Abnormal penises not on the rise, says new study

June 1, 2009

It has become an article of faith among the ‘plastics are poisoning us’ posse that exposure to one or several members of the phthalate family can lead to abnormal genital development in babies.  But now a major new study of children in New York state by researchers at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Columbia University Medical Center has looked  to see whether hypospadias rates have actually increased. The result?

Hypospadias rates have not changed in New York State from 1992 to 2005. Additionally advanced maternal age continues to be a risk factor for hypospadias. Combined with previous studies that demonstrate sperm counts are not declining, these data suggest that the testicular dysgenesis syndrome described in animal models may not be evident in humans.

Remember all those news stories warning that genital deformities  may be caused by phthalates in cosmetics and plastic toys? So far, not a single mainstream media publication has reported on the new study.

Plenty of nonsense

August 21, 2008

Plenty Magazine’s Jessica A. Knoblauch is on a mission to rid the world of vinyl, and she won’t let facts get in her way, or science. Yesterday it was vinyl window shades, today it’s vinyl mattresses:

Most students don’t get many zzzzz’s during the school year, so when the head does finally hit the bed it’s nice to know you’re not sleeping on a bunch of chemicals. …And since dorm beds aren’t exactly 5-star quality, pad up your rock hard bed with natural wool mattress pads that are fluffy, absorbent and fire-retardant. Unlike the regulation vinyl dorm mattress, these pads won’t force you to “go to the mattresses” with hormone-disrupting phthalates.

Not only is there no evidence that one can absorb any phthalates from a vinyl mattress from sleeping on one, but even if you did spend hours licking your mattress (treating it as a giant pacifier) there’s still no evidence you’d absorb any specific phthalate in sufficient quantities to experience any negative health effects.

The evidence that some phthalates might be associated with endocrine disruption comes from a study of Chinese vinyl workers, who were exposed to massive quantities of the chemicals in the workplace, and who had reduced sperm counts. Even then, the research did not find that they had impaired fertility.

Vinyl window shades are not going to make you fat

August 20, 2008

Increasingly, environmental journalism is taking on the color of naivity. Take this entry in Plenty Magazine’s “Your Daily Green Bit,” written by Jessica A. Knoblauch, which focuses on the risks of phthalates in vinyl window shades:

the relatively low cost of vinyl shades doesn’t outweigh the potential health affects of surrounding yourself with chemical-laden sun screens. Besides, surviving the school year is hard enough without worrying your window coverings are making you fat.”

Let’s start with the obvious mistake: the research pointed to in the link is about Bisphenol A (BPA) and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and rodent studies; there is no mention of phthalates. Second, there is no scientific justification for thinking that sleeping in a room with a vinyl shade will make you fat based on these or other studies.

There is at least one study which showed that several phthalate metabolites had “statistically significant positive correlations with abdominal obesity and insulin resistance in adult U.S. males,” which means that the fatter and more insulin resistant the man, the greater the quantity of phthalate metabolites in his urine.

But the simple fact of a correlation doesn’t mean that phthalates caused the obesity. It could be the case that men who are fat retain more phthalates than men who are not; in fact, the authors of the study listed seven limitations on the interpretation of their findings, among which include the study being cross-sectional, so it is only a snapshot of at a single point in time and cannot determine causality; and the database they used contained no data on sex hormone levels, thereby limiting examination of the mode of action by which they hypothesize that phthalates might cause obesity. (This, naturally, didn’t stop journalists from touting a connection).

In order for any chemical to be implicated as a factor in obesity, there has to be a route of exposure. So there would have to be some way of getting the chemicals out of the blinds and into the bloodstream for anything to take place. The studies cited by Knoblauch involved administering the chemical to pregnant rodents – and then seeing what the effect is in their offspring.

The article doesn’t say whether this was done by feeding (oral exposure) or in utero (by injection), but as BPA loses all estrogenic capacity in humans after oral exposure, the test involving BPA would have to have been by injection. So, even if you spend hours licking a vinyl blind or sniffing vinyl blinds in direct sunlight, whatever BPA you might absorb (and where is the evidence that BPA offgases in sunlight?) is not going to disrupt your endocrine system, make you fat, or reveal anything other than the likelihood that you need psychological help.

Moreover, the study cited on BPA used mice. The European Union’s risk assessment specifically noted that mice process BPA in a way that is so different from humans these kinds of studies have no relevance to human health. As for PFOA, studies of workers and other populations exposed to high levels of PFOA have not found any connection between exposure to the chemical and obesity.

