October 30, 2012
From October 22-25, all the great and the good from the biomonitoring world spent four days of public money at a conference at the Golden Bay Beach Hotel in Larnaca, Cyprus, pumping tens of thousands of chemicals into their blood while talking about the risks of these chemicals in our blood from the release of a new study. Biomonitoring (the biological monitoring of environmental exposures of chemicals in our blood, urine, tissue …) has become a politically tool so manipulated by anti-chemicals campaigners that it has rendered the scientific value of such research completely useless.
What goes inside my body (or better, my children’s bodies, or even better, a foetus’ body) is a hot button risk issue, whether it is food, pharma or chemical related. If it is in the blood and it is not natural, then evil man has violated us and must be called to account. This may all sound dramatic, but a bit of perspective is necessary.
With modern spectrometry and chromatography equipment, you can detect pretty well anything you are looking for in the part per trillion range. For a bit of a reality check, a part per trillion is equivalent to one second every 320 centuries. A cubic meter of urban air can contain billions of nano-particles, so every breath we take contains (natural and non-natural) chemicals which enter the bloodstream via our lungs, and the technology is very good today at taking a snapshot of what is in our blood at any given moment.
A snapshot though does not indicate how long that chemical is present, what is it doing while visiting the body and how it is expelled. That is left to our imagination and many anti-chemicals campaigners have been quite imaginative. Biomonitoring would work well if you could do long-term regular tests of set populations over regular periods and for all types of chemicals (natural and synthetic) like the CDC in the US had been doing. But we only seem to test for man-made chemicals in these one-off tests and conclude that because these chemicals are there, and are not supposed to be, any level of exposure is dangerous. Conclusion: Be afraid!
Not all man-made chemicals are hazardous, and not all natural chemicals are benign. But we don’t bother testing these natural chemicals (remember: natural = good). Bruce Ames said it very well – there are around a thousand chemicals in a single cup of coffee and we have only tested a few dozen, of which, the majority are highly carcinogenic to rats. There are more carcinogens in that cup of coffee than from the pesticide residues from an entire year of fruit and vegetable consumption. These are natural chemicals though, so they must be OK.
Ah, but you may reply: We just don’t know what this low dose man-made or synthetic chemical cocktail effect may cause. You are correct: we just don’t know. We just don’t know how an unscientific scare-monger could get a microphone and public funding to spend four days at the Golden Bay Beach Hotel trying to make news out of nothing. A low dose in the part per trillion range (repeat: one second every 320 centuries) is indeed a low dose and we just don’t know how you have been able to squeeze so much misperception out of this chameleon for so long.
Sadly, the media, including EurActiv, have been eager accomplices in spreading misperception. Take how this website reported the story. The report stated the position of the European Council very responsibly: “Based on the current health guidance values used in the projects, the levels found are generally not a matter of high concern“, but then decided to use a title: “EU-funded research shows mothers, children exposed to chemicals”. How is this related to the fact that the results were not a matter of high concern?
The article then went on to talk about how certain phthalates, now banned, could cause male sterility. Repeat: “Based on the current health guidance values used in the projects, the levels found are generally not a matter of high concern”. EurActiv then committed an unthinkable homage to self-contradiction:
Toxicologists are divided over how to interpret the data collected by the biomonitoring studies, and the COPHES/DEMOCOPHES project also concluded that the levels of chemicals found were not of high concern.
If the authors of the report state that there was no real concern, then who, among the toxicologists, were divided? I suppose someone had to have an issue, otherwise it would be a bit pointless to suffer four days at the Golden Bay Beach Hotel on the public purse.
Panic Incorporated (HEAL)
The Health Environment Alliance (HEAL) seems to be the toxicologists who are dividing the consensus, except that they are an activist lobbying group, and at last check, did not have any labs. HEAL developed from EPHA Environment Network (EEN), an umbrella organisation formed by two EPHA consultants to tap into European Commission funds to encourage NGOs to be involved in the biomonitoring debate during the panic-filled days of REACH and SCALE. The Risk-Monger had managed to be invited into a closed EEN meeting in 2004 and could only conclude that it was, to say the least, Pythonesque. Any panic that HEAL may have raised, in all of their loneliness as an activist group at the Golden Bay Beach Hotel, could hardly be considered as “scientific division”. EurActiv stretched their bias in this reporting just a bit, giving the chemical industry position two lines of space, and HEAL a considerable nine paragraphs.
Manipulation Incorporated (Greenpeace)
A strange story worth sharing: When I was involved in the brominated flame retardant debate (in 2005-06), I had a phone call from a Brussels-based journalist. She had received an advanced confidential copy of a Greenpeace report: Swimming in Chemicals, which looked at how eels were “contaminated” by brominated flame retardants. While Greenpeace gave her the privilege of an advanced copy under embargo (on the commitment that she could not share it with anyone, ie, scientists), she was confused and asked if I could answer a question for her: With a certain exposure number (that Greenpeace called: Shocking!), how many eels would she have to eat before she should be worried. I sent the question to an independent scientist and then gave her the response.
Risk-Monger: At this exposure level, for you to have any risk of heath issues, you would need to eat three …
Journalist: Three eels?
Risk-Monger: No, three tonnes of eel.
Journalist: Three tonnes of eel???
Risk-Monger: … a day … every day.
Journalist: OK … thanks David.
But still we are all afraid of that synthetic chemical, because “we just don’t know” and must take precaution.
In the next blog, the Risk-Monger will reveal results from his recent blood tests, where it was concluded that he has suffered the effects of endocrine disruptors. He will disclose the source of his exposure and the findings will be: Shocking!