Maybe blogger and Huffington Post contributor Maia James would have more time to make her bed and start those yoga classes she’s been promising herself if she wasn’t so busy freaking out about harmless chemicals.
Let’s break down her concerns. First, James declares she’s going to rid her home of a chemical called phthalates, admitting it will be difficult as phthalates are tough to avoid. She then does what all chemical alarmists do: She tells the reader that most of us “have detectable levels of phthalates in our urine.”
Indeed, for those who don’t know much about chemicals, it might sound scary to hear we’re all walking around with “detectable levels” of chemicals in us until you read that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says “finding a detectable amount of phthalate metabolites in urine does not mean that the levels of one or more will cause an adverse health effect.” The agency also says “phthalates do not pose a health hazard because the chemical is metabolized, excreted quickly and does not accumulate in the body.”
James admits there are some good things about phthalates, saying phthalates make plastics soft — specifically,“they make IV drip bags and tubes soft.” But James quickly returns to hand wringing, breathlessly worrying that this means these chemicals are “being pumped directly into the bloodstream of ailing patients.”
What exactly is James implying with her IVdrip-bag line? Is she suggesting that for the past 20 years (the point at which glass IV bottles were replaced with plastics) the entire medical field has turned its back on an epidemic of chemical poisoning? It’s a nice little conspiracy theory, but it’s an outrageous lie designed to scare people at their most vulnerable — when they are sick.
The truth is that the only thing going directly into the bloodstream of ailing patients via soft, plastic IV bags is medicine and life-saving fluids. While a miniscule amount of the chemical will leach into the IV fluid, the amount is incredibly small — so small, in fact, it’s nearly undetectable.
James makes it easy to dismiss her claims, but I’m curious what she would like to see the medical field use instead of plastic. Shall we return to glass IV bottles, which are easily broken and make movement more difficult for patients? How does James suggest hospitals store all these glass bottles and what of the added transportation costs associated with transporting fragile glass bottles? Surely James must be concerned about a potentially larger carbon footprint!
James’s most misleading statement is when she declares, without citation, that we are all in danger because we are (emphasis mine) “ingesting, inhaling, and absorbing through our skin a significant phthalate load — which quickly moves to our bloodstream.”
Here’s the much less dramatic truth (and I’ll even give you a source): While people can inhale and ingest miniscule amounts of phthalates, the CDC says “people are exposed to phthalates by eating and drinking foods that have been in contact with containers and products containing phthalates.”Even by this mode, the amount is so small that the CDC is quick to point out that it will not cause adverse health effects.”
So, why is James scared of phthalates? She says they are “now widely known to be endocrine disruptors,” yet fails to mention a few other less scary-sounding endocrine disruptors such as soy beans, peas, carrots, beans, sprouts, and celery, the estrogenic effects of which are much greater than those from synthetic chemicals (time to clean out that fridge, Ms. James!).
At the end of her piece, James cites several studies on phthalates she says back up her claim that this chemical should be avoided. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
First, James points to an extremely small Taiwanese study (only 65 participants), saying it “showed that phthalates passed from mother to fetus through the placenta affect female babies, sometimes resulting in abnormal sexual development.” But those are James’s own words, not the study’s authors’ description of the study. If you follow the link James provides in her piece,you find that the researchers only report “an association between two types of the ubiquitous chemicals and permanent changes to the newborns’ genitals that point to hormonal interference.”
The difference is subtle but important — an association is not causation. Associations are extremely easy to find (perhaps each of these Taiwanese participants wore red shirts or ate congee for breakfast, shall we blame colors and rice porridge?) but it means nothing in terms of what causes disease. Therefore, this small study hardly stands up against the significant body of evidence that shows phthalates are safe for use in common household products.
Second, James refers to a study by well-known anti-chemical activist Shauna Swan, who in 2005 suggested phthalate exposure was feminizing little boys. Yet, the National Toxicology Program has dismissed the Swan study because, as science writer Jon Entine wrote, Swan “failed to demonstrate any statistical association between DEHP [a type of phthalate] metabolites and genital development.” For another searing dismissal of Swan’s brand of science, check out Trevor Butterworth’s piece here.
The third study James highlights was conducted in 2009 on 1,000 infant boys on a common genital deformation called Hypospadias. While the study’s authors admit the pretty significant factoid that “little is known about what causes this deformity” they still point to chemical exposure — mainly phthalates — based on what the mothers of these boys were exposed to when pregnant.
So what were these women exposed to? The authors said “detergents and personal care products, such as deodorants, fragrances, nail polish and hairspray.” So, basically the products every single woman uses every single day. Yup, that sounds like sound science to me!
Interestingly, while blaming women’s beauty products, the researchers also had to admit that “hairdressers as a group analyzed separately do not have significant increased risk of having baby boys with hypospadias.”
I used to fall for these chemical scare stories. After I had my first child, I was bombarded with terrifying stories about chemicals “lurking around every corner.” It really did make me nervous, so I did something about it; I started to read the studies to which many of these activist and bloggers were linking. To my relief, it quickly became clear that most of these “studies” were nothing more than junk science being pushed by activists.
I’m actually a lot like Maia James. I’m overwhelmed. I have three very young kids, I work, and I try my best to keep us all fed and wearing clean clothes. I don’t have time for these ridiculous stories about how I have dangerous toxins laying around my house. Women — the target of many of these scary stories — need to understand that they don’t need to go to great lengths or great costs to avoid these chemicals in their everyday cleaning and beauty products. They need not search the Internet for chemical-free toys or baby bottles.
Life is short: Stop wasting your time, energy, and money pursuing a chemical-free life. Make your bed and go to yoga instead.