The one thing this article does manage to demonstrate is that Plenty’s “Your Daily Green Bit” should be taken with a heaped serving of skepticism.

Greenpeace Urges Americans to Lie to Congress

June 23, 2008

Greenpeace’s “Action Center” provides concerned citizens with an opportunity to lobby congress to ban phthalates in children’s toys.  The reason is that the environmental advocacy organization wants “to make sure children grow up in a safe environment and one of the easiest (and most obvious) places to start is with safe toys.”

Of course, one of the things most normal parents tell their kids to do is not to tell lies, because not telling the truth is generally considered to be wrong. Greenpeace, on the other hand, has no problems telling people to sign on to a form letter that includes the following text and then mail it to their congressional representative:

“Unfortunately phthalates have been linked to a number of serious health problems including birth defects, early puberty and testicular cancer. They have no place in our children’s toys, especially since safe alternatives exist.”

The reality, as STATS has been pointing out for the past three years, is that no study has shown that phthalates in toys have been linked to birth defects, early puberty or testicular cancer in  children or humans. This is a wild distortion of the scientific research, and this is one of the reasons William Knowles, a recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry recently declared that environmental groups were misleading the public on the risk. Moreover, even if phthalates proved to be as dangerous as Greenpeace claim, children are not exposed to phthalates in toys in any meaningful way. Rather, as the National Institutes of Health has pointed out, children’s exposure to phthalates is overwhelmingly from food and dust. Banning the chemical from toys will not alter this exposure.

Washington Post Consumer Blog Covers Great Shower Curtain Scare of 2008

June 18, 2008

In an unusual inversion of the conventional wisdom that newspaper reports are supposedly more accurate or comprehensive or researched than blogs, The Checkout – the Washington Post’s consumer affairs blog – manages to do what news reports couldn’t do  in the great shower curtain scare of 2008: read the study.

The Los Angeles Times, Perez Hilton, Fishing Monkeys, Toxic Shower Curtains, and the Future of Journalism

June 13, 2008

At the risk of lèse-majesté, I would like to offer a couple of suggestions to Sam Zell and other Tribune executives to ponder as they struggle to measure the productivity of their reporters and streamline their newspaper empire: first, forget about the recent news that monkeys can fish. I know, it’s a tempting solution to the bloated newsroom – and it would end that old saw about typewriters and the complete works of Shakespeare – but even as our common ancestry reveals all manner of new intelligences, it is highly unlikely that researchers are on the cusp of discovering that macaques, baboons, chimpanzees or even orangutans can either type or copyedit, or write headlines and lay out pages.

And though the average monkey could probably do a reasonable impression of talking on the phone, copying isn’t always the same as doing. One doubts the average monkey’s ability to interrogate the average bureaucrat, politician or, indeed, executive – although all evince the capacity to babble in a manner which could, uncharitably, be described as simian.

From this follows the equally dispiriting news that “copying press releases” isn’t “journalism.” Think about it this way: if you see a dog chasing a ball, it would be a mistake to describe the dog as “playing soccer,” and then hire it to play alongside David Beckham. A dog, no matter how clever, is just not going to grasp the offside trap. Or even the concept of passing the ball. And it’s the same with writing up press releases: it may look like journalism, but it’s not. (A shame, as copying press releases would be an easy way for reporters to hit that 300 – 3000? – page copy productivity mark).

The thing about press releases is that they are not always accurate. Take, as a convenient case in point, today’s LA Times story warning people about the toxic fumes given off by shower curtains. Scary, huh? But it’s based on a study by an activist group, and if you *read the study,* you’ll find, albeit towards the end of the 44-page document, that the group admits its emission tests couldn’t find the chemicals (phthalates), which are touted by the LAT as especially risky, migrating from the curtains. And if they don’t come out, how can they be a risk? It’s a bit like saying “if you drink gasoline, you’ll get sick; therefore (read all about it!) cars are toxic.”

Given that William Knowles, who received the Nobel Prize in 2001 for work crucial to developing green chemistry, recently denounced this kind of activist science on phthalatees, don’t you think you should reward journalists for doing more than transcription? I mean, if that’s all you want journalism to be, write a program to trawl Ascribe or the PR news wires, and hire a few reporters from Britain’s tabloid press to come up with catchy, provocative headlines and scandalous spin. Alternatively, think about the value of journalists *not* writing inaccurate stories by doing background research, otherwise known as “reading,” and leaving the cubicle to go out and “talk” to people.

