The Dopes Make The Poison
    By Josh Bloom | February 19th 2014 09:31 AM | 26 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Josh

    Director of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences at The American Council on Science and Health in New York since 2010.

    Former research chemist


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     Wherever he is, Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim a/k/a Paracelsus must be doing the Foxtrot in his grave. Because somehow a bunch of dopes have managed to “correct” something he got absolutely right 600 years ago. You know what it is.

     Unfortunately, the dopes are not so dopey when it comes to spreading their message: Because a chemical is toxic or carcinogenic in high doses (usually in rodent experiments) that it poses a danger to humans at miniscule doses. Therefore we should be scared of any chemical that they tell us is dangerous, regardless of the exposure. And their list is endless.

     Some even believe that low doses of something can actually be more harmful than high doses, but let’s save a special place for them later.

     Like it or not, this is the state “science” these days, and an astoundingly large number of people have bought into it. More accurately, they were manipulated into it.

     And, you better believe that this is having an effect on all of us. This is being seen in what you buy, what you eat, what you wash with, and how much extra you will pay, simply because the people behind the anti-chemical/green/radical environmental movements have done a splendid job of twisting (or just making up) data to suit their agendas

     Their agenda? Probably money, ego, academic recognition—oh, and money. If you can scare people enough, they will donate so you will get rid of what is “poisoning” them. If you are in academia, you better toe the party line—the more outrageous the better—or you can forget about getting funded. So, it pays big time to keep the scares coming.

     So, let’s take a look at a sampling of influential dopes and what they have to say. Keep in mind that this stuff spreads like wildfire in an already-chemophobic society. Have Rolaids available.

    1) The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an organization that appears to be against all forms of matter on earth. I don’t know their charter, but I suspect it looks something like this:

    1.     Assume all chemicals cause cancer unless proven otherwise

    2.     It is impossible to prove that anything does not cause cancer

    3.     See #1

     These guys really don’t want you to be drinking bottled water. So they use the old “drugs are found in bottled water” scam as a scare tactic. Here is one example that is so preposterous that I’m almost speechless. (OK, that’s a lie, but it sounded good.)

     In an embarrassingly clumsy attempt to scare people from drinking the stuff, they report on their website that acetaminophen was detected in bottled water and caution that “the effects of life-long, constant exposure to this levels of acetaminophen are not known.”

     OK, let’s take a look at the data. What is the concentration of the drug that they detected? It is about 1 part per billion. Some back-of-the-envelope math gives you an idea of how much this really is. Uh-oh! One part per billion is the concentration that is equivalent of one Tylenol dissolved in 250 million gallons of water—about 379 Olympic size swimming pools.

     We don’t know the effect of long-term exposure to miniscule levels of acetaminophen? Like hell we don’t. They are zero.

     2) Nick Kristof:

    The well-known New York Times columnist is really quite good at what he does—tackling human rights and other important issues— and has two Pulitzers to show for it. This comes to a screeching halt when he wanders into an area he knows absolutely nothing about—chemical toxicity. Then he starts sounding like a lunatic.

    He especially dislikes bisphenol-A (BPA) a component of polycarbonate plastics. These plastics have been used forever—most commonly as liners to seal canned foods. It is well known that the plastic can slowly decompose, giving off very small amounts of BPA in the process. BPA is also used in many other ways—safety helmets, toys, medical devices, and cash register receipts. This is why virtually everyone has miniscule, but measurable amounts of BPA in his or her urine (it is rapidly metabolized in the liver and excreted in urine—one of many reasons it is harmless).

    Does this mean we are being poisoned by BPA? Kristof seems to think so. In his 2012 op-ed, “How Chemicals Affect Us” he makes a lot of odd claims—my personal favorite being about alligators with small penises (I, for one, do NOT volunteer to take these measurements).

    But I’m not sure I blame him entirely. Here is why: The expert he takes advice from is John Peterson Myers, chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, whose website includes a doozy called “Fight to legalize marijuana offers a way to obtain a better measure of electricity use.” I looked for the companion paper, "Legalized Jaywalking Keeps Cocoa Puffs Crunchy," but couldn’t find it.

