The Dose Makes the Poison

Toxicity is binary in California. Or so says its governor and most of its residents.

Governor Newsom, who believes in science, recently signed legislation making California the first state to ban 24 toxic chemicals in cosmetics.

The governor’s office states “AB 2762 bans 24 toxic chemicals in cosmetics, which are linked to negative long-term health impacts especially for women and children.”

The “which” in that statement is a nonrestrictive pronoun, and the comma preceding it makes the meaning clear. The sentence says that all toxic chemicals are linked to health impacts and that AB 2762 bans 24 of them – as opposed to saying 24 chemicals that are linked to health effects are banned. One need not be a grammarian or George Orwell to get the drift.

California continues down the chemophobic path, established in the 1970s, of viewing all toxicity through the beloved linear no-threshold lens. That lens has served gullible Californians well since the 1974, when the Sierra Club, which had until then supported nuclear power as “one of the chief long-term hopes for conservation,” teamed up with the likes of Gov. Jerry Brown (1975-83, 2011-19) and William Newsom – Gavin’s dad, investment manager for Getty Oil – to scare the crap out of science-illiterate Californians about nuclear power.

That fear-mongering enlisted Ralph Nadar, Paul Ehrlich and other leading Malthusians, rock stars, oil millionaires and overnight-converted environmentalists. It taught that nuclear plants could explode like atom bombs, and that anything connected to nuclear power was toxic – in any dose. At the same time Governor Brown, whose father had deep oil ties, found that new fossil fuel plants could be built “without causing environmental damage.” The Sierra Club agreed, and secretly took barrels of cash from fossil fuel companies for the next four decades – $25M in 2007 from subsidiaries of, and people connected to, Chesapeake Energy.

What worked for nuclear also works for chemicals. “Toxic chemicals have no place in products that are marketed for our faces and our bodies,” said First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom in response to the recent cosmetics ruling. Jennifer may be unaware that the total amount of phthalates in the banned zipper tabs would yield very low exposure indeed.

Chemicals cause cancer, especially in California, where you cannot enter a parking garage, nursery, or Starbucks without reading a notice that the place can “expose you to chemicals known to the State of California to cause birth defects.” California’s litigator-lobbied legislators authored Proposition 65 in a way that encourages citizens to rat on violators, the “citizen enforcers” receiving 25% of any penalties assessed by the court. The proposition lead chemophobes to understand that anything “linked to cancer” causes cancer. It exaggerates theoretical cancer risks stymying the ability of the science-ignorant educated class to make reasonable choices about actual risks like measles and fungus.

California’s linear no-threshold conception of chemical carcinogens actually started in 1962 with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that stopped DDT use, saving all the birds, with the minor side effect of letting millions of Africans die of malaria who would have survived (1, 2, 3) had DDT use continued.

But ending DDT didn’t save the birds, because DDT wasn’t the cause of US bird death as Carson reported, because the bird death at the center of her impassioned plea never happened. This has been shown by many subsequent studies; and Carson, in her work at Fish and Wildlife Service and through her participation in Audubon bird counts, certainly had access to data showing that the eagle population doubled, and robin, catbird, and dove counts had increased by 500% between the time DDT was introduced and her eloquence, passionate telling of the demise of the days that once “throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, and doves.”

Carson also said that increasing numbers of children were suffering from leukemia, birth defects and cancer, and of “unexplained deaths,” and that “women were increasingly unfertile.” Carson was wrong about increasing rates of these human maladies, and she lied about the bird populations. Light on science, Carson was heavy on influence: “Many real communities have already suffered.”

In 1969 the Environmental Defense Fund demanded a hearing on DDT. Lasting eight months, the examiner’s verdict concluded DDT was not mutagenic or teratogenic. No cancer, no birth defects. In found no “deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds or other wildlife.”

William Ruckleshaus, first director of the EPA didn’t attend the hearings or read the transcript. Pandering to the mob, he chose to ban DDT in the US anyway. It was replaced by more harmful pesticides in the US and the rest of the world. In praising Ruckleshaus, who died last year, NPR, the NY Times and the Puget Sound Institute described his having a “preponderance of evidence” of DDT’s damage, never mentioning the verdict of that hearing.

