Autism from shampoo? Washington Post’s clueless review of “staggering” claims

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.)

4 Responses to Autism from shampoo? Washington Post’s clueless review of “staggering” claims

  1. Melissa Loh says:

    Worse than a clueless review is one laden with hubris. This stats blog of the Post review has some useful information (ie all the quoted sections), however I find the use of those quotes and the analysis to be as much a public disservice as the Post review.

    My thoughts:
    -Rates of incidence of SOME cancers decreased from 1999 to 2006. Some of the decrease comes from attention to screening and risk factors. Incidence of other cancers have increased. A larger time period should be included as well. You simplify the argument by bringing it down to a question of increase or decrease.
    -I believe the book is talking about plastics, synthesized chemicals, and some proven toxic chemicals (mercury), not coffee, carrots, lettuce, beer and wine. It is distracting to bring up irrelevant chemicals that fall under other (albeit subjective) categories.
    -the quote calling it “junk science” is most interesting. I want to know more, but I am just left without additional information. I actually do want to know what kind of sampling and analysis methods give meaningful toxicological information.

    I know you are not trying to write a $350 worth review because your point was to poke holes at the Post review. However, this blog is as much a disservice to the public as the Post article because you neglected to rebut the Post article in a scientific fashion and instead acted superior and dismissive.

    -Melissa Loh
    PhD student, not an expert or vested in any side of argument.

    • Thanks for your comments.

      Perhaps you are not familiar with the non-blog side of STATS, where many of these issues are dilated on at sometimes excruciating length. Unfortunately, we do not have the funds to integrate a blog into the main site.

      I think you will find much of the detail you seek there – detail which would encumber a blog post, It remains to be said that if a chemical in plastic is alleged to cause cancer based on animal experiments where huge dosages are administered, it is also relevant to note where chemicals in common vegetables do the same. Check out the cancer potency project at U.Cal Berkeley. The point is that the dose makes the poison.

  2. Richard says:

    You say Canada has backtracked on the risk. What do you base that statement on?

    • Thanks for your question. Subsequent studies by Health Canada into migration of BPA from packaging. Key quote:

      “The low levels of BPA found in jarred baby food products available for sale in Canada confirms Health Canada’s previous assessment conclusion that the current dietary exposure to BPA through food packaging uses is not expected to pose a health risk to the consumer.”

      Health Canada’s earlier risk assessment of BPA did not find evidence of risk; however, a separate risk management evaluation decided to employ the precautionary principle with regard to food containers used by babies. The media coverage never made this distinction. (It also led France’s Health Minister to pronounce Canada’s decision to be a mockery of the precautionary principle – for more, click here).

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