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    Tone Can Spoil A Good Science News Article
    By Enrico Uva | March 26th 2013 11:09 AM | 10 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Enrico

    I majored in chemistry, worked briefly in the food industry and at Fisheries and Oceans. I then obtained a degree in education. Since then I have...

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    Montreal Gazette article about toxins in food by Joe Schwarcz, McGill 's Director of the Office for Science and Society, reminds me of a line in the movie Hitch,
    Sixty percent of all human communication is nonverbal body language; thirty percent is your tone, so that means ninety percent of what you're saying isn't coming out of your mouth.
    Fabricated percentages aside, what applies to verbal communication also applies to text. There is no body language in writing, but the diction and arguments used set an important tone. Especially when writing in a daily newspaper, an author can hit the wrong chord with a single line or inappropriate title and fuel the same emotions he may be trying to abate. 

    Let's begin with the title of Schwarcz's piece(which could be his editor's, for all we know).
    Relax - food chemicals can't hurt you
    Health risks are proportional to the concentration of toxins in food, air and water. A responsible society is vigilant and sets limits on substances which research has revealed to be threatening from a medical and ecological perspective. But while it's possible to overdo it, impose needless bans and spend a great deal of energy worrying about minimal risks, such a "don't worry; be happy" title will get many people's backs up.  

    A conclusion's tone can also sting some readers and compromise good arguments from the body of the essay. 
    ...And those numbers tell me that whatever “toxins” may be present are there at levels that are way below what regulatory agencies find acceptable. I know how the scientists at Health Canada, FDA and EPA determine these levels. I know their qualifications and level of expertise. I also know the same for their critics. I know whom to trust.
    Although it's not intended, readers could accuse him of polarizing the issue by leading them to believe such issues are strictly about an unscientific, panic-stricken mob versus cool-headed experts.  He refers to a 2010 study on endocrine disruptors sponsored by The Silent Spring Institute.

    They conclude that urine levels of bisphenol A (BPA) and bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) metabolites decreased significantly during a fresh foods intervention in 20 individuals from four different age groups. Schwarcz pokes holes in the conclusion by arguing that the large drop occurs for toxin and metabolite levels that were already originally insignificantly small, and the changes occurred because BPA is metabolized quickly in humans. But the group leader of the study Susan E. Fenton is certainly not unqualified. She was the principal investigator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Reproductive Toxicology Division from 1998 to 2009.

    Prior to that she had completed a doctorate in endocrinology, followed by post-doc work in cancer biology. 

    Aside from rewriting the conclusion, I would have added the following: in light of the fact that there are many other endocrine disruptors that are far more powerful, BPA has probably received a disproportionate amount of attention.   For instance BPA is about 10,000 times less potent than estradiol. We are also lucky that primates, in a matter of hours, metabolize BPA to a gluconate derivative, which is not a disruptor.

    But concerns about BPA should not be totally brushed off due to ecological aspects. Fish seem to be the most BPA-sensitive organisms. Depending on whose guidelines one examines, the predicted no-effect concentrations in freshwater range from 0.175 to 1.7 nanograms per milliliter or parts per billion(ppb). The levels in human urine are close to or above that threshold based on the much wider study in Canada, which found concentrations  in the 1-2 ppb range. Pre-intervention levels averaging 3.7 ppb were measured in Fenton's subjects. 

    There is a chemical cacophony in our bodies and environment. For a rational assessment we need a more educated public so that agencies and researchers are neither pressured into barking up the wrong tree nor lulled into being too passive. By using the wrong tone in our attempts to educate others and ourselves, we just add smoke to the fog.

    Sources:
    •   Critical evaluation of key evidence on the human health hazards of exposure to bisphenol A
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3135059/
    •  Food Packaging and Bisphenol A and Bis(2-Ethyhexyl) Phthalate Exposure: Findings from a Dietary Intervention
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3223004/pdf/ehp.1003170.pdf
    •   Lead and bisphenol A concentrations in the Canadian population
        http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-003-x/2010003/article/11324-eng.pdf

    Comments

    Gerhard Adam
    Very good article, Enrico.  This is definitely a big issue that needs to be addressed.
    I know whom to trust.
    That statement alone tells me the author is full of crap.  If we are going to invoke trust then we are simply turning science into another faith-based system.  I want to see the data and the studies, and if they can't be provided, then there is no basis for my trusting anyone.

    More importantly, often the studies being quoted don't necessarily address the key questions, nor do they consider all the ramifications of a particular concern.  I personally think that there is no purpose served in name-calling.  Certainly one can get frustrated or even angry, but the choices are to either provide refuting data or to discontinue the dialogue.  Simply labeling someone as "anti-science" or a "crackpot" [without providing any data of your own] is decidedly unscientific.
    Relax - food chemicals can't hurt you
    I found the title to be patronizing.  After all, one can already envision the corresponding title if food chemicals were demonstrated to be dangerous.
    "Food Chemicals - Who Could've Known?"
    People have run into this trick too many times to be taken in by it any longer.  In science, the one thing that every scientist should be careful about is getting too cocky and confident in their data to the exclusion of contrary evidence or questions.  This is especially true in areas where it may be nearly impossible to examine all the circumstances, and more importantly when one is dealing with areas for which our knowledge is quite sketchy.
    Mundus vult decipi
    UvaE
    Very good article, Enrico.  This is definitely a big issue that needs to be addressed.
    Thanks Gerhard. It's been brewing for a while, and in part, it was influenced by reading your articles and comments
    Gerhard Adam
    Oh oh ... is that good or bad?
    Mundus vult decipi
    UvaE
    Good of course--you're just being modest!
    Gerhard Adam
    Well, thank you.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Quote
    "Fish seem to be the most BPA-sensitive organisms. Depending on whose guidelines one examines, the predicted no-effect concentrations in freshwater range from 0.175 to 1.7 nanograms per milliliter or parts per billion(ppb). The levels in human urine are close to or above that threshold based on the much wider study in Canada, which found concentrations in the 1-2 ppb range."

    How many fish swim in undiluted human urine?"

    Gerhard Adam
    How many fish swim in undiluted human urine?
    Hmmm ... about the same as the number of posters that would misunderstand such an obvious scientific point.  The comparison is intended to represent the concentration levels of BPA and not to suggest a causative relationship.  The point being that various "guidelines" represent different threshold levels depending on the context [i.e. species being examined].
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    I know their qualifications and level of expertise. I also know the same for their critics. I know whom to trust.
    Yes, whenever it is dumbed down like this, I know indeed who to trust: The critics!
    UvaE
    Yes, it is interesting that they looked at the combined effect of several of those types of compounds and found an amplification mechanism at work. Thanks.