard heroes and villains, and postulates a conspiracy among government, industry, and some academic journals, to suppress evidence of harm to public health.
What it lacks is scientific evidence and, ultimately, credibility. The headline trumpets that "scientists know plastics are dangerous," but strangely, scientists are absent from the article.
Instead, Thacker invokes several rhetorical fallacies, such as an "appeal to authority." In this case, the supposed authority is the American Academy of Pediatrics, which baffled the toxicology community and the 80 percent of pediatricians not in their membership by declaring recently that trace amounts of bisphenol A (BPA) are endocrine disruptors, and that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which have studied the issue for decades, are wrong.
Where's The Evidence?
And although Thacker claims that science is on his side, he quotes no toxicologists, biologists, or chemists. Instead, we get unsupported statements by a lawyer for an activist group, a sociologist, one of the pediatricians behind the AAP claim, and a statistician. The AAP has issued a number of other strange press releases recently, such as one recommending that American children should not walk anywhere unaccompanied until age 10 — so their public proclamations need to be placed in context.
Instead of providing any real evidence, Thacker engages in dishonest framing, by claiming that a review presented little research on plasticizers "proving they were safe," although scientists and science journalists know you cannot unequivocally prove anything completely "safe." Not water, not apples, not anything.
Instead, we establish safe levels, because as has been known for centuries, "the dose makes the poison." (At high "doses," licorice and nutmeg have toxic effects, for example.)
Every reputable science body, including FDA, EPA, and the U.S. National Toxicology Program, that has studied BPA has found that it is not possible for anyone with a realistic diet to be exposed to enough BPA to have any negative effects. BPA binds to estrogen receptors only 1/20,000th as well as estrogen itself, so if activists and their attorneys are concerned about such effects, they should be sounding the alarm about soy in vegan diets and about oral contraceptives, not plastics.
Many of these "endocrine disruptor" claims read a lot like homeopathy; they try to convince us that that even if normal exposures show no effect, micro-doses might somehow be harmful. Sorry, but biology doesn't work that way. Anyway, when it comes to things that perturb your hormones, there are probably few things as potent as a jelly doughnut, which revs up your gastro-intestinal and pancreatic hormones and, if it's a good doughnut, your brain hormones as well.
Government and academic scientists working together as the Consortium Linking Academic and Regulatory Insights on BPA Toxicity (CLARITY) formed that project specifically to settle activists' claims that BPA was somehow changing our bodies in ways science failed to detect after 70 years. The study was conducted by FDA scientists in an FDA laboratory and showed that BPA was safe at levels encountered in normal use. The five (of 13 scheduled) academic studies published so far have found the same.
Crichton's 'State Of Fear'
The late physician and novelist Michael Crichton had Thacker's number. He argued in his much-acclaimed novel "State of Fear" that eco-fundamentalists have reinterpreted traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths and made a religion of certain kinds of activism. This religion has its own Eden and paradise, where mankind lived in a state of grace and unity with nature until mankind's fall, which came not after eating a forbidden fruit, but after partaking of the forbidden tree of knowledge — that is, science.
This religion also has a judgment day to come for us in this polluted and dangerous world — all of us, that is, except for the true believers, who will be saved by achieving salvation in the form of pure, unadulterated foods and environmental "sustainability."
One of Crichton's characters argues that since the end of the Cold War, environmental alarmism in Western nations has filled the void left by the disappearance of the terror of Communism and nuclear holocaust, and that social control is now maintained by highly exaggerated fears about pollution, global warming, chemicals, genetic engineering and the like. Enter Thacker, the Environmental Working Group, U.S. Right to Know, Greenpeace, and their fellow-travelers.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the officially designated, exaggerated fear of 2018's Earth Day last April was plastics. The theme was, "End Plastic Pollution," and the organizers produced a "Plastic Pollution Primer and Action Toolkit," which enumerates all the scary warnings that activists should use to "empower journalists" to frighten the public and spur politicians to drastic regulatory action.
Plastics: A Serious Threat?
How dire is the plastics threat? According to the Earth Day website, it's off the charts: "From poisoning and injuring marine life to the ubiquitous presence of plastics in our food to disrupting human hormones and causing major life-threatening diseases and early puberty, the exponential growth of plastics is threatening our planet's survival." (Except that naturally-occurring bacteria have been discovered that rapidly degrade plastics, and genetic engineering will likely boost their efficiency.)
Activists like Thacker peddle fear in the guise of promoting safety. French writer and philosopher Pascal Bruckner captured their worldview nicely:
"You'll get what you've got coming!" That is the death wish that our misanthropes address to us. These are not great souls who alert us to troubles but tiny minds who wish us suffering if we have the presumption to refuse to listen to them. Catastrophe is not their fear but their joy."
The tiny-minded misanthropes have enjoyed some of what they would consider "successes." They have effectively banished agricultural biotechnology from Europe and Africa, have the chemical industry on the run, and have the pharmaceutical industry in their crosshairs. If they continue to get their way, we'll find ourselves back in the 19th century.
- Campbell is the President of the American Council on Science and Health, which receives no funding from chemical or plastic companies.
- Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the Food and Drug Administration.