Junk Science Pervades California ‘Biomonitoring’ Effort

Published June 1, 2004

On May 10, the California Senate Appropriations Committee heard testimony on the “Healthy Californians Biomonitoring Program,” introduced in February by State Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento).

The bill was approved by the Senate Environmental Quality Committee on April 27 and the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on March 24.

The measure, S.B. 1168, would require the Division of Environmental and Occupational Disease Control, part of the state Department of Health Services, to establish a system for monitoring chemicals in the bodies and breast milk of Californians. By June 2006, the system would be implemented in three test communities. The program would expand to include additional communities by 2008.

“Biomonitoring is the next logical, critical step for us to take in addressing threats to public health,” said Ortiz, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. “It is my hope that this research can lead to more deliberate decision-making as we tackle chronic diseases and cancers that are pervasively and frighteningly invading our families and personal lives.”

Radical Supporters

Though Ortiz authored S.B. 1168 and describes it in public health terms, the real muscle behind the measure comes from a coalition of anti-chemical environmental activist groups dubbing themselves the California Body Burden Campaign (CalBBC).

Among the coalition’s members is The National Environmental Trust (NET), which once sought a ban on chemicals used in the production of rubber ducks and other plastic toys. In February 2003 the Consumer Products Safety Commission unanimously voted to dismiss NET’s claims as unfounded.

Joining NET in its support for the Ortiz measure are, among others, the California Environmental Rights Alliance, Californians for Pesticide Reform, Earth Island/International Marine Mammal Project, Environmental Justice and Health Union, Environmental Working Group, National Resources Defense Council, Pesticide Action Network, and San Francisco Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Several labor unions, including the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, Palo Alto Education Association, and United Steelworkers of America, also support the bill.

The bill’s provision for a “Community Representative Committee” makes apparent the anti-chemical bias that underlies the effort. By law, the committee’s eight members must represent: a breast cancer awareness organization; an organization with a focus on environmental health; an organization with a focus on environmental justice; an organization with a focus on child environmental health; an organization promoting breastfeeding; a labor organization; a private industry “with a verifiable and consistent commitment to sustainable core business practices that reduce environmental toxins”; and a public health organization.

Nothing More than a Scare Tactic

According to CalBBC, the Ortiz bill would create the first ever statewide biomonitoring program to measure “pollution in people.”

Junk science watchdog Steven Milloy, however, says the bill’s real purpose “is simply to scare people, thereby building political pressure to have various chemicals banned–along with the many useful and lifesaving products made from them.” Milloy commented on the Ortiz bill in an April 30 “Views” essay for FoxNews.com.

Milloy, publisher of JunkScience.com and author of the Cato Institute book Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams, noted the legislative rationale for Ortiz’s proposal, outlined in the bill’s “declarations” section, consists of “two distinct observations that have no demonstrable relationship between them, despite decades and billions of dollars of research.”

The bill’s declarations point out that (a) an estimated 125 million Americans have at least one chronic health condition and (b) there are an estimated 85,000 synthetic chemicals registered for use in the U.S., with another 2,000 added each year.

Noted Milloy, “there’s no basis in any fact for assuming that the chemicals and other substances we are exposed to in the course of ordinary daily lives play any role in the onset of chronic disease.

“People can suffer from chronic disease for many reasons,” Milloy continued, “including genetics, poor diet, smoking, overconsumption of alcohol, lack of exercise, and lack of adequate health care. The cause or causes of many chronic diseases are simply a mystery.”

Tracing Toxins

“We know trace levels of many chemicals and other substances can be detected in the body,” noted Milloy. “But so what? While all substances may be toxic, they’re only toxic when exposures to them are sufficiently high.”

A report released in April 2003 by the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) confirmed Milloy’s skepticism.

“Americans are constantly being bombarded with warnings about dire health consequences from traces of environmental chemicals,” explained ACSH President Dr. Elizabeth Whelan at the time of the report’s release. “But many of these warnings simply relate to evidence of exposure, not to any demonstrated adverse effects on health. Merely because a substance can be detected does not mean that it poses any real risk to health. Indeed, there are almost no studies documenting an adverse human health effect due to trace levels of chemicals.”

In March 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its Second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. The authors noted, “The measurement of an environmental chemical in a person’s blood or urine does not by itself mean that the chemical causes disease. Advances in analytical methods allow us to measure lower and lower levels of environmental chemicals in people. Separate studies of varying exposure levels and health effects are required to determine which blood and urine levels are safe and which result in disease.”

Natural Chemicals Abound

Scientists also point out that anti-chemical measures like Ortiz’s widely miss their target. “The focus of regulatory policy is on synthetic chemicals,” noted Dr. Bruce N. Ames, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California – Berkeley. “But 99.9 percent of the chemicals humans ingest are natural.”

“The 85,000 man-made chemicals referred to in Sen. Ortiz’s bill,” noted Milloy, “pale in comparison to the more than 20 million natural chemical compounds, many of which can be quite toxic at relatively low doses.”

High Price to Pay

The Ortiz measure seeks a start-up appropriation of $1.5 million from the General Fund as a “loan” to the Department of Health Services. The loan must be repaid from, and all operating expenses covered by, a biomonitoring fund that will collect fees assessed on manufacturers, importers, and distributors of more than 50 chemicals identified in the bill.

The measure prohibits the California Environmental Protection Agency, under whose auspices the biomonitoring program operates, from collecting more than $10 million in fees annually–although yearly adjustments to reflect changes in the consumer price index are permitted and a triennial review to determine appropriate fee levels is called for.

The state’s business community has not responded positively to the proposed fee mandate.

“Any time you add to the cost of doing business in California, you are forcing many small business owners to do things that are bad for the economy: cutting back on benefits, cutting back on full-time jobs, not expanding employment in the state,” warned Martyn B. Hopper, California state director for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).

“These mandates–health insurance, biomonitoring–may be good concepts. But once government starts tying firms up in regulation, you make California a very uncompetitive place to do business.”

Diane Carol Bast is vice president of The Heartland Institute and editor of Environment & Climate News. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The text of S.B. 1168, the Healthy Californians Biomonitoring Program, is available through The Heartland Institute’s free PolicyBot™ research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and search for document #14945.

“Traces of Environmental Chemicals in the Human Body: Are They a Risk to Health?” the May 2003 report issued by the American Council on Science and Health, is also available through PolicyBot™. Search for document #12321.

The six-page executive summary of the Centers for Disease Control’s Second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals is available through PolicyBot™. Search for document #14946. The 250-page full text and additional information about the report are available from the CDC Web site at http://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/default.htm.