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10May 2012

The Rise of Chemophobia in the News?

Earlier this week, on my blog at Speakeasy Science, I wrote a piece criticizing the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof for sloppy reporting and writing in his anti-industrial chemical columns. As it relates to science media peer review, I'm going to cross-post it here (with the kind permission of Charlie Petit and Phil Hilts).

But I also want to make a couple of points about reaction to the piece. I had expected an irate response from Kristof supporters. But almost all the comments on the post were supportive of my main point - that we need to do a much better job as journalists in communicating risk in general and chemical risk in particular. Over at Slashdot, the post generated a 400-plus comment thread  titled "The Rise of Chemophobia in the News".  So I bring this to your attention not to take another crack at Nicholas Kristof (I think I've said enough there) but to emphasize again my point that we serve neither our readers not our own reputations when we fail to give a serious subject the serious reporting it deserves. And that applies to columns as well as news stories.  With that here's the post in question:

- Deborah Blum

Nicholas Kristof and the Bad, Bad Chemical World

I'm a long-time fan of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. To be more specific, I'm a long-time fan of his work in social justice journalism, his passionate reporting of problems others ignore, his dedication to helping people in traumatized regions of Africa.

It's outstanding work and, oh, how I wish he would stick to it. Because his secondary crusade of the last few years, you know, the one against evil industrial chemicals, is really starting to annoy me. This is not saying that he's entirely wrong - there are evil industrial chemicals out there. And, in many cases, they aren't as well researched or as well regulated as they should be.

But if we, as journalists, are going to demand meticulous standards for the study and oversight of chemical compounds then we should try to be meticulous ourselves in making the case. And much as I would like it to be otherwise, I don't see enough of that in Kristof's chemical columns. They tend instead to be sloppy in their use of language, less than thorough, and chemophobic enough to undermine his legitimate points.

In the matter of chemophobia, I'd like to refer you to a piece I wrote two years ago following a Kristof column of May 2010: Here's a short excerpt: "After proposing a link between too much chemistry and not just cancer but diabetes, obesity and autism, Kristof goes on to say "This is not to say that all chemicals are evil...". I still cannot read that line without rolling my eyes.

Because, how do you define a good or an evil chemical? Hydrogen (H) is an essential element of water (two hydrogen atoms, one oxygen= H2O) which comprises more than 90 percent of our own bodies and sustains most of life on earth. It's also found in the incredibly poisonous formula of HCN (hydrogen cyanide). Oxygen in a doublet (O2) keeps us alive. In a triplet (O3) it's known as a toxic pollutant called ozone. And while ozone is dangerous in ambient air it's also essential in the upper atmosphere for blocking ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

Yes, there are unambiguously dangerous materials - the naturally occurring element lead (Pb) comes to mind. But mostly, it makes no sense to randomly throw the word "chemical" around as if it had any meaning in terms of human health. And when we have influential journalists using the word chemical as a synonym for spawn-of-Satan then we have journalists who've missed their opportunity to inform the public as to what is a legitimate risk and what is not.

Instead we - by which I actually mean Kristof - run the risk of teaching nothing more than a generalized chemical anxiety. To this instance, I cite another of his columns from 2010, "Do Toxins Cause Autism?", which notes the upward trend in autism diagnoses and speculates that "one culprit may be chemicals in the environment." As our environment is, in fact, nothing but chemical compounds this fails what I might call the helpfulness test. Or, as the blogger Polly Palumbo of Momma Data put it, "How do you scare parents silly? Mention toxins, prenatal development and autism together."

Which brings me to Kristof's column of this month, which is titled "How Chemicals Change Us." Right. But let's not just roll our eyes. Let's try inquiring as to what he means. So, you say, which "chemicals" do you mean precisely? He answers in the first paragraph: "common hormone producing chemicals"? Oh, you respond, and what are those precisely? "A widely used herbicide," he replies in the second graph, one that apparently feminizes fish and gives alligators tiny penises. Oh, you try again, what herbicide exactly? But here, reader, you are just out of luck. Because he is just not going to tell you that. Not in that graph or anywhere in the piece.

