Respectful Insolence

Oh, no!

It’s the toxins!

It’s the chemicals!

Evil, evil, evil, evil! Even worse, unnatural, unnatural, unnatural!

Such is the message we receive from many sources. The media bombards us with it constantly. Environmental groups do too. The message is so pervasive that most people take it for granted that various toxins are “poisoning” them and causing cancer. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that there is not a potential risk from various chemicals that might cause cancer. Indeed, less than a year ago I wrote a lengthy post about the President’s Cancer Panel Report from 2010 in which, I hope, I covered many of the nuances of the issues better than, quite frankly, many parts of the President’s Cancer Panel Report did. You can either read my post or accept my boiled down version right here: It’s complicated. We’re looking at potential risks that can be difficult to detect above background cancer rates, particularly for common cancers. Epidemiology, depending on the question, can be a relatively crude tool, and our knowledge of the carcinogenic potential of various chemicals is incomplete or even lacking altogether. Because the issue of what chemicals do and do not cause cancer and, for the ones that do, what exposure is necessary for them to do so, how much do they elevate the risk of cancer, and which cancers produce an elevated risk, it’s almost never possible to make definitive pronouncements about “everyday chemicals.” Rather, it’s almost always degrees of risk coupled with degrees of uncertainty, all shades of gray.

Unfortunately for readers and fortunately for the author, if this excerpt on Salon.com is any indication, What’s Gotten Into Us? Staying Healthy in a Toxic World appears to have no such trouble with the complexities of scientific questions and epidemiology or the nuance required to address questions of cancer causation. The title of the excerpt in itself is intentionally inflammatory, asking Did everyday chemicals cause my tumor? The answer, we are led to believe, is most definitely Yes!” The real answer, as you will see, is almost certainly, “No.” At the very least, it’s highly unlikely.

Jenkins tells his tale thusly:

My only complaint, I told my doctor, was a faint tightness in my hip that I had felt off and on for two years — and odd, sharp twinges between my left thigh, knee and shin that occasionally accompanied it. My internist looked me over and agreed that my pains were probably related to exercise, and he suggested I see an orthopedist at a nearby sports medicine clinic. The orthopedist, in turn, suggested I get an MRI to help him see a bit more clearly what was going on with my soft tissue.

I was standing in my living room when the phone rang just a few hours later. When I picked up the phone and heard the orthopedist’s voice, I knew even before he spoke that something was amiss. “Hello, Mr. Jenkins,” he said, then paused. “You have a suspicious mass in your abdomen,” he said. “It’s growing inside your left hip. Here is the number for an oncologist. You need to call him right away.”

Yes, what we have here is, as regular readers can probably recognize immediately, a testimonial. Like most testimonials, it doesn’t tell us much that is generalizable. Jenkins goes on to describe how the oncologist said that he thought the mass might be a soft tissue sarcoma, which would probably be up near the top of any decent physician’s differential diagnosis. Still, I do have to wonder when Jenkins’ story took place, because the way the tumor was treated is rather old school. These days, the main imperative after finding such a mass would be to get a tissue diagnosis before treatment, the reason being that neoadjuvant chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy might be indicated to shrink the mass and make it more easily resectable. This would be particularly true for a tumor located, as Jenkins describes it, in such close proximity to the femoral nerve, which, if cut, would cause weakness of the quadriceps muscle and difficulty walking, much less running. Yet this appears not to have been done. Why, I don’t know; even in the “old days,” biopsies were routine. They were generally surgical biopsies rather than needle biopsies and incisional biopsies rather than excisional biopsies, but they were done.

Whatever the reason, Jenkins underwent surgery to remove the mass, which is not exactly inappropriate but it is curious enough that I had to wonder why no attempt at tissue diagnosis was undertaken. The reasons to have a tissue diagnosis ahead of definitive surgery are many, including the knowledge that, if the tumor is benign then it can be removed by a “shelling out,” sparing surrounding tissue, while if it’s malignant a much wider resection needs to be carried out. Whatever the reasons, Jenkins was approached by researchers who wanted to ask him questions:

A few weeks later, I was being prepared for surgery at the hospital when two researchers approached me with questions. The first ones were pretty standard: What ethnic group best describes you? Um, white. How far did you make it in school? I have a Ph.D., I said. How many packs of cigarettes have you smoked per day, on average? None, I said. Ever. Then the questions changed, from ones I had been asked by doctors dozens of times before to ones I had never been asked in my life.

How much exposure had I had to toxic chemicals and other contaminants? In my life? I asked. This seemed like an odd question. What kind of chemicals do you mean? The researcher began reading from a list, which turned out to be long. Some things I had heard of, many others I had not. Metal filings? Asbestos dust? Cutting oils? I didn’t think so. What’s a cutting oil? How about gasoline exhaust? Asphalt? Foam insulation? Natural gas fumes?

Where was this going?

The words kept coming. Vinyl chloride? I wasn’t sure. What was that? How about plastics? Are you kidding? Everything is made of plastic. Dry-cleaning agents? Detergents or fumes from plastic meat wrap? Benzene or other solvents? Formaldehyde? Varnishes? Adhesives? Lacquers? Glues? Acrylic or oil paints? Inks or dyes? Tanning solutions? Cotton textiles? Fiberglass? Bug killers or pesticides? Weed killers or herbicides? Heat-transfer fluids? Hydraulic lubricants? Electricfluids? Flame retardants?

I have to be honest here; the design of this research project baffles me. If I were a researcher looking for a link between chemical exposures and cancer, I would concentrate my effort only on patients who–oh, you know–had actually been definitively diagnosed with cancer. One of my inclusion criteria would be that the patient must have a biopsy-proven cancer, and one of my exclusion criteria would be any patient whose diagnosis was in doubt. True, from the anecdote, it appears that Jenkins had been presumed to have soft tissue sarcoma, but I see no sign that there was a tissue diagnosis. So why were the investigators asking Jenkins these questions?

I have no idea. Maybe the book explains it better. Maybe not. I don’t think I’ll be buying it to find out. In the meantime, the excerpt from the book blunders on. His purpose is made crystal clear in the prose that follows:

It’s worth thinking about what a relatively short time we’ve been swimming in synthetic chemicals. The Synthetic Century, let us say, has been full of grand achievements and equally grand consequences, many of them unintended. In 1918, a scientist named Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize for figuring out how to make synthetic nitrogen, a key component of soil, and thus “improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind.” But during World War I, his technology also helped Germany make bombs from synthetic nitrate and, later, poison chlorine and phosgene gas. In World War II, Hitler used another one of Haber’s compounds, Zyklon B, in Nazi concentration camps. After the wars, synthetic fertilizers paved the way for the explosion of industrial-scale agribusiness, which has, in turn, created great wealth but also unprecedented levels of pollution, monoculture and processed foods.

Oh, noez! It’s teh chemical toxins! The same things used to make poison gas, one of which Hitler used in his nearly successful attempt to exterminate European Jewry! Talk about poisoning the well! I mean, seriously. Wasn’t it enough just to mention that chemicals have caused problems in the past, but do Jenkins have to bring Hitler into it? This borders on argumentum ad Nazi-ium, at least to me. Of course, from the description of the book on its Amazon.com page, demonizing chemicals appears to be exactly what Jenkins is about:

Do you know what chemicals are in your shampoo? How about your cosmetics? Do you know what’s in the plastic water bottles you drink from, or the weed killer in your garage, or your children’s pajamas? If you’re like most of us, the answer is probably no. But you also probably figured that most of these products were safe, and that someone–the manufacturers, the government–was looking out for you. The truth might surprise you.

After experiencing a health scare of his own, journalist McKay Jenkins set out to discover the truth about toxic chemicals, our alarming levels of exposure, and our government’s utter failure to regulate them effectively. The result of his two-year journey, What’s Gotten into Us?, is a deep, remarkable, and empowering investigation into the threats–biological and environmental–that chemicals now present in our daily lives. It reveals how dangerous, and how common, toxins are in the most ordinary things

I’ve actually butted heads with some of my fellow skeptics in being a bit more open to the idea that chemicals can be greater risk factors than suspected for various health problems. Indeed, a couple of years ago, when ACSH invited me to be on its board of advisors, I turned it down because I perceive ACSH as going too far in the other direction (not to mention the problem of its behaving largely like an industry shill) to the point that it takes the germ of a reasonable idea (that there’s too much fear mongering about “chemicals”) and takes a despicable turn with it by implicitly likening concerns about chemical pollutants and other chemicals that might cause health problems to mental illness by labeling them “chemophobia.” Indeed, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, the president of ACSH, has even referred to “chemophobia” as an “emotional, psychiatric problem,” which is not very skeptical at all. It’s denialist tripe.

I’ve even gotten into it with skeptics for pointing out to them that their assumption that the breaking of chemical bonds is a necessary prerequisite for the development of cancer, that requirement being a main argument against the possibility that cell phone radiation can cause cancer. True, I view the hypothesis as being incredibly implausible based just on physics, but I have lambasted certain skeptics for their incredibly simplistic understanding of carcinogenesis because they have declared it impossible based on that misunderstanding.