Finally, you may or may not remember the late LAT journalist David Shaw. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1991 – an honor that barely describes his service to the public and his standing in the journalism profession. Shaw spent months researching important stories – often to show how his own colleagues got it wrong (the McMartin Preschool child molestation case, for example) – and, memo to the LAT Health desk, how activist groups routinely spun journalists with badly-done studies.

I clicked on Shaw’s LAT obituary today, and in one of those painful ironies, there was an ad (and there may still be) for an LAT story about how celebrity blogger Perez Hilton “made it.” The teaser uses Hilton’s own words:

“I think what I do is noble. I think my job title is entertainer. I shine the light on celebrities behaving badly, and I also shine the light on those that get it right.”

The juxtaposition of Perez Hilton’s sense of nobility on holding truth to celebrity next to the life of Shaw, who not only deprecated this kind of blogging, but worried that newsroom cutbacks would doom papers to such sensationalism, really sums up what’s at stake for the LAT and the Chicago Tribune, and for Tribune execs: In life we can aspire to the sublime or wallow in the ridiculous; the trick to nobility is not to confuse the two.

Enviro Psycho! Embarrassing Disclosure in Poisonous Shower Curtain Scare

June 12, 2008

Some chemicals just keep on giving and giving to the poisoned well of urban nightmares. The latest attempt to wring a health scare out of phthalates (indicted by environmental activists as presenting a threat to health in everything from iPhones to dildos) is that they’re in your shower curtains.

Despite recent statements by William S. Knowles, one of the 2001 Nobel prize winners for chemistry, that phthalates pose no threat to health and that the environmental activists jihad is the real toxic problem, and statements to congress by Dr. Earl Gray of the EPA that the real area of concern is the effects of exposure to IV tubing in infants, a new self-published (i.e., non-peer reviewed) “scientific” study by The Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) claims the smell you get when you open up a new shower curtain is toxic.

And this is enough to get reporters and the public all worried about dying from cancer or becoming infertile. As Kate Merrril for WBZ Boston reported:

The group tested several shower curtains and found lead, mercury and high levels of phthalates.
“They affect particularly the developing reproductive system,” said Ruthann Rudel, a scientist with the Silent Spring Institute, a research group dedicated to tracking environmental causes of cancer.

She says children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to these chemicals, and that worries Brookline mother of two, Judy Robinson. “It’s a little overwhelming to feel like you have to be a scientist to go to the store to buy things for your family.”

But there is no actual evidence in the report, or any actual scientific study to suggest that there is a risk from a shower curtain being used as a shower curtain. What the CHEJ measured was the off-gassing of certain chemicals; it didn’t account for likely routes of exposure in humans and infants and whether there was evidence that these exposures showed a risk. Nor did it suggest a way that traces of mercury or lead could be ingested through showering.

And this leads to the real absurdity of the report, which should have been obvious to any reporter who read it: even though the CHEJ warned about all the ways in which phthalates could be dangerous to health (in the process mischaracterizing research by Shanna Swan on reproductive health in baby boys to claim harm where none occurred), the Center was forced to concede that:

The lab was not able to achieve the lower detection limits necessary to identify phthalates off-gassing to the air of the small chamber for this study. CHEJ is considering an additional investigation with a laboratory that could achieve the lower detection limits needed, since initial results indicated the presence of phthalates in shower curtains.

In other words, the study found phthalates in the shower curtains but couldn’t find phthalates coming off the shower curtains. And if you can’t measure migration, how can you claim there’s an exposure risk? It’s a bit like saying, “there’s vinyl covering the wires inside a TV set; vinyl contains phthalates; phthalates are dangerous; we couldn’t really measure any phthalates coming out of the TV, but there must be (wait for another study), and meanwhile, watch out, TV exposes you to toxic chemicals.

Equally sly is the CHEJ’s conclusion that the chemicals released by shower curtains are a major source of indoor air pollution, and that the American Lung Association (ALA) considers indoor air pollution a major health problem; it does, but there’s nothing in its fact sheet to indict shower curtains or vinyl. Instead, the ALA warns about “biological pollutants, including molds, bacteria, viruses, pollen, dust mites, and animal dander,” radon, tobacco smoke, formaldehyde, asbestos, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and potential exposures to chemicals in household cleaning agents, personal care products, pesticides, paints, hobby products, and solvents.

