Science Proves Chemical Fears Unfounded

Published May 1, 2007

This article is the eleventh in a continuing series excerpted from the book Smoke or Steam? A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory, and Food Safety Concerns, by Samuel Aldrich, adapted and serialized by Jay Lehr.

A typical statement in the news media regarding any potentially hazardous chemical is, “It has been linked to cancer, brain damage, and birth defects.” That is an example of the fear factor in action. The goal is to capture attention.

The message that is given to many readers or listeners is that the news is about a real risk, although the media makes no attempt to put the risk into perspective. No longer do the purveyors of fear tell us the concentrations of these chemicals or their allowable doses.

Microscopic Concentrations

In today’s laboratory we conventionally measure concentrations in parts per trillion (ppt), which is the ratio of a second of time to 32,000 years. Even a part per quadrillion–the ratio of a single hair on a human head to all the hairs on the heads of the entire Earth’s human population–can be measured by lab equipment.

If we were to believe the claims of alarmists about the effects of air pollution from smokestacks, auto emissions, hazardous chemicals in drinking water, radioactive materials from nuclear power plants, pesticide residues in food, etc., it would seem the lifespan of U.S. citizens should be declining–but in fact it is increasing.

Thousands of citizens suffer unnecessary fear simply because they do not understand what “safe” means as applied to the standards set for pesticide residues in food, chemicals in drinking water, radon in homes, radioactive releases from nuclear power plants, asbestos in schools and public places, and other items too numerous to list.

Illogical Chemophobia

Fear of chemicals has become so widespread that we now have the word “chemophobia” to describe it. People who suffer from it would not knowingly eat fruits that contain acetone, methyl butyrate, ethyl caproate, hexyl acetate, methanol, acrolein, and crotonaldhyde, yet they unknowingly do this every time they eat a strawberry.

Every fruit or vegetable is made up of chemicals with scary names.

Consider this: Boric acid is a household product when used in laundry detergent. It is a drug used as an antiseptic eye wash. It is an insecticide used to kill cockroaches. It is a herbicide used to kill weeds.

Despite the image created by alarmists, safety has been widely achieved in all its uses.

Safe Doses

In 1987, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration conducted a comprehensive study of pesticide and fungicide residues in a Total Diet Study. The residues of pesticides and fungicides in typical diets proved to be less than one ten-thousandth of the amount required to obtain the first sign of a toxic effect with laboratory animals.

Alice Ottoboni, in her wonderful book The Dose Makes the Poison, wrote, “All living creatures have to deal with exposure to numerous noxious substances. No animal on Earth could survive a day if it were not capable of handling small amounts of a wide variety of foreign chemicals. It is only when we overwhelm the natural defense mechanisms of our bodies by taking in too much at one time or too much too often that we get in trouble.”

Hundreds of millions of healthy humans who currently populate the Earth would have died long ago if synthetic pesticides had not been used on their behalf. The well-known scientist Dr. Bruce Ames has said, “the amount of man-made chemicals that humans ingest in their diets is utterly trivial.”

The pesticides in our diet are 99.99 percent natural, because plants make an enormous variety of toxins to ward off fungi, insects, and animal predators. For example, one cup of coffee contains more carcinogens than all the pesticide residues an average American eats in a year.

Fear Without Evidence

Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop has pointed out, “No one has yet been made sick or killed by any pesticide found in food.” Yet any well-informed person who chooses to do so can postulate distantly possible catastrophes that cannot be refuted by any amount of excellent relevant, current research data.

Fear of the unknown is a powerful motivating force.

The late Dr. Philip Handler, former president of the National Academy of Sciences, said, “It’s been extraordinarily easy for a few persuasive people with some technical background to allege harm is being done, and it is extraordinarily difficult to demonstrate that it isn’t so.”

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute. Samuel Aldrich is an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois. His groundbreaking book for laymen, Smoke or Steam? A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory, and Food Safety Concerns, is available from The Heartland Institute for $12. The table of contents of the book, containing 211 topics, can be viewed at