That being said, I sense major fear mongering coming from Professor Jenkins. (Jenkins is the Cornelius A. Tigham Professor of English at the University of Delaware.) Let’s just put it this way. His excerpt discusses his cancer scare. Then, even though his mass turned out to be completely benign and the surgeon managed to shave it off of the femoral nerve without incident, Jenkins uses that as a jumping off point to speculate on how it must be the chemicals that are poisoning us. After claiming that only 4% of such masses as his turn out to be benign (which isn’t true; soft tissue masses are more commonly benign than malignant), he points out how many of his family and friends have developed cancer, ignoring the fact that cancer is now competing with heart disease for the number one cause of death, which means it’s very common and most of us, myself included, have relatives and friends who have had cancer and died of it. What matters is not how many family members and friends have developed cancer but rather what the incidence and prevalence of cancer are, and they are not rising catastrophically, as Jenkins seems to believe (in fact they are leveling off). Moreover, if you correct for asbestos exposure, even chemists don’t have a higher incidence and prevalence of cancer than the general population.

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I do think you can judge it be its excerpt, and Jenkins’ excerpt reveals a serious lack of understanding. IF you doubt me when I say this, then just look at this passage:

You want to wash your infant’s hair. What could be more benign than baby shampoo? But look closer at the label on the bottle: the baby shampoo contains formaldehyde, which causes cancer and compromises the immune system.

This is, of course, utter nonense, as I have pointed out when anti-vaccine apologists have invoked the dread “formaldehyde gambit” and fear mongers like Jenkins have complained about sodium lauryl sulfate in shampoo. In fact, one of the commenters nailed it when he said, “Every day chemicals cause cancer” is the new “vaccines cause autism” and further pointed out that Jenkins’ “scientific method seems to be comprised strictly of navel-gazing and conjecture.” As I’ve pointed out time and time again, formaldehyde is a normal byproduct of human metabolism, and small exposures to it are indeed harmless.

Dissecting the relative effects of genes, environment, diet, and other contributors to different cancers and making such a discussion accessible for a lay reader would be a difficult feat, even for a scientist. For someone like Jenkins, who is clearly neither a scientist nor a lay person who has taken the time to educate himself in the basic science and epidemiology of cancer sufficiently to discuss the matter accurately. The fact that he would even mention formaldehyde as a danger in baby shampoo demonstrates that his understanding of basic human physiology and metabolism is woeful in the extreme. As a result, I get the distinct feeling that Jenkins’ book is going to be chock full of similar fear mongering based on ignorance.

Comments

  1. #1 Robert S.
    April 18, 2011

    I wonder how his medical records and the actual questions asked compare with his story. It sounds like the vague reconstructions of someone who doesn’t know enough of the science. With passages like “In 1918, a scientist named Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize for figuring out how to make synthetic nitrogen, a key component of soil, and thus “improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind.”” it is hard to take anything he writes at face value.

  2. #2 superdave
    April 18, 2011

    This concept that if I just do everything right I can’t get sick holds a very strong spell. I can’t even claim to be immune to it though I try control the urge to think that way. I wish i had some ideas on how to fight this myth.

  3. #3 RRainsMD
    April 18, 2011

    I can’t help but wonder… if all the toxins we create are killing us, why does the average life expectancy keep getting longer and longer? I mean, by any objective measurement, we live longer, healthier lives than any generation in the history of the species. Whatever the drawbacks of modern life are, they seem to be a good trade-off in terms of longevity.

    -RR-

  4. #4 sidhe3141
    April 18, 2011

    Eh, this one’s not that much fun. It’s just Precious Bodily Fluids over and over.

  5. #5 Militant Agnostic
    April 18, 2011

    Robert S.

    I wonder how his medical records and the actual questions asked compare with his story. It sounds like the vague reconstructions of someone who doesn’t know enough of the science.

    You are too kind – it sounds like complete bullshit to me.

    This “fumes from plastic meat wrap?”, this “Natural gas fumes?” and this “Electricfluids?” sound ludicrous.

    First, who hasn’t been exposed to “fumes from plastic meat wrap”.

    Second, “Natural gas fumes”- natural gas is by definition in gaseous state already, so it doesn’t really give off “fumes” as such. In any case, by the time it gets to your house it is pretty much straight methane since straddle plants have taken out the more valuable heavier hydrocarbons. If methane is a carcinogen, then we are all going to develop colon cancer from our own farts.

    Third, WTF are “Electricfluids”? – maybe dielctric fluids like transformer oil?

    For those who found Orac’s post too long, here is an executive summary.

    Scientifically illiterate “journalist” has benign tumor, gives description of medical events that sounds ludicrous/improbable to Orac and writes fear mongering book about cancer “epidemic” and scary “chemicals” that are everywhere.

  6. #6 novalox
    April 18, 2011

    @Militant Agnostic

    Perhaps he meant “electrolytes”?

    But even then, that wouldn’t make too much sense.

  7. #7 Kathryn
    April 18, 2011

    I think I can decipher one of those phrases. I suspect that “natural gas fumes” means “byproducts of burning natural gas.” Besides the obvious hazard of carbon monoxide, you can get some foul-smelling gunk if your burners or pilot lights need adjustment, perhaps related to the odorant. (Natural gas is odorless, so the gas company adds sulfur compounds that let your nose tell you there’s a leak somewhere.)

    However, cancer is probably the last thing I’d worry about from badly adjusted gas burners; carbon monoxide is an immediate danger.

  8. #8 Chris
    April 18, 2011

    All he has to do is read The Poisoner’s Handbook to realize that he lives in a much less toxic world than the “Jazz Age.” Ha! I remember in the early 1970s being able to get ant killer that was essentially arsenic in sugar water.

  9. #9 lilady
    April 18, 2011

    @ Militant Agnostic: I read the excerpted piece on Salon and was absolutely blown away by the lack of details. As Orac stated, the author omitted certain details such as needle biopsy before the surgery, which would be reveal whether or not the tumor was cancerous.

    The author claims to have had an epiphany about environmental poisons when he was questioned about exposure to chemicals by “two researchers”, prior to the surgery; a little bit of journalistic trickery there. You don’t get enrolled in a cancer study, until it has been determined that you have cancer.

    I suspect the author is hoping for a wider audience…Dr. Oz’s television show perhaps.

  10. #10 DLC
    April 18, 2011

    They’re Poisoning our Precious Bodily Fluids, Mandrake!
    http://youtu.be/N1KvgtEnABY

  11. #11 Amy
    April 18, 2011

    This kind of stuff baffles me coming from someone who has as much education as this person. I’m working on a PhD myself, and the repeated, humbling lesson I keep getting is just how little I know about even my own field- there’s too much out there for me to possibly have competency in even a sizeable fraction of it (so I’m settling for competency in my own sub-sub specialty). The more I learn, the less I feel I know. By extension, if I know so very little about my own field, in which most people would say I’m reasonably well qualified, how very little could I possibly know about a field that I’ve never studied at all, let alone one which is so unrelated to my own? (My field is about as unrelated to medicine as English is)

  12. #12 Krebiozen
    April 18, 2011

    There’s a common belief in the world of CAM that there used to be a Golden Age when we all ate “natural” foods, and there were no toxins. Cancer and heart disease didn’t exist, or were incredibly rare. Then nasty old science came along and has been progressively filling our world with toxins ever since, causing cancer and other diseases. Things are getting worse and worse and cancer rates are rising as more and more toxins contaminate our air, food and water. There are all claims I have come across in CAM discussion groups.

    The truth, as I see it, is a little different. There never was a Golden Age (unless perhaps the Palaeolithic?). Mankind has used toxic chemicals for thousands of years, going back at least as far as the Bronze Age, when mining of copper and tin and smelting of bronze produced toxic waste. Chemical use increased exponentially after the Industrial Revolution. A huge range of horribly poisonous substances were routinely used in industry, in medicine and in the home. Little was known about the effects of poisons, and there were few regulations about how they could be used, and how they could be disposed of. The effects of toxic chemicals were mostly hidden by the high morbidity and mortality of infectious diseases back then.

    I recently watched a TV program about 18th century Paris, which mentioned how a scientist figured out the difference between areas of the city that smelled foul due to decomposing bodies and meat, but didn’t actually make people sick, and areas that smelled foul due to fumes from industrial processes that rapidly caused illness and even death. I have talked to people, still living, who remember the Great Smog of London in 1952, which killed 12,000 people.

    Things have improved greatly in the past several decades. There are regulations about what chemicals can be used, how they must be tested, and about their safe handling. Anyone who has worked in health and safety in any job that involves chemicals will be painfully aware of the rigorous regulations involved. Gasoline is no longer leaded, catalytic converters are routinely fitted in cars, improved transport and refrigeration mean that fewer preservatives are required in foods, asbestos is no longer used in building, radium is no longer used to make watch dials luminous. Use of genetically modified crops means that fewer and less toxic pesticides have to be used on our food. Our food, water and air is cleaner in many parts of the world than it has been in centuries. There are even fish in the Thames, which was declared biologically dead in 1957.

