In the SkyMall catalog on a flight last month, a pitch for "MidNite," a "drug free sleep remedy" caught my eye. The ad boasted that the chewable and all-natural tablets will help you "fall asleep fast, then awake good to go." And of course, then came the small-print disclaimer that the product was not evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This is amusingly consistent with SkyMall's listings for products such as "Go Away Gray" and the $159.99 "Touchless Sensor" toilet Seat which automatically raises and lowers itself. But what struck me about the "MidNite" ad was the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval accompanying it.
The symbol, like the magazine it drew its credibility from, used to convey that the product it endorsed was reputable. But with the sleep remedy, I'm not buying it. So it was less shocking later in the month when I read an article in Good Housekeeping, the magazine, that suggested that minuscule amounts of chemicals detected in tap water cause everything from cancer to learning disabilities, as well as obesity and impaired sexual development. There are some legitimate concerns about water safety, but those problems are mainly related to old rusting pipes and bacteria, not traces of chemicals.
The Good Housekeeping piece, "Is Your Tap Water Safe?," sounds alarm bells over the tiniest levels of drugs, pesticides, and other chemicals which "could be flowing from your faucet." The article relies on the agenda-driven "expertise" of activist groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council. NRDC and other activists have long been campaigning against pesticides and other chemicals, which they attempt to link to cancer, reproductive effects, and just about anything else that sounds scary. The piece quoted NRDC scientists to support a range of distorted claims, but some of the most misleading prose comes in the form of an attack on the pesticide, atrazine.
Atrazine, a widely-used weed killer, was first registered in 1958 and has been tested for human health and environmental concerns ever since. The Environmental Protection Agency calls atrazine "one of the the most closely examined pesticides in the marketplace."
Yet some of the claims the activists have been making are so outrageous that the generally risk-averse EPA has gone on record to repudiate them. In particular, with regards to claims that atrazine adversely affects sexual development in frogs (a key basis for the NRDC attack in the article), the agency wrote that "there was no compelling reason to pursue additional testing," because the EPA's own evaluation found the charges without merit. But why let let the science get in the way of a good scare story?
The EPA has long been taking the charges against atrazine seriously, and continues to study it. It went so far as to prepare a White Paper reviewing the work of chief atrazine critic, Berkeley activist Dr. Tyrone Hayes. In a strikingly powerful rebuke, the EPA White Paper found that "all of the available information" from Hayes' work "was scientifically flawed."
Other scientists have been unable to replicate the strange science produced by Dr. Hayes and the allegations drummed up by NRDC.
For instance, NRDC claims that atrazine "concentrations as low as 0.1 ppb (parts per billion) have been shown to alter the development of sex characteristics in male frogs."
The charges, based on the questionable science of Dr. Hayes, prompted the EPA to require the manufacturer of Atrazine, Syngenta, to fund studies to test the allegations.
The two ensuing large-scale and state-of-the-art studies conducted by German scientist Werner Kloas, completely refuted the freaky frog findings. But not surprisingly, the activists, unhappy with the results, attacked the credibility of the study as "industry funded." What they don't tell you (and what Good Housekeeping doesn't report,) is that the methodology of the studies were approved by the EPA, and the results, including all of the data, were audited by the EPA to it's satisfaction. That's more than can be said of Dr. Hayes' transgendered findings.
The Good Housekeeping piece is chock full of similarly misleading and unfounded innuendo against a range of chemical products, traces of which can be found in tap water.
I hope I'm not alone in recognizing that the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval shouldn't cause one to suspend critical thinking and common-sense and believe that drug-free MidNite is the "sleep remedy" that legitimate researches have only been able to dream of. Yet I am concerned that activist-driven articles like the one in this month's Good Housekeeping magazine will be an effective remedy for the activists' lack of science. My message to readers who automatically think that every article about the dangers of chemicals has more than a part per billion of truth to it: wake up! There's usually more to the story.
Jeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and directs its Risk Analysis Division.