I'm going to guess that it's (a) the herbicide Atrazine which was linked ten years ago to "hermaphroditic, demasculinized frogs." But it could be (b) Roundup, instead, according to this one of many scientific studies on that subject. Or it could be (c) another glyphosate pesticide. Glyphosate (a chemical cocktail of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen and phosphorus) is the central ingredient in herbicides such as Roundup. It's also the endocrine disruptor in question, the actual reason for concern. Or it could be (d) all of the above. You tell me, reader, because the New York Times column doesn't.

Kristof does cite some other endocrine disrupting compounds here such as BPA, best known for its use in plastic bottles and packaging, and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), used in everything from non-stick cookware to fire-retardant materials. But he breezes through their possible risks. Oddly, the one specific claim he makes against PFOA is an iffy study suggesting that prenatal exposure could, possibly, make girls - but not boys - overweight later in life. He ignores entirely a recent finding that the compound may be a more potent carcinogen than had been suspected.

You would think that a writer who wants to win a fight with "Big Chem" (as Kristof refers to the makers of these compounds) would choose the best ammunition at hand, wouldn't you? Perhaps he needs a better researcher. Or perhaps, as Palumbo suggests at Momma Data, he needs a better fact-checker. Or perhaps he needs to consider what he's really trying to accomplish here.

Consider the conclusion to his most recent piece. He quotes a government scientist who no longer microwaves his food in plastic and avoids canned food (presumably because cans are lined with BPA although that isn't clear here). And then he adds:"I'm taking my cue from the experts and I wish the Obama administration would as well."

That the Obama administration would what exactly? Abandon canned food or better regulate regulate toxic chemical compounds? Are we talking household hints or policy implications? If I didn't believe we actually need smarter, more thoughtful regulation of toxic compounds, I wouldn't find Kristof on chemicals so annoying. He's wasting his opportunity and his outstanding platform on this half-researched, half-thought out muddle of a crusade. I wish he would focus and do it right. Or not do it at all.

--- Deborah Blum


Thanks, Jon. And I'm getting your book now!

Yes, I agree. Stossel is no better in this regard. This is a cloudy area and modest claims about "safety" and "harm" are best. You might find my book: Scared to Death: How Chemophobia a contribution to the debate. Great work on your part!!

That's a really good point, Jon. And it actually reminds me of a comment from David Ropeik, who studies risk communication, made on the original post: "He buys the arguments of avowed chemo-phobic advocates as expert truth, rather than treating their advocacy with caution. Interestingly, it’s the same flaw with Jon Stossel’s work for ABC saying enviro fears are overblown…advocacy of a point of view masquerading as journalism. Tougher to make that charge against Kristof, who’s work is labeled as opinion, but his naivete about the reliability of experts dangerously feeds public misapprehensions." Both of you make excellent arguments here.


Thanks for writing this. You might also note his selective use of one sided sourcing. All the critics--including Linda Birnbaum--are well known for their signing of the Chapel Hill Consensus on BPA, which is a highly politicized response to the still questionable science around "endocrine disruption." They are voices worth hearing from but they are hardly representative of mainstream epidemiology or toxicology, and their views on endocrine disruption are out of sync with the FDA, EPA, CDC, WHO, German Society of Toxicology, European Food Safety Authority--one could go on and on. The reader would benefit by his acknowledging there is vigorous--and important debate--about what constitutes toxicity, the meaning of endocrine disruption, the validity of animal tests, the application of various forms of the precautionary principle (the group he quotes exclusively from reject the original "risk" based UN precautionary definition for the radical "harm"based one adopted at the so-called Wingspread Consensus in 1998. One can't help but think that Kristof is WAY out of his depth--and doing a great public disservice with his "reporting" on this subject.

Agreed, Tom, that people have really forgotten that toxin is a very precise term. Can't use it with, say, arsenic. I've found myself saying "poisonous" more than anything else but toxic substances works for me too.

Amen to that, Deborah. And I'll add a small additional pet peeve -- and Kristof is hardly the only offender in this regard -- but the word "toxins" is used incorrectly. It means a poisonous substance secreted by a living organism. I think the phrase we need here is "toxic substances."

Much appreciated, Charlie.

Thanks Peter. The signer is at the end of the whole post, but after the jump - I just put Deb Blum's name at the top, too. Thanks.

Yes, you'd think I'd remember the most important point! Thanks. It's updated now.

You have the URL in there at the start, but it would be good to give your name too.

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