    Improved analytical techniques have led to increased sensitivity in assays that can detect chemicals in food and water, leading to scares about pharmaceutical drugs in the water supply for example. I think this is a symptom of how things are improving. As we become aware of lower and lower levels of pollution, we can address them and find ways of dealing with them, if necessary.

    Things are not perfect, of course, and pollution is still a problem in many areas. I’m not suggesting we should become complacent, but in general I see things getting better and better, not worse and worse.

  13. #13 Anton P. Nym
    April 18, 2011

    Third, WTF are “Electricfluids”? – maybe dielctric fluids like transformer oil?

    That’d actually be a reasonble (albeit dated) reference, given how nasty PCBs in transformer oils were; PCBs are carcinogenic. However, I don’t think anyone makes the stuff anymore and hasn’t since PCBs were banned twenty-thirty years ago.

    — Steve

  14. #14 LW
    April 18, 2011

    “There’s a common belief in the world of CAM that there used to be a Golden Age when we all ate “natural” foods, and there were no toxins. Cancer and heart disease didn’t exist, or were incredibly rare.”

    To be fair, they probably *were* incredibly rare, or at least few lived to be old enough to reach the age when they become more common, and even those who developed cancer or heart disease would seldom be diagnosed as such.

  15. #15 Poodle Stomper
    April 18, 2011

    An everyday chemical was very likely responsible for his cancer. Yes, evil deoxyribonucleic acid. We should remove it all from our bodies before it’s too late…or maybe activate our ethereal strands!

  16. #16 Aaron
    April 18, 2011

    Good examples, Krebiozen.

  17. #17 Composer99
    April 18, 2011

    Poodle Stomper:

    I blame oxygen gas and its high chemical reactivity. Obviously we should find a way to get on without it. :)

  18. #18 Gingerbaker
    April 18, 2011

    And what of estrogenic plastics? No worries there re cancer or sperm counts? Seriously?

  19. #19 Dene62
    April 18, 2011

    I work in the cosmetics industry, and we get this “formaldehyde in my shampoo” rubbish (and much, much worse) all the time. You should see some of the things that people say on http://www.personalcaretruth.com. One woman claims her body isn’t made of chemicals! it’s going to be a long, hard fight!

  20. #20 Just Sayin'
    April 18, 2011

    Scientifically illiterate “journalist” has benign tumor, gives description of medical events that sounds ludicrous/improbable to Orac and writes fear mongering book about cancer “epidemic” and scary “chemicals” that are everywhere Dunning Kruger Syndrome.

    FTFY.

  21. #21 Anthony McCarthy
    April 18, 2011

    Robert S. I don’t quite get what you’re upset about with the description of why Fritz Haber was given the Nobel in 1918. Here’s what it says at the Nobel site

    The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1918 was awarded to Fritz Haber “for the synthesis of ammonia from its elements”.

    http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1918/

    And this from his Biography at the Nobel site:

    Haber then undertook the work on the fixation of nitrogen from the air for which he was given the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 1918 (awarded in 1919).

    In 1905 he had published his book on the thermodynamics of technical gas reactions, in which he recorded the production of small amounts of ammonia from N2 and H2 at a temperature of 1000° C with the help of iron as a catalyst. Later he decided to attempt the synthesis of ammonia and this he accomplished after searches for suitable catalysts, by circulating nitrogen and hydrogen over the catalyst at a pressure of 150-200 atmospheres at a temperature of about 500° C. This resulted in the establishment, with the cooperation of Bosch and Mittasch, of the Oppau and Leuna Ammonia Works, which enabled Germany to prolong the First World War when, in 1914, her supplies of nitrates for making explosives had failed. Modifications of this Haber process also provided ammonium sulphate for use as a fertilizer for the soil. The principle used for this process and the subsequent development of the control of catalytic reactions at high pressures and temperatures, led to the synthesis of methyl alcohol by Alwin Mittasch and to the hydrogenation of coal by the method of Bergius and the production of nitric acid.

    http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1918/haber-bio.html

    Him being given the Nobel in the year he should have been on trial for war crimes is a real scandal, but I don’t see anything wrong with that description.

  22. #22 Denice Walter
    April 18, 2011

    @ Krebiozen: Ah, the Golden Age fallacy**-( “Alas, we once lived in Arcadia!”) so remarkably over-used by natural health enthusiasts and entrepreneurs! I am familiar with both the Thames and parallels concerning the Hudson over the past 30 years: in short, things are looking up. I often see documentation about the latter at the Estuarian Center ( @ Beacon, NY) “photos then and now”- ( It’s nearly Shad Fest! And wow! The fish are alive!) There is talk of people *actually* _swimming_ in the river! I haven’t seen it yet though.

    re toxic chemicals: Jenkins should team up with Deirdre Imus, whose “DI Environmental Health Center” ( formerly the DI Center for Pediatric Oncology)at HUMC, does major fear mongering on the issue- ( see her website- but watchit, that green background might hurt your eyes!) Offering her wisdom on “greening the cleaning”, integrative oncology, and integrative medicine, she also sells cleaning products. She wants to get her ideas into the schools. That’s the new meme in woo-world- “Let’s get our ideas into the schools”- more on this mischief at another time.

    ** I find it rather comic when woo-meisters’ and pseudo-scientists’ discussions run directly counter to your own personal experiences as well as your education! Makes me feel like I’m a character in “Through the Looking Glass”.

  23. #23 Melisssssssssa
    April 18, 2011

    @#15 Poodle Stomper, yes, yes!!! Deoxyribonucleic acid is CLEARLY the culprit! IT HAZ TEH WURD ACID IN IT!!!!!! The horror, the horror…

    Seriously, these folks need to understand that our very bodies are MADE of complex chemicals and wacky chemical byproducts of millions of chemical reactions going on inside us all the time. I blame lack of science education. I used to be terrified of drinking beer because OMG FORMALDEHYDE!!! Y’know, before I learned human blood has plenty of naturally-occurring formaldehyde circulating within it all the time.

  24. #24 Andreas Johansson
    April 18, 2011

    Dene62 wrote:

    One woman claims her body isn’t made of chemicals! it’s going to be a long, hard fight!

    Credit where credit is due: her endocranial cavity probably is clinically chemical-free.

  25. #25 Mary
    April 18, 2011

    This is being combined lately with a wacky strain of gene denialism, actually. There’s a crafty “report” that is being used by organic foodies and GMO haters to claim that DNA is largely irrelevant, and that it is all teh toxins. Skeptics need to watch out for this line they are working up.

    The latest incarnation of this is David Suzuki, but it made the rounds of Pollan et al earlier this year. Suzuki’s take: Genome studies lead to unexpected results. Reality: DNA, Denial, and the Rise of “Environmental Determinism”.

  26. #26 Calli Arcale
    April 18, 2011

    Gingerbaker — from what I’ve read, the evidence is equivocal at best. The risk is plausible, but doesn’t seem to be very large. If one is worried about estrogenic compounds, I might worry more about the growing ubiquity of soy-based products. I mean soy is in practically everything now, since soy is part of the traditional corn/sorghum/soy crop rotation, and soy definitely has estrogenic compounds in it.

  27. #27 Melisssssssssa
    April 18, 2011

    Eep, one more rant.

    I think every high school student should have to take a unit of organic chemistry in their regular science education. I just do not understand why it has a reputation for being so unapproachably difficult! Is it harder than trigonometry? No freakin’ way! It’s just a perception that it’s hard and not universally useful that biases educators and students. But really, isn’t a fundamental understanding of chemistry just as essential to being a knowledgeable adult as a fundamental understanding of mathematics?

    We teach complicated scientific principles to kids and young adults all the time– it’s just a matter of judging the level at which to write the curriculum. My seven-year-old is being introduced to complicated principles of physics by Beakman’s World, for goodness sake. I think high-schoolers can handle some appropriately-pitched organic chem.

  28. #28 René Najera
    April 18, 2011

    For being so enamored with all the natural healing stuff, some people just don’t give their livers enough credit. That sucker will clear almost anything out of us, given time.

  29. #29 Melisssssssssa
    April 18, 2011

    @#26, Rene Najera,

    Srsly. The liver is a black box of magic. :)

  30. #30 Ruth
    April 18, 2011

    Plants make toxic chemicals that our livers can usually cope with. We can cope with a certain level of synthetic chemicals thanks to our bodies detox system. Many woo sellers decry synthetic toxins while selling herbs that I would only handle with gloves on as a good detox tea.

    Bruce Ames tested many foods such as mushrooms and peppers, which were positive in his Ames screen for genotoxicity.

  31. #31 Denice Walter
    April 18, 2011

    @ Calli- funny though, our web woo-meisters appear to have no problem with *soy* whatsoever unless if it’s GMO ( see NaturalNews; GaryNull.com).

  32. #32 Daniel J. Andrews
    April 18, 2011

    I wonder if there was no tissue diagnosis because this operation happened so long ago Jenkins has forgotten some of the steps, procedures, etc–Orac did say the procedure seemed ‘old school’. If that’s the case, I wonder what else his memory has subjectively altered.

