Monday, August 25, 2008

Where the Sidewalk Ends: part 1 of 2

There's been a lot of fuss in the press about bisphenol A, that cancer-autism-hormone-imbalancing-everything-horrible compound that's added as a stabilizer to plastics. Europe has declared it safe, although they've set limits to exposure to allay consumer fears (not being sworn to protect liberty lets you do a lot of things, apparently). Consumer advocates in the US want it banned, swearing left and right that it causes cancer and acts to disrupt male hormones.

So. Which side to believe?

On the one hand, consider that companies do not necessarily have the health of the consumer in mind when they peddle their wares. We read about formaldehyde in milk and sawdust in potted meat (I love that phrase) in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The fast-food industry has long been plagued by the image of their restuarant as a hotbed for food poisoning, an image not entirely unearned--think Jack in the Box in the 1980s. Today, flavorists are paid exorbitant sums to come up with ways to flavor food "naturally", even though there is really nothing natural about grinding dead bugs into strawberry yogurt, and still less about how the yogurt is flavored, even if it is organic*.

On the other hand, consumer advocate groups have been wrong before. As important as Erin Brockovich-like figures are in keeping people from sticking knives into electric sockets and slapping warnings about letting your kids play with a meat grinder (it saddens me to think that some people actually need these warnings), they do a great disservice when they pick the wrong causes to run with (the link is an example of what's wrong--I strongly advocate vaccines, though I'm less certain about following booster schedules to the letter).

In scenarios like this, an outside observer can't win: if you go with the science (both bisphenol A and vaccines are safe) you get labeled as a pawn for the industry; if you go with the consumer groups (both bisphenol A and vaccines are dangerous) you have to ignore pages upon pages of research and you get labeled as a rabid emotionally-invested moron.

Even if you try to take the middle of the road (vaccines, but titer before boosters; accept that plastics are needed, but try to use less--a stance that any environmentalist should agree with irrespective of the health risks) then you get called out for being indecisive and John Kerry. Which is just as bad, because most of the time the middle of the road is the most logical place to be.

Skimming through PubMed produces lots of studies that show BPA is safe. At ridiculously high dosages, of course, it's dangerous, but then again, so are carrots, so that's almost a non-argument. Most of the studies that demonstrate causality were done in rats or mice. If anybody cares to remember the saccharine saga, the moral of the story is that mice =/= humans.

But oddly, despite the studies, I still have misgivings about BPA. I don't doubt the science saying it's safe. I have a higher chance of being run over than I do of getting cancer because of my exposure to it. But...

That's the puzzling part about this whole thing: that we should have all the information pointing to the facts, that we should have all of these studies indicating that we don't have to give up plastics or change our way of life--and yet. And yet we continually question whether it's true. Why does the sidewalk end? Where do we get off the train of reasoning and board the Pseudoscience express?

*Let me tell you right now that unless you've had real homemade strawberry ice cream--and I'm not talking about the stuff you can get out of a Breyer's box--you cannot understand how false commercial strawberry ice cream is. There is a cloying sweetness about the commercial stuff that is replaced by a richness in taste and an element of tartness that makes true strawberry ice cream phenomenal.

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