Angry Toxicologist

Possibly this should be the ‘absolute failure of logic’ edition. In the WaPo today (page A07), you’ll find a story about how the FDA is going to be testing food additives from China for melamine. It’s all fine and boring except for two crucial facts. Let’s do the grading:

Melamine, a nitrogen-based compound used in products such as countertops, glues and fertilizers, was identified this month as the cause of fatal kidney failure in an unknown number of dogs and cats, leading to the recall of more than 100 brands of pet food.

Wow. Melamine’s the cause? Looks like the press is getting carried away again. It’s not logical that it is melamine, and although that doesn’t mean it’s not, it’s clearly far away from the declaritive statement made by The WaPo. It’s not very toxic to rodents at the levels found in the food. There is little information on what happens to cats and dogs but as a general rule animals are similar to other animals (that includes us, too). It could easily be something that may be ‘co-locating’ with melamine, a by-product, degradation product, contaminant of the melamine when it was produced,…etc. Don’t take it from me, though, here is the FDA on the matter:

Although some studies have shown a toxic effect of melamine in rodents, research is scarce on melamine’s effect on cats and dogs. “While the levels we’ve found to date in both the finished pet food product and the wheat gluten are below what would be considered toxic in rodents, there is extremely little data in the scientific literature on melamine exposure in dogs and cats,” says Sundlof. “Regardless, the association between melamine in the kidneys of cats that died and melamine in the food they consumed is undeniable.” Now FDA must attempt to determine whether or not it is the melamine itself that is the culprit, or whether it’s some other contaminant associated with the melamine.

There’s a little bit of blame on the FDA for this. Other than this statement, there isn’t much evidence that they are trying to let people know that they aren’t sure what it is. Possibly trying not to look incompetent? Take a hint from your collegues and just tell the truth. So maybe you can excuse the two reporters a bit. Well, maybe not…

Toxicology studies on laboratory rodents have long suggested that it takes high doses of the chemical to cause health problems — typically in the bladder and kidneys, Payne said. And the modest doses found in pet food would be diluted even further in the body of a pig that ate it.

That’s the last paragraph from the news story. So let me layout the logic. We know it’s melamine, it’s really toxic to animals. But don’t worry about the risk to your health, it’s not that toxic to animals. If I was e-phisticated enough to insert a big red flag right here I would. This last statement shows off two of the most common problems in science journalism:

1) No thinking. If facts didn’t square up in a financial scandal story, you’d work that out as a journalist; if you weren’t qualified to do so, you’d get someone who does. With science journalism there’s a hands-off attitude of ‘I don’t understand that stuff’.

2) Make sure we don’t scare anyone. Again, when it comes to crime, terrorism, or even taxes, the press surely isn’t afraid to put a little scare into you. Look over the recent stories; they are almost panicy about the pets. When it comes to people however, the goal is to not to scare, as opposed to informing. ‘Yeah, there’s this toxic crap in the food supply that we’re trying to find and issuing recalls for, but, nah, don’t really worry about it.’ Enough of this and no wonder people think the gov’t is so bloated, “they’re working on things that aren’t harmful!”

C’mon journos, if we can take ‘Child Molesters in YOUR Neighborhood Tonight’ stories, we can handle a little honest toxicology.

Grade on the curve (i.e. relative to other science news articles): Science D, Journalism: D

Old-school grades (no inflation): Science: F, Journalism: D- (hey, at least they spelled correctly!)

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