  33. #33 JayK
    April 18, 2011

    @Ruth: A good detox tea? Can you please tell me exactly what a good detox tea is supposed to do, and how it does it? I’d even be happy with a citation like a DOI.

  34. #34 lilady
    April 18, 2011

    When I was growing up, in a rental apartment, my mom was constantly spraying with the “flit gun” (a generic term for a spraying device containing pesticides); the main ingredient was DDT. DDT was banned in the United States in the 1970s and thereafter throughout most of the world, to protect the bald eagle. Shortly after the ban in Peru, the number of malaria cases doubled. Chlordane another pesticide was banned completely in the United States in the 1980s, but I rented an apartment where the landlady was constantly spraying inside and out with chlordane. I must have huge stores of these chemicals in my body tissues.

    Aside from endangered species which may have benefited by the banning of these pesticides and OSHA standards which have been tightened to protect workers exposed in chemical production, who has benefited? Certainly not the general public where no types of cancer have ever been identified as being caused by chemicals that we encounter every day.

    More that half of the world’s population is at risk for malaria. The number of new cases each year is estimated at 247 million and one million people die of the disease each year, predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa. There a four main types of malaria and an emerging resistance to all the drugs presently available to treat malaria. A population infected with malaria is the reservoir for the disease, spread by the vector mosquitoes.

    Personal protective sleeping nets impregnated with pesticides such as permethrin (DEET) offer short-term protection. LLIN (Long Lasting Impregnated Nets) using DDT offer protection for up to a year, just as spraying interiors of homes with DDT yearly does. These measures have proven to be the most effective way to decrease infections and deaths from malaria.

  35. #35 LW
    April 18, 2011

    In one of his essays, Isaac Asimov argued that Carbon-14 was the principal cause of cancer, because it gets incorporated into DNA and then breaks down. The essay was called something like “At Closest Range.”

  36. #36 the bug guy
    April 18, 2011

    DDT was never “banned throughout most of the world”, and it was never the magic bullet to stop malaria. While still one of many tools in use to combat Anopheles mosquitoes and malaria, it is not “the most effective” means overall. Permethrin impregnated bed nets are highly effective and that permethrin is not the same thing as DEET. DDT is one of a dozen different materials recommended by WHO for interior repellent spraying of houses, the choice of which depends upon local conditions, availability and resistance of the mosquito populations.

    Bug Girl has an excellent overview of malaria and DDT that I recommend to anyone interested in the complex subject.

  37. #37 Krebiozen
    April 18, 2011

    I find it fascinating that many plant toxins evolved as defenses against animals, so they are “designed” to interfere with our biochemistry. In turn, we evolved detoxification mechanisms to defeat the plants’ defenses. That, and similar biochemical pathways in plants and animals, is why many chemicals in plants affect us, and can be used as medicines and/or poisons. That is also probably why we have the ability to taste bitterness, as many plant toxins taste bitter. Not strictly relevant, but interesting, to me at least.

  38. #38 Jud
    April 18, 2011

    Melisssssssssa writes:

    Srsly. The liver is a black box of magic. :)

    Great! Let’s all go have a beer! :-D

  39. #39 Militant Agnostic
    April 18, 2011

    Jayk @31
    The way I read Ruth’s comment is that she is saying a “detox tea” is made from herbs that she wouldn’t handle without gloves.

  40. #40 lilady
    April 18, 2011

    @ Bug Man: Thanks for the correction. DEET and permethrin are two different chemicals. DEET is effective as a bug repellent and permethrin is a pesticide. At cost of eight to ten dollars per pesticide impregnated net, the longer lasting DDT permeated nets are more cost effective.

    Some resistance to DDT has shown up in certain areas of the world, but it still is the main pesticide used in areas where mosquito resistance to DDT is not present.

  41. #41 passionlessDrone
    April 18, 2011

    Hello friends –

    I’m not here to defend hysterical claims of cancer causation, but I do think that equating smoggy conditions in the past, or our increased longevity might be a bit of an over simplification on the other end.

    In particular, I think that concerns over endocrine disrupting compounds is, if anything, getting less attention that it should. A lot of these chemicals have the ability to interfere with thyroid metabolism, and that is something you want to avoid happening to a fetus. Even worse, subtle, but real changes driven by thyroid changes, or sex hormone masquerading,for that matter, would be very difficult to ascertain epidemiologically compared to looking for more cancer.

    Regarding DDT, Tim Lambert has given the right wing bullet points an analysis time and time again things never seem to get any better for those arguing that banning DTD was a disaster.

    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/ddt/

    - pD

  42. #42 the bug guy
    April 18, 2011

    DDT resistance has been an issue since the 1940s and is the primary reason DDT use for mosquito control had dropped to almost nothing when the material label was revoked in 1972 (though an exception was left in place for vector control use). DDT resistance is an issue worldwide and because it can often cause cross-resistance with pyrethroids, can be a serious problem.

    Like DDT, permethrin also has repellent properties, that is why is is commonly used for bed nets and it also has good residual action. LLIN (long-life insecticide nets) are currently going into use that incorporate pyrethroids like permethrin or detamethrin. To my knowledge, there is little use of DDT-impregnated nets and the price you are stating is similar to that, or even more expensive, than pyrethroid-treated nets.

    Cost effectiveness varies between nations depending on availability of materials. While in some locations, DDT can be more cost effective, it is not in others. When applied at the recommended rate of 1-2 grams of active ingredient per square meter, even the relatively inexpensive DDT can become less cost effective than pyrethroids applied at tens of milligrams per square meter AI.

    It is incorrect to state that DDT is the main pesticide in use where resistance is not present. It is one of many options available.

    Furthermore, since DDT use is restricted to dwelling interiors, it will never provide full coverage. In malaria-prone locations, IPM practices are a must to address vector mosquitoes at multiple life stages and via multiple methods to get the most effective control possible for available resources.

  43. #43 Ruth
    April 18, 2011

    Various websites for herbal detox list teas made from wormwood, male fern root and false unicorn root as being good for you. Absinthe is banned for good reasons. These plants are lovely in the garden, but less toxic alternatives are available.

    I’m just amazed at people who will freak out over traces of formaldehyde will gladly brew a toxic tea because it is all natural. And use it to rid their bodies of ‘toxins’.

  44. #44 JayK
    April 18, 2011

    @Militant Agnostic: I still want to know what “detox tea” has in it and it’s efficacy. It sounds like Ruth knows, and I just want to pick her brain.

    @pD: I don’t think you’re going to find many regulars here that will disagree with what you’ve said, the complaint is more about the faux-controversy players that get involved in the discussion and only succeed in fear-mongering while contributing nothing to the actual science of determining what chemicals need to be studied further.

  45. #45 sophia8
    April 18, 2011

    That “survey” that Jenkins writes about puzzles me as well. I’m a survey-monkey, taking part in all kinds of medical, consumer, whatever surveys (for about three decades I’ve been part of the Oxford vegetarian Survey, a longitudinal survey tracking the health of vegetarians).
    The initial questions about ethnicity and so on are regular survey questions; that bit sounds about right. But the rest of it – asking him to respond to chemical names read out from a list – is pretty bizarre. If it really was about chemical exposure, he’d have been asked about what type of work he’d done, what work his parents had done, where he’d worked, where he lived; maybe he’d be asked about his hobbies in case they involved contact with contaminants.
    If I had to guess, I’d say it was a couple of psychology students working on a project that involved people correctly identifying common household chemicals.

  46. #46 Dangerous Bacon
    April 18, 2011

    pD: “I’m not here to defend hysterical claims of cancer causation, but I do think that equating smoggy conditions in the past, or our increased longevity might be a bit of an over simplification on the other end.”

    This is a gross oversimplification (or distortion) of what was said about the alleged Golden Age of Pre-Toxins (see post #12):

    ” Mankind has used toxic chemicals for thousands of years, going back at least as far as the Bronze Age, when mining of copper and tin and smelting of bronze produced toxic waste. Chemical use increased exponentially after the Industrial Revolution. A huge range of horribly poisonous substances were routinely used in industry, in medicine and in the home. Little was known about the effects of poisons, and there were few regulations about how they could be used, and how they could be disposed of. The effects of toxic chemicals were mostly hidden by the high morbidity and mortality of infectious diseases back then.”

    I would add to this the use of arsenic and other heavy metals in agriculture. And of course the “Golden Age” included much higher morbidity and mortality due to infectious disease, which wreaked its havoc in large part due to effects of toxins produced by organisms.

    “In particular, I think that concerns over endocrine disrupting compounds is, if anything, getting less attention that it should. A lot of these chemicals have the ability to interfere with thyroid metabolism, and that is something you want to avoid happening to a fetus.”

    The “endocrine disruptor” controversy has gotten a lot of attention and for some valid reasons. Is there any convincing evidence that these substances are causing clinical thyroid abnormalities in human fetuses or adults? (hoping this question will not lead to a pD regurgitation of cell culture/rat studies of dubious relevance).

  47. #47 Rene Najera
    April 18, 2011

    Professor Jenkins is on the local NPR radio station now: http://www.wypr.org/stationprogram/midday-dan-rodricks

    So help me, if they bring up the “Frederick Cancer Cluster of 2010 That Wasn’t”, I’m going to scream!

