Cupcakes, Chemicals, and a Culture of Alarmism
Julie Gunlock used to buy into the culture of alarmism. Why she’s fighting back.


LOPEZ: What is the preeminent food or household-product myth that concerns you?


GUNLOCK: Recently, certain environmental groups have been saying flame retardants and the products that contain these fire-resistant chemicals (furniture, clothing, Halloween costumes, baby products) are dangerous and cause a variety of diseases. Of course the alarmists don’t mention that there have yet to be any proven health risks associated with trace levels of flame retardants with which humans come into contact when they sit on a couch or wear a polyester shirt.

This particular type of alarmism probably scares me the most because I’m sincerely worried that if the alarmists succeed in their efforts to ban flame retardants, we’ll see an uptick in home fires and fire-related injuries. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, in 2010, 355 children younger than 15 died as a result of fires, which is 10 percent of all fire deaths. Sadly, it is the youngest children who make up the majority of deaths (57 percent were children age 4 or younger).

When considering the so-called “risk” of flame retardants, people need to exercise a little risk analysis. They need to compare the heretofore-unproven risk of breathing in an infinitesimal amount of chemical “fumes” against the quite real (and proven!) risk of dying or becoming injured in a house fire.

Flame retardants used to be considered progress. Not long ago, before flame retardants where used, fire was a real fear and major problem. Today, home fires have been greatly reduced, thanks in large part to flame retardants used in housing materials and furniture. Why would we want to walk back such progress on safety?

LOPEZ: Mike Bloomberg does have a point, though, doesn’t he? Who needs a supersized cup of sugar and acid?

GUNLOCK: But that really wasn’t his point, was it? Bloomberg doesn’t just criticize a person’s decision to drink gigantic tubs of soda; he thinks people shouldn’t be allowed to do it. What galls food nannies like Bloomberg is that in a truly free society, we must be free to make both good and bad decisions. I may not approve of nor want to drink a Big Gulp but I certainly recognize people’s freedom to consume large quantities of soda. Just as I recognize the right of people to do a lot of things I find unappetizing, immoral, unethical, and just plain stupid. Frankly, I’d like to outlaw something called “hashbrown casserole,” a dish I’ve had the great misfortune of eating at family gatherings. I’d also like to outlaw any recipe calling for Velveeta and cream-of-mushroom soup, but liberty-loving people must resist the urge to control the decisions people make.

LOPEZ: Would you let your kids get moving with Michelle Obama?

GUNLOCK: No, I’m in charge of my kids. I decide what and when they eat, how much they exercise, how much television they watch, what they read, the toys with which they play, and what time they go to bed. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program does real harm to the parent-child relationship by pushing parents out of the picture, expanding the school-lunch program (which now serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner!), increasing the number of children receiving school meals (it’s up to 32 million today and expected to grow as schools are now required to demonstrate increasing participation in the school-lunch program), and promoting the idea that the school is the central figure in a child’s life for food and nutrition. Study after study shows that parental habits — putting kids to bed on time, limiting screen time, and sitting down to dinner a few times a week — are the real solutions to the childhood-obesity problem. I wish Michelle Obama would spend a little less time scolding the food industry and hard-working school lunch ladies and a little more time reminding parents that feeding kids is a pretty basic parental responsibility.

LOPEZ: What’s wrong with a safe playground?

GUNLOCK: Well, there’s nothing wrong with a safe playground, but there is certainly something wrong with a too safe (read: boring) playground. I write in the book that my young kids get bored at most playgrounds in a matter of moments and end up climbing trees and tromping through large areas of poison ivy and tick-infested fields. What’s the point of constructing a playground if none of the kids find it fun? I also think we shouldn’t be in the business of removing all risk for kids. Some amount of risk helps kids develop good decision-making skills. On the more hazardous playground, my children learn to make better decisions, as in “maybe I shouldn’t jump from this high perch because . . . it hurts!” These lessons can be applied off the playground as well, which helps kids develop into independent and responsible adults.

LOPEZ: Why are alarmists bad for business? Aren’t they looking out for the safety and health of the consumer?

GUNLOCK: No. Too many alarmists aren’t interested in the safety and health of consumers. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Take for instance the alarmists who tell moms that nearly everything in the local store is tainted with toxic chemicals. Thankfully, most moms just yawned and kept buying their favorite products. This annoys the alarmists. There’s nothing more insulting to an alarmist than people’s failure to freak out.

So, the alarmists changed course — initiating a campaign directed not at consumers, but at the retailers. This new effort (I refuse to link to this idiotic and potentially quite dangerous campaign) urges retailers to take things off store shelves if the products contain chemicals (in any amount!). The majority of the retailers targeted by this campaign have ignored the demands — recognizing it for what it is, anti-science hysteria. Yet, unfortunately, a few major retailers have bowed to the pressure, saying they’ll remove some products to try to comply with the campaign’s demands. This is incredibly disappointing, considering this will mean higher-priced and potentially less safe products being stocked in these stores. But it’s important to remember: Industry didn’t bow to consumer demand; these stores bowed to the demands of radical environmental groups. That’s an extraordinarily bad precedent for businesses to set because it shows they won’t fight back against this nonsense. Businesses should respond to their consumers, not radical, anti-business purveyors of junk science.