TCS Daily

Toying with Public Health

By Henry I. Miller - August 23, 2007 12:00 AM

Magicians Penn & Teller have a great video on YouTube in which they convince people to sign a petition banning di-hydrogen monoxide, a ubiquitous and potentially dangerous chemical found in many raw and prepared foods, and even in the air. The gag is that they never tell anyone that di-hydrogen monoxide is another name for H2O -- that is, water.

Their point is that too often scientific facts are lost in the rush to protect ourselves from the phantom menace of trace chemicals in our bodies, minuscule pesticide residues on foods, and so forth. The most recent example of this type of thinking is embodied in California Assembly Bill 1108 by Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco). Her proposed legislation is yet another reminder that regulation in California is not only frequently goofy and paternalistic, but also seriously misguided and actually injurious to those it is intended to protect.

AB 1108 would ban the manufacture or sale of any "toy or child care article" that contains greater than a tenth of a percent of a class of substances called phthalates. These chemicals are widely used to soften plastic toys and are found in dozens of other common items, from shower curtains to traffic cones, phone cords to beverage containers. The reason that phthalates are so widely used is that they are versatile and cost-effective. They are among the most rigorously studied additives in the United States and Europe over the last 50 years, during which time not a single shred of credible scientific evaluation has found that these chemicals are dangerous in normal use.

It is essential for society to protect children, but AB 1108, which is motivated more by emotion and ideology than logic, will not do so. Seemingly based on the myth that more regulation inevitably makes us safer, the legislation ignores a basic principle of toxicology -- namely, that the dose is critical to whether or not a substance is harmful. The mere presence of something does not imply harm; one needs to know the dose, mode and length of exposure, what it does in the body (if anything), how it is disposed of, and so forth. In other words, virtually any substance can be toxic at high enough levels. An example known to all medical students: Part of the workup for hypertension (high blood pressure) is to inquire whether the patient eats large amounts of licorice, which contains glycyrrhizin, a chemical that has steroid-like properties, promotes sodium and fluid retention and raises blood pressure.

The Consumer Products Safety Commission rejected a national ban on vinyl toys after an evaluation of diisononyl phthalate (DINP), the most common phthalate in childrens toys, in 2003. Their evaluation: "Total mouthing time for babies 3-12 months old is about 10 minutes per hour, including pacifiers, bottle nipples, parts of their own bodies, and any other device (designed for sucking or not). For older babies, the numbers go down. Pacifiers constitute most of babies' sucking time (about a third) and their own body parts are preferred next. Soft vinyl toys containing DINP were sucked on for under 11 seconds per hour, or under 5 minutes a day. Even the most avid suckers (in the 99th percentile) were chomping at their DINP toys for at most 12 minutes per day. The Commission concluded that a baby would have to suck for about ten times as long before they could consume enough DINP to have any potential adverse effects."

In 2003, the European Union reached a similar conclusion in its risk assessment for DINP: "[F]or infants, combined exposure which is mainly related to exposure from toys and via the environment is not considered of concern." A specially convened panel in the EU found that DINP posed no reproductive, development or cancer risk. Even a study widely reported by the media to link phthalates and genital defects found no correlation between the phthalates used in toys and reproductive risk.

The public doesn't benefit when lawmakers turn a well-tested product that has been proven safe and useful into an untouchable. Instead, manufacturers will simply turn to -- and consumers will be exposed to -- alternatives which are likely to be less well tested. The irony of AB 1108 is that children could end up at greater net risk should this bill become law.

Simply put, AB 1108 represents bad science and bad law, a classic case of lawmakers putting politics before the public interest. There is no clear and present danger to children from phthalates used to make toys. AB 1108 fails to provide any benefit to public health and should not become law.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, was formerly an official at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration.


An Accountant...
I suppose Fiona Ma could have been a lawyer and that would account for her willingness to argue a case without merits.

As it turns out she is a CPA who (as a bright, young politician) was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2002, to California's Lower House in 2006, and who unquestionably has her eye on bigger things for herself.

She must propose legislation, get some broader (National?) visibility and rally emotional support for her next campaign...This issue probably looked like an easy score for her...and, indeed, it was.

We now know her name and, for the most part, we didn't before. Even if she was completely wrong, here, surely she meant well. Politics in America. You understand.

Meaning Well
"The f**k you up, your mom and dad.
They might not mean to, but they do."

~ Phillip Larkin, "This Be the Verse"

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