  48. #48 plutosdad
    April 18, 2011

    #34 Thanks for that link the bug guy, it is very interesting, I’ve read through a few pages of her and her links. It’s a subject i hear about but … one of those that bring out extremes in people so it’s hard to find good sober sources to read that don’t shout at you :)

  49. #49 Rene Najera
    April 18, 2011

    By the way, here is the link to the “Frederick Cancer Cluster That Wasn’t”: http://www.fredericknewspost.com/sections/news/display.htm?storyid=118332

    I’m glad I didn’t go to that meeting.

  50. #50 Calli Arcale
    April 18, 2011

    Ruth:

    I’m just amazed at people who will freak out over traces of formaldehyde will gladly brew a toxic tea because it is all natural. And use it to rid their bodies of ‘toxins’.

    One of my favorite quotes was the Doctor attempting to explain to a 17th Century English commoner what tea was. “Tea; a noxious infusion of Oriental leaves containing a high proportion of toxic acids.” “It sounds an evil brew!” “Oh, it is, it is. Personally, I rather like it.” (Quoted from memory, so likely inaccurate.)

  51. #51 Ruth
    April 18, 2011

    Calli

    My brew of choice is coffee, full of toxins or a valuable source of anti-oxidants? I do know a cup of coffee taken during a migraine aura can lessen the headache or prevent it completely. Better living through chemistry!

  52. #52 trrll
    April 18, 2011

    I remember back in the ’70′s, I was worried that we might be on the verge of a major cancer epidemic. This was the era of the Ames test, when it was being discovered that a huge array of compounds was mutagenic in bacteria, and there were some clear examples of cancer being caused by exposure of factory workers to high levels of industrial chemicals. I was concerned that with the huge explosion in synthetic chemicals that we might be exposed to substances that our bodies were not evolved to handle. With a potential lag of decades, we could be in serious trouble and not let realize it.

    Well, it didn’t happen. With a few exceptions, cancer rates have been rather stable. It seems that as far as cancer is concerned, there is nothing uniquely toxic about synthetic compounds, and our biological mechanisms for dealing with foreign chemical are as effective in dealing with synthetic substances as with those found in nature. In hindsight, I should not have found this surprising. Human synthetic chemistry tends to be simplistic compared to the baroque complexity of natural substances, and living organisms have been developing, and defending against, biological warfare agents for millions of years.

  53. #53 Calli Arcale
    April 18, 2011

    Ruth — I think caffeine is quite possibly the most important naturally-occurring drug. And for all we talk about nicotine or alcohol, it’s truly staggering the amount of trade that has developed through the centuries in the plants which are rich in caffeine and its close relatives. Coffee, tea, chocolate, kola (though not as much today since many nations have banned it). And as to its benefit on migraine . . . well, there’s a good reason it’s included in Excedrin. It can also trigger migraines, especially in people with a caffeine dependency, so there’s a bad side to it too.

    Coffee — full of toxins, maybe a valuable source of antioxidants (I tend to think antioxidants are overrated), and oh, so good!

  54. #54 Greg
    April 18, 2011

    “PCBs are carcinogenic. However, I don’t think anyone makes the stuff anymore and hasn’t since PCBs were banned twenty-thirty years ago.”

    Steve/Anton, way to make a point. If you go here

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polychlorinated_biphenyl#Health_effects

    and read about the health effects of PCBs, you’ll find out that carcinogenicity is not the reason why they were banned, and that only a couple of specific PCBs are currently labelled as carcinogens.

    One of the problems here is that it’s easy to make convincing-sounding claims without providing any actual evidence.

  55. #55 Scott Cunningham
    April 18, 2011

    Rene Najera

    For being so enamored with all the natural healing stuff, some people just don’t give their livers enough credit. That sucker will clear almost anything out of us, given time.

    The liver will take a bullet for you time and again. Its very function is constant abuse countered with constant cell division. That basically spells cancer risk. Funny that the “Natural Health” crowd isn’t into taking any risks. Natural Selection already vetoed that proposal.

    Jenkins, via Orac

    What could be more benign than baby shampoo? But look closer at the label on the bottle: the baby shampoo contains formaldehyde, which causes cancer and compromises the immune system.

    Local CAM rag “alive + fit” ran an article demonizing shampoo a while back. Get this – it contains scary chemicals that remove oil from eyes, causing drying and cracking of their surface. Oh the noes.

    Yes. It’s called detergent. Try not to get it in your eyes. It stings. Mountains from molehills, I tell you.

  56. #56 Scott Cunningham
    April 18, 2011

    @Rene Najera

    Clusters bug me. I’ve read several papers where initial investigation of a population found negative results, so the author drew a red circle around a smaller subset of the population with a smaller n and called it a positive result in a cluster. Doesn’t that just open your study up to cherry-picking cases? It never seemed right to me, and I’m a mere undergrad.

  57. #57 ArtK
    April 18, 2011

    @ Scott Cunningham

    It’s called “The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy.” The classic example is the guy who shoots a bunch of holes in the side of a barn and then draws bullseyes around them.

  58. #58 Beamup
    April 18, 2011

    @ Scott:

    You’re exactly right. Unless there was an a priori expectation of the smaller population being the interesting one, looking at it can only ever be hypothesis-generating, NOT evidence of anything real. See also the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy.”

  59. #59 herr doktor bimler
    April 18, 2011

    Coffee, tea, chocolate, kola

    No love for yerba mate?

  60. #60 lilady
    April 18, 2011

    @ Bug Man: I concede on all the points you made about spraying and netting…but you really made me work on this one!

    I found out the most reliable information about malaria on the web at:

    WHO World Malaria Report (110 pg. document)

    The is a 5 pg. (easy to read and comprehend) summary report on the same website.

    Other downloadable manuals for implementation of inside homes praying and distribution of impregnated nets are also very interesting. Major resources (manpower, educators, designated cooperative officials in the national governments) as well as shipping and storing of materials are covered in these manuals. It is an unbelievably complicated international effort.

    Thanks again Bug Man, for all the information.

  61. #61 Laura
    April 18, 2011

    @Calli Arcale Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, maybe that’s why it helps with migraines.
    also try guarana’.

  62. #62 Matthew Cline
    April 18, 2011

    @Krebiozen:

    Use of genetically modified crops means that fewer and less toxic pesticides have to be used on our food.

    But there’s lots of people who think that eating GMOs are causing all sorts of health problems. I mean, there’s probably plenty of people who merely think GMOs haven’t been tested enough and/or don’t trust the ones doing the testing, but there’s also plenty of people who think that GMOs are inherently harmful when eaten, apparently because the corollary of natural is healthy is unnatural is unhealthy.

  63. #63 the bug guy
    April 18, 2011

    You’re welcome, lilady.

  64. #64 Anton P. Nym
    April 18, 2011

    @Greg:

    read about the health effects of PCBs, you’ll find out that carcinogenicity is not the reason why they were banned, and that only a couple of specific PCBs are currently labelled as carcinogens.

    Um, from the very citation you linked to:

    The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has concluded PCBs may reasonably be anticipated to be carcinogens. The EPA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have determined that PCBs are probably carcinogenic to humans. PCBs are also classified as probable human carcinogens by the National Cancer Institute, World Health Organization, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Recent research by the National Toxicology Program has confirmed PCB126 (Technical Report 520) and a binary mixture of PCB126 and PCB153 (Technical Report 531) are carcinogens.

    I just didn’t pull that out of thin air… though I’ll admit that I didn’t check first to see if it was the carcinogenic potential that got it banned, and apparently it wasn’t. (I’m guessing, from context, that it was the many other toxic effects. PCBs are nasty.)

