Would you let me wire your house? I’ll do your plumbing too; I’ve never done any of these things, or even read about how to do them, but don’t worry, I’m pretty smart – and above all, I’m cheap.
Would you fall for this kind of sales pitch in real life? I certainly doubt it; but it seems at the Washington Post it’s okay to do something broadly equivalent with a topic that demands expert knowledge: The paper has assigned a book, which claims that kids are developing autism, ADD, and cancer from daily exposure to chemicals in shampoo and other products to a reviewer who has, apparently, no scientific knowledge to determine whether these claims are true or false.
Lisa Bonos, a copyeditor at the Post with a degree in Jewish studies says the findings in “Slow Death by Rubber Duck” are “staggering.” Written by two Canadian environmental activists, Rick Smith and Bruce Laurie, the book charts their attempts to demonstrate that daily life is one long dangerous bath in toxic chemicals. According to Bonos, it
“…features not only the authors’ self-experiments and struggles to create cleaner homes for their families but also their parsing of scientific studies of these chemicals and links to such problems as birth defects, childhood autism, attention-deficit disorder, hormonal imbalances and rising cancer rates.”
Leave aside the bizarreness of self-experimentation (what regulatory agency would endorse such an approach?) it’s the “parsing” that’s the problem. Bonos seems to assume that what the authors claim about the scientific research is simply true. And the degree to which this assumption is misplaced is given warning by simply asking whether cancer rates are, in fact, rising?
According to a recent announcement by the American Cancer Society, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Cancer Institute, and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries,’ they’re not: cancer incidence and death rates have been declining.
Similarly, while there has been lots of chatter in the media that chemicals in household products cause cancer, the point made in 2004, by Aaron Blair, Ph.D., the chief of the Occupational Epidemiology Branch in the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, still holds true, namely that many of the chemical
“substances that we suspected would cause cancer in animals actually do not. Of course, it is possible that they do cause cancer in humans, but, in fact, our experience has shown us that most of the chemicals we have tested don’t cause cancer.”
If this wasn’t the case, simply breathing in the five hundred volatile chemicals in the aroma of coffee would be deadly. As would eating carrots and lettuce. And don’t even think of drinking beer or wine.
Now consider what Terence Corcoran of Canada’s Financial Post wrote in his review of “Slow Death by Rubber Duck” about what Bonos calls “hard hitting” findings that demand government action:
“When I showed these numbers to Sam Kacew, associate director, Toxicology, at the McLauglin Centre for Population Health Risk Assessment at University of Ottawa, he called them “junk science.” Keith Solomon, Professor at Guelph University and a fellow at the Academy of Toxicological Sciences at Guelph University, said numbers on the BPA content of Rich Smith’s urine “are totally meaningless in a toxicological sense.”
The moral of the story is: this is how you review an activist book making controversial claims if you don’t have the $350 dollars to pay a reviewer who’s an expert in the subject. A review that’s simply a transcription of a book’s contents is a disservice to readers.
(ps – one other failure to fact check, Bonos says that other governments are moving towards banning BPA spurred on by Canada; the opposite is the case, Canada has been backtracking on the risk (France said its decision to ban was irrational), and Korea has recently joined the EU, Australia and New Zealand and Japan in affirming that there is no risk from BPA in food packaging. I can’t think of any country that is moving towards such a ban.)