     In Kristof’s op-ed he quotes Myers: “We don’t microwave in plastic,” …“We don’t use pesticides in our house. I refuse receipts whenever I can. My default request at the A.T.M., known to my bank, is ‘no receipt.’ I never ask for a receipt from a gas station.” Which makes me wonder if you could really screw with his head by sending him a bunch of terrible gifts with the return receipts in the box.

     3) Frederick vom Saal and the “low dose effect:

    Vom Saal, a professor at the University of Missouri has devoted pretty much all of his professional existence to finding something (anything, really) bad about BPA. Doesn't really matter what. Infertility? Diabetes? The Cuban missile crisis?

    He has used some “creative reasoning” along the way. Something called the “low dose effect.”

     First, he stuffed a wheelbarrow full of BPA into mice and he couldn’t find anything bad. But when he gave them very low doses he “found” problems. Or so he claims. So, here were his choices: a) Question the validity of the experiments (and many have), or b) Use a Bigfoot-type explanation that supports his data at the expense of common sense.

     He chose (b)—a hypothesis, which is not only counterintuitive (and as someone with a lifetime drug research, pharmacokinetics and toxicology under my belt, counterintuitive is being kind) but just plain nuts.

     I don’t have the time or patience to go into this, but if you’d like to see a comprehensive list of studies that debunk this craziness, try this or this.  And the FDA recently dismantled this theory. Their report says, “Our interpretation of the results of the present study is that BPA in the “low dose” region from 2.5 to 2,700 µg/kg bw/day (micrograms per kilogram body weight of the animals) did not produce effects in the evaluated endpoints that differ from normal background biological variation.”

    In other words, low doses of BPA did absolutely nothing.

    Let’s consider a couple of real life analogies that exemplify the absurdity of the low dose effect:

    I get sunburn from lying on the beach for 30 minutes. If I lay there for another four hours will it get better?

    And even more likely: Let’s say that I accidentally drop a cinder block on my testicles. I have no life experience to support this, but I'm going to  assume this will cause me significant discomfort. What to do? Do I intentionally drop ten more cinder blocks on the old boys so that they feel better?

     4) Dr. Oz

    don't even know where to start, but in the interest of not singlehandedly crashing the Internet, I'll limit the discussion to a couple of things.

    Saving the best for first, the good doctor, also not a fan of BPA, gives some suggestions about how to avoid the stuff.

    In his January, 2014 article in The Province, he says the following: “So we suggest you reduce your exposure to BPA and BPS by: Cooking and microwaving food only in glass, ceramic and stainless steel containers.”

    Excuse me?

    Heat up stuff in metal in your microwave?

    This automatically qualifies for the 2014 Top Five List of Bad Ideas. Here are the others:

    1.     Bear trap slippers

    2.     Yankee season tickets

    3.     IED speed bumps

    4.     A hair soufflé

    Dr. Oz is also a big fan of cleaning things without using chemicals. On his website, he offers nine suggestions.

    Many of them consist of combining vinegar (acetic acid—a chemical) with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate— another chemical)l. These react instantly to form sodium acetate (another chemical). Sodium acetate is harmless, but it won’t clean anything either. And should you be wondering why the average American has the science IQ equivalent to mold spores, you might want to check out the following video. (Don’t miss this—I’m begging you.)

    In the video Julia Roberts is on Oprah celebrating Earth Day, and is talking about all things organic, including a non-toxic cleaner. Guess what? Sodium acetate again. And she brings her “personal chemist” Sophie Uliano. Watch what happens when these geniuses show you how to make the “cleaner.” It happens at 8:20 in the video. I strongly suggest you avoid the rest. But if you don’t, and end up jumping off the Chrysler Building, don’t blame me.  (And after you watch this, if you develop a mental image of three guys poking each other in the eye with two fingers you are not alone.)

    I could go on and on, but this has given me a headache. Time to go take one-millionth of an aspirin.

    Front page image: EWG


    Many of them consist of combining vinegar (acetic acid—a chemical) with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate— another chemical).

    I had a rocket powered by this stuff as a kid, just think of all the cleaning I could have done had I not just left it to dry on stuff.