    — Steve

  65. #65 Joe
    April 18, 2011

    In response to all the naughty press about chemicals, and this being teh International year of Chemistry, here is a piece I wrote that I thought might be of interest to readers of Respectful Insolence
    It isn’t unusual for someone to come up to me after one of my public presentations and sheepishly whisper in my ear that they had failed chemistry in high school. Or that they couldn’t cope with organic chemistry in university. I’m not sure why they feel the need to unburden their soul to me in this fashion, but I hope it has to do with their having just heard a lecture about some application of chemistry that, perhaps to their surprise, they found interesting. Often the conversation then shifts to complaints about horror-filled high school chemistry classes where they struggled with formulas and equations with nary a mention of the point of the tussle. Had they seen some connection to real life, they tell me, they would likely have come away with a more positive view of the subject.
    Frankly, it pains me to hear such grumblings. But I can relate. My own high school chemistry classes were about as exciting as watching hair grow on a bald head. Somehow, probably thanks to some outside reading, I managed to maintain my interest. Now, though, I look back on those lifeless classes with annoyance. Actually, that’s not right. It’s more than annoyance. It’s anger. Chemistry is so easy to make interesting that it is virtually a crime not to make the effort. Just consider the basic definition of chemistry: the study of matter and the changes it undergoes. And since matter is anything that has mass and occupies space, essentially everything that we see, touch or feel in the world and beyond, falls into the realm of chemistry. So how can chemistry not be interesting?
    Whether it’s vitamin supplements, cholesterol, plastics, water filters, space travel, vaccines, smells, tastes, fabrics, cosmetics, cooking, air pollution, trans fats, sweeteners, medicines, genetically modified foods, climate change, the softness of toilet paper or the bouquet of a wine, we’re dealing with chemistry. Even our thoughts and feelings can be traced to chemical activity in the brain. While it is true that electromagnetic radiation doesn’t have mass and doesn’t occupy space, its effects have to do with the way the radiation interacts with matter. So there we have chemistry too! Aging, falling in love, and the very process of living is a consequence of the myriad chemical reactions occurring in our body all the time.
    If everything in our life somehow connects to chemistry, how can it be that student surveys about their impression of the discipline are peppered with words like “boring,” “dispassionate,” “tedious,” “alarming” and “irrelevant?” Ouch! “Irrelevant?” What class was that student in? Unfortunately it could have been any number of chemistry classes around the world taught by unimaginative teachers who fail to make the link between theory and practical applications. It’s sort of like finding a tribe of natives in the jungle who have been isolated from civilization and teaching them all about tools without ever telling them what the tools are for.
    Yes, of course students have to learn about molecular structure, balancing equations and solubilities. Admittedly not that exciting, at least not until they are made to realize that this is the kind of knowledge needed to evaluate the difference between a synthetic and a natural substance, or the risk of a chemical leaching out of a plastic water bottle, or the potential benefits of antioxidants, or the possibility of treating disease with a “colon cleanser” or a “Zero Point Energy Wand.”
    And while there may be a dearth of discussions of the proper application of chemical principles to daily life, there is no shortage of websites, articles or books that demonize chemistry and equate the term “chemical” with “poison” or “toxin.” The number of recent books that deal with the supposed horrors of “chemicals” is astounding. “The Hundred Year Lie” is subtitled “How to Protect Yourself from the Chemicals That Are Destroying Your Health.” What chemicals? For example, the author claims that it is risky to wrap a sandwich in “Saran Wrap which contains vinyl chloride, a carcinogen known to cause liver, brain and lung cancers.” Saran Wrap does not contain vinyl chloride and never did. It is made of polyethylene. At one time it was made of polyvinylidene chloride, but even that did not contain vinyl chloride.
    I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by such errors because the author has no chemical training. He is an “investigative journalist.” The “Body Toxic” is also written by a journalist with no scientific expertise and claims that “we are running a collective chemical fever that we cannot break.” And should we trust the writer of “The Toxic Sandbox” because she is a mother of four, a writer and a documentary filmmaker? The authors of the popular “Slow Death by Rubber Duck” don’t seem to realize that what they are actually talking about is a polyvinylchloride duck, to say nothing of the unfounded claim that this plastic is killing us. Then there’s the Manhattan chef who became enraged when he found that his staff was using truffle oil formulated with synthetic 2,4-dithiapentane and proceeded to smash the bottles with a battle cry of: “It’s full of chemicals!” Yes, like everything else in the world, it is. And in this case the chemical is exactly the same as that is found in natural truffles.
    We are desperately in need of a reality check. And the United Nations General Assembly agrees. It has declared 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry, with goals of increasing the public appreciation of chemistry in meeting world needs, and of increasing the interest of young people in the subject. Hopefully educators will take on the challenge of discussing the role of chemistry in daily life. The idea isn’t to become uncritical cheerleaders for chemistry; chemicals misused can of course wreak havoc with our health and environment. Rather the point is to impress upon students and the public the importance of understanding molecular behavior when making decisions about therapeutics, environmentalism and toxicity. Such decisions are too important to be influenced by people who lack an adequate scientific background or by those who harbour vested interests. The slogan of the International Year of Chemistry is “Chemistry-Our Life, Our Future.” That says it all in a mix of polyphenols, cellulose, hemicelluloses, lignin, tannins and anacardic acid. In other words, in a nutshell.

  66. #66 Pareidolius
    April 18, 2011

    Ruth, I used to think that the ban on absinthe and wormwood were for drug/health reasons. Turns out it was just good old corporate slander by the French wine producers when they were trying to recover marketshare from Pernod after their vines were decimated by phyloxera. If I weren’t struggling to post from my frikkin iPhone I’d go find a link to the articles I read about it. Interesting agricultural skullduggery.

  67. #67 lilady
    April 19, 2011

    @ Joe: I couldn’t have stated it better….I really mean I couldn’t have stated it better. Terrific posting (standing ovation), thanks.

  68. #68 augustine
    April 19, 2011

    @ Joe: I couldn’t have stated it better….I really mean I couldn’t have stated it better. Terrific posting (standing ovation), thanks.

    Of course you couldn’t. You’re the local county nurse. It’s bacteria and viruses that kill and maim. Chemicals kill bacteria and viruses. Chemicals are our heroes. Bacteria and viruses are our enemies.

    Bleach and glyphosphate for everyone. Eat up and enjoy. Nothing to see here. Move along. Be thankful that modern medicine has cured strep throat and cancer. Make sure and take the next ACIP approved vaccine also. It’s clinically proven.

  69. #69 Harry Eagar
    April 19, 2011

    A more-or-less admiring report that fructose causes cancer is one of the most e-mailed stories from the New York Times this week.

    And this one is being flogged by a practicing medico, not a professor of Eng. lit.

  70. #70 novalox
    April 19, 2011

    @Joe

    Great post. It was a good read.

  71. #71 Andreas Johansson
    April 19, 2011

    Speaking of caffeine, I came across a claim it causes diabetes a while ago. I thought that sounded odd, so I hit pubmed and found an abstract saying that caffeine consumption is associated with a lesser incidence of diabetes … whereupon my interlocutor found another abstract saying that caffeine has been shown to be a risk factor for diabetes in mice. Is there a scientific consenus about any effect in either direction?

  72. #72 augustine
    April 19, 2011

    Joe, you couldn’t haven’t said it better than the CEO of Monsanto himself. Bravo to chemicals. The savior of mankind. Bravo to Joe. Whoever that is.

  73. #73 NZ Sceptic
    April 19, 2011

    Lilady – can I just say, ‘You rock!’ My own mother is a nurse of 55 years standing, and the two of you are so wonderfully-well informed, have contributed to the good health of thousands of people, – and probably saved a great number of lives – during your careers. Please keep up your valuable contribution on Respectful Insolence and ignore the silliness. I doubt the ones who are threatened by you and react by belittling your expertise have ever actually helped anybody in terms of healthcare.

  74. #74 Mojo
    April 19, 2011

    @Anthony McCarthy:

    I don’t quite get what you’re upset about with the description of why Fritz Haber was given the Nobel in 1918. Here’s what it says at the Nobel site

    The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1918 was awarded to Fritz Haber “for the synthesis of ammonia from its elements”.

    And here’s the description that was objected to: “In 1918, a scientist named Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize for figuring out how to make synthetic nitrogen”.

    Synthesising ammonia from its elements is not the same as making “synthetic nitrogen”. Nitrogen is in fact one of the elements from which the ammonia was synthesised.

  75. #75 Chris
    April 19, 2011

    Joe:

    . Chemistry is so easy to make interesting that it is virtually a crime not to make the effort.

    Yes it can! But not by a wall of text! (white space is your friend)

    Whether it’s vitamin supplements, cholesterol, plastics, water filters, space travel, vaccines, smells, tastes, fabrics, cosmetics, cooking, air pollution, trans fats, sweeteners, medicines, genetically modified foods, climate change, the softness of toilet paper or the bouquet of a wine, we’re dealing with chemistry. Even our thoughts and feelings can be traced to chemical activity in the brain.

    Exactly!

    Joe Dude.. you rock! Keep the brilliance coming. But in more digestible bits.

    (sorry, it is multiple hours past bedtime)

  76. #76 Mike
    April 19, 2011

    I’m so ticked off.

    Professor Jenkins in an English professor.

    I’m an English professor.

    Jenkins is an embarrassment to English professors.

    I quietly lurk here to learn things. Here, and at SBM, skeptics dictionary, etc. For a lay person, I think I’m pretty scientifically literate. At least I know whom to consult when I want to know about something.

    Even I, another English professor, CRINGED at the “synthetic nitrogen” line, at the total lack of concern about dose, at the correlation/causation confusion.

    I’m pissed and I’m not going to take it anymore.

  77. #77 Graculus
    April 19, 2011

    @43

    Absinthe was banned becasue of hysteria, not because it was toxic, and wormwood is pretty benign. The “active ingredient” is thujone (a stimulant, like caffeine), a substance found in abundance in juniper berries, and anything cedar, juniper or related. Tarragon is also a wormwood, btw (artemisia). The artemisias have a long history of use as bittering agents in things like beer and sausages, and medicine. In fact, absinthe was originally created as a stomach bitters.

    The effects of La Fee Verte are more urban legend than reality. I’ve done research. :-)

    On topic.. There are dinosaur remains with evidence of cancers. I wonder how the “toxins” crowd explains how they got it.