The determination of the CHEJ to find a risk from phthalates at any level – let’s keep lowering the detection limits! – is why activist science demands skepticism: instead of trying to determine if there is a risk, the CHEJ is determined to prove that there is a risk, even if the evidence – at least for phthalates – doesn’t quite get there.

But in a spirit of scientific collaboration, and seeing that the CHEJ is going to follow up with more research, STATS has a suggestion: why don’t the members of the CHEJ eat a variety of shower curtain samples? That’s the surest way of seeing if those nasty phthalates are really toxic.

Greenpeace Worries About Gender-Bending Xboxes, Wiis and Playstations: Publicity Stunt or Science?

May 20, 2008

It’s tested dildos; it’s examined laptops and iPhones; there is, it seems, nothing Greenpeace won’t do to protect people from chemicals in consumer products; and now it’s out to save the legions of gamers from the plastics, plasticizers and fire retardants in Xboxes Wiis and Playstations, which it suggests could have a deleterious effect on male joysticks, sexual development

One might suggest that spending hours in front of even the greenest gaming system is not going to have a positive effect on sexual development, but that would be a more conceptual take on “development” than a biological one; if you spend all your time gaming on screen, you’re not going to even see the ballpark, let alone make it to first base. Sorry.

In terms of biology, which is what Greenpeace is worried about, the key issue is exposure. If you eat your Wii, chances are there’s going to be some problematic health effects, and they would be in addition to the pre-existing mental illness or stupidity which led you to confuse a games system with food. But the same trivial point can be made of pretty much anything: Don’t eat glass, or bicycles, or paint chippings, or lightbulbs. And don’t throw your Wii in the local river either, if you have the remotest clue about keeping the environment clean.

What Greenpeace has done, as it did with sex toys and laptops and iPhones, is to take the very worst research findings on lab animals and blow them out of context, which is something journalists love, because it’s like having someone write all the boring bits of your story for you, leaving you to think about joysticks double entendres (alas, Computer Weekly couldn’t even be bothered to do that).

But here’s the problem: If you inject a rat with increasingly large doses of a chemical, bad things are increasingly likely to happen. But is that chemical likely to migrate from a console onto your skin and be dermally or orally absorbed in a way that counts as a similar risk to health? In order to have a real, scientific discussion about the toxic risks of game consoles, you’d have to measure exposure, and show that such exposures were likely to have a health impact on humans.

Greenpeace doesn’t do this, because it would mean having to do a real risk assessment instead of simply playing at being scientific and insinuating a danger. Which is why it resorts to such tortured locutions as:

What is clear, however, is that the presence of high levels of phthalates in such materials contribute to overall levels of exposure to these chemicals for users, including children.”

Um, we actually do know how children and adults are exposed to phthalates: it’s overwhelmingly through food and dust. You would have to have a dildo or a Wii in your mouth for hours and hours to generate any appreciable chemical migration. And it’s far from clear what risk that would expose you to (apart from the suggestion that you were taking oral fixation beyond the boundaries of social acceptability. So, pace Greenpeace, it’s not clear at all that these chemicals constitute a risk as used in any of these products. In fact, the likelihood is slim based on the way gamers use games until proven otherwise.

Of course, planting the suggestion that products from Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are going to impair sexual function in pre-pubescent and adolescent males is a great way of generating publicity; but until Greenpeace goes from just measuring the chemicals in game consoles to measuring how they are transmitted to the kids using them, and how that constitutes a health risk, that’s all it this latest report is – a publicity stunt.

See, also: Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Says Phthalates Do Not Pose a Risk to Health

Please Note: STATS receives no funding from any manufacturer of computer game consoles or plastics or affiliated industries.

Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Says Phthalates Do Not Pose a Risk to Health

May 12, 2008

Analyzing the media’s coverage of the risk from phthalates, a family of oil-like chemicals that make plastics flexible, for STATS has, arguably, been one of the most challenging and frustrating assignments for my colleague Dr. Rebecca Goldin (a scientist) and myself (a journalist).

With environmental activist groups and politicians such as Fiona Ma in San Francisco taking their policy guidance on the issue from a handful of scientists, who see no reason not to issue the direst of warnings, and with the media reporting the urgency of that risk, particularly with regard to what might happen to children sucking on vinyl toys, our attempt to argue for a broader perspective – one that should dispassionately consider the full body of research and places the risk in context – has fallen, largely, on deaf ears.