    Never is a long time.
    Josh Bloom
    I hear you. I had a Mickey Mantle baseball card in excellent condition. And lost it 
    Josh Bloom
    Good article but I have one question about this statement: "One part per billion is the concentration that is equivalent of one Tylenol dissolved in 250 million gallons of water." If MY math is correct, that equates a Tylenol tablet with a quart of water (250 million is 1/4 of a billion). Based on weight, that's way off - maybe by a factor of 1000? Should have it been one Tylenol in 250 THOUSAND gallons of water? Still minuscule though.


    Josh Bloom
    HalThanks. I'll check the numbers, but I'm guessing you're right.
    Math is why I went into organic chemistry.
    Josh Bloom
    Using a stainless steel container in a microwave would likely slow the heating, somewhat, of the substance in it. It will not necessarily arc, however. The cooking cavity of my beloved old Amana Radarange, from the mid 1980s, is lined with it.

    Josh Bloom
    Flat-What can I tell you?
    I'm a pretty big fan of hyperbole.
    Josh Bloom

    I hope that baby powder was cornstarch. Talc is far too dangerous. (/sarc)

    It's interesting that he has the "foil dryer sheet" suggestion. IF people are wearing all-cotton clothing (organic, of course) and washable wool, cotton does not create static in the dryer. You need polyester or some synthetic to get static. Washable wool probably should be dried laying flat. So why would you need a dryer static ball?
    (I don't use dryer sheets at all.)

    I couldn't handle the Julia video--I note that her site is woefully low on numbers visiting/watching, however.

    Josh Bloom
    TAC-   You are making the same mistake I used to make when I first started this job: Assuming that common sense and facts mean anything to your average idiot.   
    The Julia video KILLED me when I first saw it. Especially when they start going "wooooooo   hoooooooo."  And the chemist idiot tries to explain it as "organic is fun."   
    Kill me
    Josh Bloom
    Actually, I am fully aware that common sense is meaningless to the average idiot. I was simply pointing out a fact that Dr. Oz omitted, presumable because it was not in keeping with his pseudoscience narrative. (I have an aversion to Oprah in the first place, and "organic is fun" is not helping any…..These people are so lacking in any sense.)

    Microwaving in plastic containers does NOT transfer BPA or phthalates. Good Housekeeping did an excellent study on this - I know the person in charge of it - and it was published in their magazine (November 2008): "Is it safe to heat food in plastic. Of 30 containers tested, 27 contained NO BPA or phthalates; for the three that did there was NO measurable transfer of BPA or phthalates into the food simulants.

    I tried to watch the video but I swear I could actually feel brain cells dying in agony.

    I looked for the companion paper, "Legalized Jaywalking Keeps Cocoa Puffs Crunchy," but couldn’t find it.

    Dear Mr. Bloom, What nasty piece of work you are. And unlikely to have washed a burned pot in your life, from the sound of it. For what it's worth--albeit here, clearly, first hand experience amounts nothing since other people obviously do your scrubbing--baking soda with or without the vinegar, when heated, is fabulous on burned pots, does a good job on stubborn oil in fabric, and much else besides--but I won't waste characters telling about cleaning miracle substances. Apart from a heavy dosage of ad hominems and sarcasm, what was the point of your article? Nothing to fear from whatever the pharmaceutical companies propose we swallow in the interest of their capital gains? Medical research which detracts from the hype that requires governments to import dubious drugs of questionable efficacy and safety is a waste of time? No point in asking what you are on about of course; anything remotely bearing the signs of critical challenge will bounce off with insulting retorts.

    After reading your comment, I actually believe you are a philosopher; it's a lot of words that say nothing except assume the worst about everyone - yet I bet you believe you are honest and ethical and awesome. Good thing you have never had a real job in one of those evil corporations you stereotype and demonize.
    Dear Mr. Campbell--
    Well, that's me told.
    You're quite right, of course; i'm worthless, unethical, dishonest and vile. Hardly anyone to share a comments column except to reinforce and support your worldview. Unworthy of life, let alone opinions.
    Happy now?