  78. #78 Orac
    April 19, 2011

    There’s also evidence of atherosclerotic vascular disease in Egyptian mummies, as well:

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/04/110415-ancient-egypt-mummies-princess-heart-disease-health-science/

    I wonder where that came from…

  79. #79 Andreas Johansson
    April 19, 2011

    Orac wrote:

    I wonder where that came from…

    The same alien superscience as the pyramids. Duh!

  80. #80 Poodle Stomper
    April 19, 2011

    The alien superscience took the Egyptians away from their natural roots and natural medicines. Thus they got ill…true story. =P

  81. #81 Pablo
    April 19, 2011

    On topic.. There are dinosaur remains with evidence of cancers. I wonder how the “toxins” crowd explains how they got it.

    Probably like this

    http://imvchk.blogspot.com/2008/02/real-reason-dinosaurs-became-extinct.html

  82. #82 Vicki
    April 19, 2011

    Ah, the ancient all-natural world. With those fine Roman roads and aqueducts. Lead really does make good pipes, if you aren’t going to drink the water. (And clean water piped through lead may still be better for you than contaminated water stored in a clay jar.)

    I read a book a while ago about climate change (past, present, and likely future). The discussion was based significantly on Greenland ice cores. You can find the fall of the Roman Empire in the ice record, from the decrease in the amount of lead that got into the atmosphere and then fell out with the snow.

    As a side note, if people think DNA is irrelevant, why do they object to GMO foods? (Some of the objections make sense to me and some don’t: but they all depend on the idea that changing the DNA changes the plant.)

  83. #83 lilady
    April 19, 2011

    @ NZ Sceptic: Well I’m not that old, but I too had a mom who was a registered nurse…trained during the 1930s. I so enjoyed my time with her discussing her training back then. She too, kept up with new research and advances…without benefit of the internet.

    The troll you refer to doesn’t bother me at all.

  84. #84 LovleAnjel
    April 19, 2011

    @ Ruth

    “Absinthe is banned for good reasons.”

    It was actually a victim of the original Reefer Madness. Grand wormwood is a mild hallucinagenic and that’s about all. It didn’t drive people insane or cause violent acts.

  85. #85 Prometheus
    April 19, 2011

    It’s amazing how some people (e.g. Professor Jenkins) don’t seem to understand the First Fundamental Fact of epidemiology: everybody eventually dies from something.

    In the early days of our species, those halcyon days of yore when toxins were all “natural” (see: nightshade, deadly; foxglove; hemlock; jimson weed, etc.), our distant forefathers (and mothers) died primarily from starvation and ingestion (by larger predators).

    Later, when we had developed weapons and fire, predation was less of a problem but infectious disease became a serious issue. Starvation continued to be a leading contender.

    Over the millenia, starvation and infectious disease remained the top two causes of death, with war making sporadic forays into the top ten.

    Only faily recently has starvation stopped being a leading cause of death in the developed world and only very recently has infectious disease moved down the list (again, only in developed countries). Only in the twentieth century did heart disease and cancer become leading causes of death.

    Now that we’ve made such major strides in the prevention and treatment of cardiac disease, infectious diseases and trauma – not to mention the strides made reducing the deaths due to childbirth and largely eliminating (in the developed world) deaths due to starvation – there still remains the First Fundamental Fact of epidemiology: we all eventually die from something.

    While I don’t propose that we ignore the risks of toxic chemicals, I also don’t see that we need to succumb to mindless panic (e.g. Professor Jenkins). The fact remains that – even if you believe that our exposure to “toxins” is rising – our life expectancy is also rising (although we may soon be bumping up against the maximum possible for our species). Any hypothesis claiming a greater risk of cancer due to “toxic chemicals” needs to explain how we can see both higher cancer rates and longer life expectancy.

    The simplest explanation is that the people who, in the past, would have died of heart diease in their fifties and sixties are now dying of cancer in their sixties and seventies (or Alzheimer’s disease in their seventies and eighties).

    True, there are people dying of cancer in their forties, thirties and even twenties, teens and as children. This has always been so. The major difference is that so many of the cancers of children and young adults are now cureable. As a result, people who would have (in those carefree, pre-toxic days) childhood leukaemia or lymphoma are now living to old age and dying of other types of cancer.

    Nobody lives forever. Life is a journey and death is the destination. Enjoy the journey – don’t worry about things that aren’t likely to make a difference.

    Prometheus

  86. #86 Beamup
    April 19, 2011

    @ Prometheus:

    Very nicely put. Your comments tend to be quite insightful, but this one was particularly striking. I salute you.

  87. #87 Pieter B
    April 19, 2011

    I salute Prometheus as well. Bravo.

    @Ruth, #43

    I’m just amazed at people who will freak out over traces of formaldehyde will gladly brew a toxic tea because it is all natural. And use it to rid their bodies of ‘toxins’.

    I’m reminded of a writer for the LA Times who was interviewing an actress over lunch (fairly sure I remember who, but it’s been quite a long time so I won’t get specific), and when he reached for his water glass, she grabbed his wrist, told him not to drink it and rattled off a list of chemicals supposedly found in LA tap water. She ordered him a bottle of some imported foofy water, sat back with a contented smile at having done her good deed for the day, and lit a cigarette.

  88. #88 Ruth
    April 19, 2011

    I stand corrected on absinthe. I forgot the key to toxicity-dose. My experience with terpenes was as the pure oils, which are more likely to cause problems. Wormwood may join the mayapple and foxglove in my garden.

  89. #89 ArtK
    April 19, 2011

    @Peter B

    … and when he reached for his water glass, she grabbed his wrist, told him not to drink it and rattled off a list of chemicals supposedly found in LA tap water. She ordered him a bottle of some imported foofy water, sat back with a contented smile at having done her good deed for the day, and lit a cigarette.

    All the while cheerfully ignoring the fact that most bottled water is not any more contaminant free than the stuff that comes out of the tap. That, in fact, much of it does just come out of the tap, with an “idiot tax” added to the price.

  90. #90 Calli Arcale
    April 20, 2011

    Ruth — many artemesia plants are quite popular in gardens, as they tend to have lovely foliage. Wormwood in particular is hardy to zone 3 or 4 (I found conflicting information there — I guess in zone 3, you probably ought to protect it over the winter) and is very drought tolerant. It can be invasive and may need pruning, but is otherwise low maintenance. It does produce herbicides to reduce competition from other plants, so you need to be careful about what you plant with it — ask at your local garden store.

    Now I’m starting to want to grow it. I like the idea of being drought and sun tolerant, because I’ve got this patch of my yard that just looks awful most of the time. We got more drought-tolerant grass seed, which helped, but maybe a drought-tolerant garden would fit in nicely there.

  91. #91 glykou
    April 23, 2011

    So answer me this almighty brainwashed fools. Why and HOW is it that our pets, and not only pets, but animals caged in a zoo get human ailments like diabetes, tumors and your naturally occurring CANCER???? Wake up, would you? The only people living longer are the older generation because they havent been subjected to the same chemicals and crap we are today and quite frankly, the younger generation are sick and dying. Babies are born with cancer now! Pick up a can of formula and read the ingredients, many dont breast feed anymore so we replace with chemicals we call milk for our babies. We are prepping them for disorders. When elderly get cancer in their golden years, you have to ask, “why now”. Dont be fools and listen to “everything is okay, the govt has everything under control” blah blah blah. Look who profits. And last, research yourselves with an OPEN MIND. Find and read all the information out there and decide for yourselves, dont just go by what ANYONE tells you. Look at the stats of other countries that have banned so much of what we use and consume to our stats and then make a decision on what is true or a possibility cause quite frankly, I would rather be safe than sorry. So go eat your packaged chemical filled dinners and dont forget your extra dose of fluoride to keep you docile and obedient….. READ YOUR LABELS!!!!!!!!!

  92. #92 Mephistopheles O'Brien
    April 23, 2011

    @glykou,
    Was that supposed to be well reasoned argument or stirring rhetoric?

  93. #93 Chris
    April 23, 2011

    glykou, what about the Tasmanian devils?

  94. #94 Krebiozen
    April 23, 2011

    @glykou: “The only people living longer are the older generation.”

    Really? How do you know this? Where is the evidence for an increase in mortality in younger people?

    What do you make of declining infant mortality in the USA?

    How about life expectancy at birth in the USA? Or under five mortality in the USA?

    You can compare different countries on those pages. Which “other countries that have banned so much of what we use and consume” were you referring to? Some countries are doing better than the USA in terms of infant mortality, but in 1960 25 out of a thousand babies born would be dead within a year. Now it’s 7. What kind of poisoning does that?

    As you wrote, “dont just go by what ANYONE tells you”. Perhaps you should take your own advice.

  95. #95 LW
    April 23, 2011

    On Project Gutenberg, I once helped proofread a book from the 19th Century about the American Weasel. Part of it was descriptions of the condition of the weasel bones that they had obtained (mostly found or bought, it seemed, not killing weasels for science). It was quite sad to read this — these poor little weasels had bones, like parts of the nose, just eaten away by parasites or disease. Our not-so-distant ancestors would have been equally helpless in the face of such afflictions. I’ll take a slightly higher risk of cancer late in life over that kind of suffering.