It has also put us in the worrisome position of seeming as if we were and are arguing, scientifically, for the perspective that there really isn’t much of a risk at all, instead of just arguing for all the evidence to be brought to the public’s attention.

This problem has been aggravated by the sheer clumsiness of so much media reporting and editorializing – notably the repeated citation of the ban in Europe on some phthalates as a clear scientific reason to ban them in the U.S., when, in fact, the ban in Europe short-circuited the EU’s own scientific risk assessment and ended up being a political decision. (See? We can’t let go!)

So we were both taken aback by the vehemence of someone who can speak with considerable scientific authority delivering a message from the other side of the debate William S. Knowles, one of the recipients of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, denounced the campaign against phthalates in an op-ed for the Pittsburg Tribune Review on Sunday May 11 – The phthalates scare: We are not at risk as one pitting politicians, urged on by environmentalists, against the scientific community.

Lawmakers — representing the concern of parents influenced by certain environmentalists — are calling for an outright ban of phthalates from children’s toys because of the misguided belief that by exposing children to toys made with these chemicals we are putting their health at risk.

Phthalates have a long history of attacks by environmental groups dating back more than 30 years. Even then babies were of prime consideration. Few chemicals have undergone such extensive testing and survived as being safe.”

So far, there has been no response from the ‘ban-phthalates’ side to this broadside. When it comes, no doubt the line of attack will be that Professor Knowles is retired and old, and hasn’t kept up with the research, and was an employee of Monsanto, and is thereby disposed towards an industrial perspective on plastics. Still, the fact remains that Knowles contribution to chemistry – catalytic asymmetric synthesis – is not merely technically dazzling, but of immense practical consequence. Indeed, his work is of foundational value for green chemistry. And surely that should give us all pause for some scientific reflection on this all too-easily politicized issue?

When the Media Stitches Up Scientists: PBS Pulls a Fast One on Phthalates

March 28, 2008

One of the most depressing things about writing for STATS was the discovery that many scientists are deeply reluctant to talk to journalists. Most cite the fear of being misquoted or having their positions misinterpreted to fit a black and white narrative that, in scientific terms, is marked by numerous shades of gray. Just as depressing is the discovery that those who talk to journalists are often reluctant to correct mistakes because they fear jeopardizing their future access to the paper. Not all journalists are like this; we have been immensely impressed with how much effort some reporters put into trying to understand complex issues; but the reality is too many either don’t care or are presold on one side of a controversy.

We got a taste of that in the last few weeks, having been approached by PBS’ “NOW” for balance on a story about the supposed risks of phthalates. We could only wish that the media treated more pressing public health problems, such as tobacco and lung cancer in women – with the avidity they have gone after this topic. But nothing quite prepared us for the degree to which “NOW” edited out information that challenged the show’s narrative. It’s not that my colleague Rebecca Goldin, a woman recently honored by the Association of Women in Mathematics for outstanding work, was trying to make the case that phthalates were safe; she was simply saying that the evidence that they were dangerous was very weak.

Perhaps because a significant amount of the scientific evidence on phthalates contradicts the alarming message that Mark Shapiro, an investigative journalist from Berkeley, pushes in his new book, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products’ (which formed the basis for the NOW show), it was deemed confusing or inconvenient in the face of an urgent appeal by one scientist – Dr. Shanna Swan, the primary source in the NOW program – to respond to the possibility of risk.

But it’s hard to accept that as a possible explanation given that the arguments against Swan’s work (made by independent experts one might add, as well as the plastics industry) were ignored. And the degree of deception really hits home when you consider the full facts behind the strongest argument marshaled by Shapiro and NOW for phthalates being a risk: Europe’s ban on phthalates in toys for children under three.

The permanent ban in 2007 succeeded a series of temporary bans which were not supported by the scientific evidence presented by the European Union’s own risk assessments and which elicited some harsh criticism from the scientists involved in conducting these assessments (see the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Journal of Environmental Monitoring and EurActiv).

This was left, so to speak, on the editing room floor. And so the question of whether there was sufficient scientific evidence for precautionary legislation in Europe, and whether there is a need for such a ban here went unasked. Instead, the journalists at NOW made a decision: there ought to be a ban.

And here is a mathematician’s reply.


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