    Not really. Before you were just engaging in sophomoric hyperbole and childish name-calling, now you are being intentionally self-deprecating to mask your vanity. Why not make a cogent point? Even sophistry would be better than this nonsensical rambling. 
    "Miracle"--really? What an odd choice of words. Something we've used for well over a century is a "miracle"?
    One supposes that all of your family and friends are 100% healthy, never visited a hospital, never needed an EMT. Congratualtions. However, as a philosopher, I would think you would be aware that such a small, anecdotal sample does not constitute grounds for extrapolation to larger groups. Also, you did not provide any evidence that capital gains are responsible for the pharmaceutical expansion, rather than a population that loves to swallow pills (both are philosophically likely, so you're going to have to use some real science here, or flip a coin, whatever you think is best). Medical research is certianly evil--all those children with leukemia should have died. So should the diabetics. Why save women with breast cancer? They're just a waste of precious resources, aren't they? I sincerely hope you never need any drugs or a hospital, but wanting to deny those who do seems a bit cruel, to me anyway.

    "Miraculous" if you've ever witnessed the terrific job that baking soda does on carbon encrusted dirty pot bottom. No anecdotes here, just a defense of the actress talking about home solutions. Chemicals used in detergents that are carcinogenic are widely and incrementally becoming implicated in environmentally related problems. I guess you would spit on anyone objecting to asbestos, too, which killed a lot of people exposed to it... I mean this virtually anacrhonistic, and hardly science-bashing. Just the cavalier dismissive sneering of the author of this article.
    But again if I pursue the basis for my objections, I'll be demonized and derided further. Excuse me while I grab the aspirin bottle, the only defence I have for scatter shot attacks such as yours. I'll bear in mind that the comments are only well received here if they agree with contributor TAC.
    The context of comment-boxes doesn't allow for detailed examples, but if you supply an email I can send you some cursory review of research to support the point I was making about pharmaceutical marketing of dubious drugs--which obviously is not a disconfirmation of the value of all drugs, how facile and slippery slope non-reasoning is that? -- for instance, the marketing of Viramune, the trade name for Nevirapine produced by Boehringer-Ingleheim. Certain medical research is obviously essential and life preserving contrary to your further sarcastic overstatement; it depends upon how the research agenda is promoted and sustained; childhood leukemia is an interesting case in point that you raise. The production of Vincristine provided some years ago an 80% chance of survival for children suffering from leukemia--except those children in the country where the germplasm was procured to produce the synthesized derivative, due to unfair intellectual property laws; but again, too much information--I get the message. Still, if you want to learn more share your email and I'll be glad to comply.

    I am fully aware of what baking soda can do--you make the mistake of taking lack of agreement with your ideas as unfamiliarity with the product. Seriously, asbestos. Jump to the straw man immediately?????
    Aspirin? That's a drug.
    For a philosophy professor, you certainly do seem upset when disagreed with. Philosophy is supposed to be about debating and analyzing. So what's the deal here? I presented my objections--use of a term that did not seem appropriate, callousness to people who actually benefit from pharmaceuticals, and callousness to those who benefit from medical research. Some bad drugs don't make the whole industry bad. The appropriate response to bad drugs is not to indict the entire pharmaceutical industry (you did avoid using "Big Pharma", so I give you points for that one). With the internet, you can research a drug before taking it. There's the FDA site, studies on the drugs (some do cost to get--but my health is worth it) and you can how others have reacted. You don't have to take the drug if it's not a life-threatening condition. With the Vincristine, the problem is the intellectual property laws, which is how you fix this. Not condemning the drug company. If you meant there were problems with laws, that should have been your statement, not saying medical research retracts from the hype. Specifics, as you provided in your reply. Then there is less chance for people incorrectly interpreting your objections. You specifically derided the pharmaceutical companies for making a profit--which is generally interpreted at attacking capitalism and making money, not the need for appropriate regulation.
    Lest you think I use as nasty a chemical as possible to clean my house and I load up on the latest antidepressant because some commercial told me my life should be sunshine and roses, I use almost no "chemicals" (soda is a chemical--not coming from a lab does not change that) in my house and I have had extremely bad reactions to medications. However, I don't try to make everyone on the planet live as I do. If other's want scented air fresheners and medications to make their life easier, that's their choice. It's a choice, not a religious imperative. Chemicals are not inherently evil. Like everything, including natural products, abuse exists (the people selling baking soda make a profit). Fight the abuse, not the chemical.
    If the owner of the blog wants to share my email with you, that's fine (I added my website, so you can go there if you like). Before you spend at lot of time typing up abuses in the pharmaceutical industry, realize that I do research on drugs and drug lawsuits a lot, just to keep up with the current messes and wins. I have other projects that require my attention, so perhaps you can cover the drug industry and the need for changes in the law.