  96. #96 Garrett
    April 23, 2011

    @glykou

    Why do animals get cancer. Hmm interesting question. Maybe it’s because they’re made of cells too you dolt, whose cell regulation mechanisms may become faulty thus resulting in cancer.

  97. #97 Prometheus
    April 24, 2011

    glykou comments:

    “The only people living longer are the older generation because they havent been subjected to the same chemicals and crap we are today and quite frankly, the younger generation are sick and dying.”

    And your evidence of this is….?

    True, people born in the 1930′s are now living into their late 70′s and early 80′s (those that haven’t died already) while those born in the 1960′s are only living into their 50′s, at most. And lets not even mention those poor souls born in the 90′s – not one of them has lived past their early twenties.

    Think about it, glykou.

    Prometheus

  98. #98 trrll
    April 24, 2011

    Animals in the wild tend to die from predation and from bacterial infections. If an animal gets hurt and slows down, it may die because it cannot escape predators or because it can no longer catch food. Pets and animals in zoos are protected against these normal causes of death in the wild and live considerably longer, so we expect them to die of diseases like heart disease and cancer, just like us. Which they do.

  99. #99 glykou
    April 24, 2011

    *sigh*
    @ Chris, the Tasmanian devils have been exposed to agrichemicals and/or unnaturals, do your homework. FYI, Wiki is the LAST source for credible information! Here is some credible info for you:

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/01/080128-devils-cancer.html

    @ Garrett, “dolt” ? Is that all you got? lol

    If an animal, including wild, is exposed to unnaturals, like pesticides, etc, and they get tumors, cancers, disorders, your reasoning is that they are made of cells, seriously? You are a lost cause.

    @Prometheus, you can make fun all you want, hope you feel better about it and quite frankly, I dont care, I will protect my children from what you may feel is safe, I wont be taking my chances.

    They dont care about any of our children and I, unlike many of you, am not naive. Nope, 90′s kids are overmedicated, have disorders, learning disabilities and are angrier than any other generation, ever wonder why?

    I will leave you all with one word, “Monsanto”, dig deep, you may not like what you find, especially within our gov’t, and it wont just be a diet coke or a cloned pig chop at your neighborhood grocer

  100. #100 Chris
    April 24, 2011

    I stand corrected.

    Nope, 90′s kids are overmedicated, have disorders, learning disabilities and are angrier than any other generation, ever wonder why?

    Cite?

  101. #101 Gray Falcon
    April 24, 2011

    Listen, glykou, we need better evidence that “90′s kids are overmedicated, have disorders, learning disabilities and are angrier than any other generation”. Things like “just look around you” won’t cut it, I’ve heard that some argument used by racists and flat-earthers.

    Some agricultural chemicals can be dangerous. So can several natural substances. If you want something all-natural, there’s always hemlock.

  102. #102 Militant Agnostic
    April 24, 2011

    From the article cited by glykou

    “The preliminary examination from our guys was that there weren’t significant differences [of the levels of some compounds] between the diseased and non-diseased animals,” Brennan said.

    and

    Hamish McCallum, professor of wildlife research at the University of Tasmania, said it’s unlikely the chemicals caused the devils’ disease.

    Gray Falcon – don’t forget Aristolochia.

  103. #103 Krebiozen
    April 24, 2011

    I’ve got a comment that has been caught up in moderation since yesterday, but here are a few thoughts for Glykou:

    Why and HOW is it that our pets, and not only pets, but animals caged in a zoo get human ailments like diabetes, tumors and your naturally occurring CANCER????

    What is “human” about these ailments? Wild animals get them too, and quickly die of starvation or predation.

    The only people living longer are the older generation because they havent been subjected to the same chemicals and crap we are today

    As I pointed out above, our food, air and water are cleaner now than they have been for decades, in some cases centuries. People are living longer and infant mortality is far lower than it was even a few decades ago (a third of what it was in 1960).

    the younger generation are sick and dying.

    Really? That’s not what the statistics say.

    Babies are born with cancer now!

    Babies have always been born with cancer, though rarely. There is no convincing evidence it is more common today than it was 50 years ago, though diagnosis and survival have greatly improved. It is still, thankfully, very rare.

    Pick up a can of formula and read the ingredients, many dont breast feed anymore so we replace with chemicals we call milk for our babies. We are prepping them for disorders.

    What chemicals are there in formula milk that you think are dangerous exactly? Those chemical-sounding ingredients are vitamins and essential nutrients, I think you will find. If you mean melamine, that was a deliberate and criminal adulteration of formula milk, which hopefully will never happen again.

    When elderly get cancer in their golden years, you have to ask, “why now”.

    Because back in the old days old people used to live forever?

    Find and read all the information out there and decide for yourselves, dont just go by what ANYONE tells you.

    Where did you get your information from? Was it whale.to, Natural News and Mercola by any chance? Any reliable scientific sources?

    Look at the stats of other countries that have banned so much of what we use and consume to our stats and then make a decision on what is true or a possibility cause

    If my moderated comment ever makes it though you might look at the site I refer to, which lets you compare life expectancy, infant mortality etc from country to country, and you can let us know which countries have banned “so much of what we use” and are doing so much better.

    dont forget your extra dose of fluoride to keep you docile and obedient

    What reliable source did you find that says that fluoride keeps you docile? Please share a link. Or did you just believe what you read somewhere without question?

  104. #104 Narad
    April 24, 2011

    Nope, 90′s kids are overmedicated, have disorders, learning disabilities and are angrier than any other generation, ever wonder why?

    Thank goodness we have level-headed types like you around, then.

  105. #105 Militant Agnostic
    April 24, 2011

    And last, research yourselves with an OPEN MIND

    “open mind” = willing to look at new evidence and change opinion based on evidence

    “OPEN MIND” = brains have fallen out

  106. #106 maurice copeland
    June 13, 2011

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  107. #107 Jon
    March 18, 2012

    I haven’t read all the comments, so I am sorry if I repeat someone else’s ideas. First, Jenkins could change his view from the strong; everyday chemicals cause cancer, to the weaker; everyday chemicals cause tumors (both benign and malignant). While benign tumors are not as threatening as cancer, they are still undesirable.
    Jenkins seems to suggest a naturalist stance. However, some everyday substances are natural AND cause cancer. Sunshine and uranium are very natural, but both cause cancer, and sunshine is very everyday (well not where I live in Western Washington State). Not all natural substances cause tumors or cancer, but I’m sure Jenkins could agree that not all unnatural chemicals cause tumors or cancer. The question for the naturalist is “what percentage of unnatural substance are carcinogenic?” Or if Jenkins takes the weak view, “cause tumors”. The more serious question is, “how often are we exposed to tumor causing agents in an amount and manner that pose a significant risk?” What is a significant risk? How do we properly determine which agents cause tumors; in what amounts and in what manner? As explained, it is difficult to determine these things for a number of factors. However, there are some certain chemicals in everyday products that have been shown with a large amount of evidence to be very carcinogenic, such that very small parts per million, billion, and sometimes trillion, cause cancer (at least in rats, although sometimes we have human data, say people exposed to high amounts of these chemicals). For example, there are some flame retardants that are put in nearly everything; furniture upholstery, dvd players, etc. While these things are no meant to be chewed on, small teething children will chew/gnaw on these things, because they do so to everything. Will those children be exposed to too much flame retardant by chewing on the corner of your sofa? That seems like an outlier case to some, but how can we be so sure that it is? We ought not assume it is.
    I really appreciate true skepticism, like I see here. Not like where one just rejects some new “quirky” yet popular view, because it defies common sense, or, more commonly, our current scientific paradigm. Instead, no assumptions are made, but instead, anything and everything is up to question, but when we present evidence for a particular view it is no more harshly criticized or supported than any other bits of evidence for any other particular view. As it seems, most everyday chemicals do not cause cancer, and the rise in cancer rates, that seem to be tapering off now, appear to be more closely connected with the rise in life expectancy, such that we live much longer, so we have much more opportunities to get cancer and as we age our cells deteriorate in such a way that they are more likely to become cancerous. Much like the rise in autism can be partially linked to many new forms of autism now being recognized, such as Asperger’s syndrome being recognized in the 1990′s expanding the number of people who have autism greatly, instead of the very unlikely yet popular view that vaccinations cause autism. Although the rise in autism has been so great that classification expansion is nowhere near enough to explain it all…
    Many people are afraid of the world, and they have good reason to. There are entities out there that do not care if they harm millions of people in the process of achieving their goals, especially when the risk of punishment or the severity of punishment itself is not a great deterrent… That reason, nor any other, is enough though, to believe that everything is dangerous, natural or not, or that we can’t trust any entity, especially business or political ones. For there is evidence that much of what we are exposed to is perfectly safe for common use. Also,there is evidence that there are trustworthy corporations and politicians, not many, but they do exist. In the end, what it really comes down to is that we need to be reasonable, as unbiased as possible, and rather than just accepting a good sounding theory, we ought to accept well supported (by trustworthy evidence) theories. Let’s try to regain sanity…

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