    Did you want information about Vincristine and other drug initiatives that unfairly disperse the capital and pharmaceutical benefits, or about Neviripine and the marketing of this experimental NNRI in Kwazulu-Natal as an example of an abuse of the global health initiative, or not? It's hard to wade through all the persistent castigation, insulting overkill, sloganeering of obvious first principles and reprimanding to tell what the last reply was actually about. if you refuse to let go of the derogatory tone and insist upon assuming i'm unworthy of serious engagement, then no progress is made and the whole point of conversing online like this is a waste of my time, as of yours.

    Again, are you sure you understand philosophy? My response was quite clear. You may feel free to send me whatever information you like for my consideration. However, if your goal is one of "converting" me to your philosophy, it may be a waste of time. I am open to evidence and science or a very strong logical argument. If your argument is not compelling, it will not be accepted. I have not stated that I do not disbelieve your statements concerning drug intiatives. I said that the proper way of dealing with this is to push for changes in the laws, rather than condemning the drug industry. I have not castigated, over-killed or sloganeered. I have presented an explanation of my point of view and that it differs from yours. If you define serious engagement as "agree with me", then yes, this may not be a useful conversation. You have ignored virtually all of my post, so I'm not sure a "discussion" is what you want. I could save you time and look up the information myself and decide what I think of it. It's up to you.

    Josh Bloom
    Ms. LauerWithout one drop of sarcasm, please allow me to respond to your comments.
    1) I'm really anything but nasty. Quite the opposite, really. My friends and family have called me many things, but nasty is not one of them.  
     2) I don't know where you got your information on my lifestyle, but I have scrubbed many pots in my life. The difference is that I use something that actually works-- soap.
    3) Baking soda may or may not be a useful cleaner, but once you add the vinegar, it is no longer baking soda. It becomes something else, a chemical called sodium acetate. This is not useful for cleaning. Its properties are similar to those of table salt.    
    4)  It is simply wrong to refer to the pharmaceutical industry as a monolithic entity. It has many parts, from the scientists who actually do the work, to the safety people that try to ensure that a new drug is as safe as possible, to the formulations group which  look for the best way to deliver the drug to its intended target, to the people who clean the glassware, and the maintenance people who keep the campus operating.. If you think *any* of these people is becoming rich doing his or her job, I must inform you that you could not be more wrong. Regarding scientists, for the amount of education and training we need to do our jobs we are probably near the bottom of the income pile when compared to those in other professions with similar training. That is the few of us that still have jobs at all.

      On the other end are the commercial people, who decide on how much to charge for a drug (during my 27 years as a scientist I neither met one of them, nor have the wildest idea how they come up with the numbers). Then there are the big boys, who frequently don't know the first thing about medicine, and are in place to ensure that the stock price goes up. They fly around in private helicopters and earn hundreds of times what a bench chemist earns. 

     So, which of these individuals do you dislike so much? And I'd like to know why it is OK for people to make a fortune inventing a new website. No one ever seems to have a problem with this. Are they contributing more or less to society?  

    I anxiously await your response. 

    Josh Bloom
    Some even believe that low doses of something can actually be more harmful than high doses

    I would love to hear a debate between these people and homeopaths.
    Thank you for this post. Recently I have read the rants of anti-pesticide activist like Tyrone Hayes and his followers that claim atrazine herbicide is neutering frogs. He claims that his work has not been replicated because other researchers used too high a dose. What? I just could not follow the "roller coaster" dose-response curves they claim to have found. This was also the "logic" they used to explain the greater occurance of these poblems in urban areas rather than near corn fields where the herbicide is used.

    Sadly, that guy is even getting on NPR with his crazy claims that Syngenta is threatening to rape him or whatever. 
    Greg M.
    If I could rank my level of confusion and horror right now, it'd have to be something like "I fell asleep in a Noam Chomsky lecture on [infinite recursion] and I'm having a nightmare about Steven Tyler's mouth while he hits those high notes for the Armageddon soundtrack!"

    I've got more sciences for wealthy, middle-aged and attractive women... HI! 
    Begin with this assumption: it's all a joke. Then you will see the humour in everything.