When Al Gore took up the cause of climate, he heaped praise on Carson, calling her book “thoroughly researched.” Al’s research on Carson seems of equal depth to Carson’s research on birds and cancer. But his passion and unintended harm have certainly exceeded hers. A civilization relying on the low-energy-density renewables Gore advocates will consume somewhere between 100 and 1000 times more space for food and energy than we consume at present.

California’s fallacious appeal to naturalism regarding chemicals also echoes Carson’s, and that of her mentor, Wilhelm Hueper, who dedicated himself to the idea that cancer stemmed from synthetic chemicals. This is still overwhelmingly the sentiment of Californians, despite the fact that the smoking-tar-cancer link now seems a bit of a fluke. That is, we expected the link between other “carcinogens” and cancer to be as clear as the link between smoking and cancer. It is not remotely. As George Johnson, author of The Cancer Chronicles, wrote, “as epidemiology marches on, the link between cancer and carcinogen seems ever fuzzier” (re Tomasetti on somatic mutations). Carson’s mentor Hueper, incidentally, always denied that smoking caused cancer, insisting toxic chemicals released by industry caused lung cancer.

 This brings us back to the linear no-threshold concept. If a thing kills mice in high doses, then any dose to humans is harmful – in California. And that’s accepting that what happens in mice happens in humans, but mice lie and monkeys exaggerate. Outside California, most people are at least aware of certain hormetic effects (U-shaped dose-response curve). Small amounts of Vitamin C prevent scurvy; large amounts cause nephrolithiasis. Small amounts of penicillin promote bacteria growth; large amount kill them. There is even evidence of biopositive effects from low-dose radiation, suggesting that 6000 millirems a year might be best for your health. The current lower-than-baseline levels of cancers in 10,000 residents of Taiwan accidentally exposed to radiation-contaminated steel, in doses ranging from 13 to 160 mSv/yr for ten years starting in 1982 is a fascinating case.   

Radiation aside, perpetuating a linear no-threshold conception of toxicity in the science-illiterate electorate for political reasons is deplorable, as is the educational system that produces degreed adults who are utterly science-illiterate – but “believe in science” and expect their government to dispense it responsibly. The Renaissance physician Paracelsus knew better half a millennium ago when he suggested that that substances poisonous in large doses may be curative in small ones, writing that “the dose makes the poison.”

To demonstrate chemophobia in 2003, Penn Jillette and assistant effortlessly convinced people in a beach community, one after another, to sign a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide (H2O). Water is of course toxic in high doses, causing hyponatremia, seizures and brain damage. But I don’t think Paracelsus would have signed the petition.

  1. #1 by Anonymous on October 19, 2020 - 1:35 pm

    That’d be dose rate insensitivity. Studies on risk perception have consistently found that a high percentage (about 60-75%) of people believe that any exposure to a carcinogen will (eventually) cause cancer. A similar percentage believe that any exposure to radiation will inevitably cause cancer. Unsurprisingly those beliefs tend to correlate with the belief that such risks must be eliminated, regardless of the cost. There’s a similar probability neglect effect when dealing with high ‘shudder factor’ risks such as mad cow disease, or nuclear power. People are, as they say, odd.

  2. #2 by cccady on October 19, 2020 - 7:48 pm

    Your opinion on glyphosate?

    • #3 by Bill Storage on October 20, 2020 - 1:15 pm

      Witch hunt. An odd case where the EU Food Safety Authority, the EPA and the WHO all agree. Less toxic than coffee. Litigious activist group International Agency for Research on Cancer beat the data to the legislators. A bit of humor here: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/glyphosate-chemophobia-gr_b_10223842

      • #4 by richard brakeman on October 20, 2020 - 6:00 pm

        A bit of humor indeed, as a side to the main dish of irony.

  3. #5 by richard brakeman on October 20, 2020 - 5:50 pm

    When observing “linear no-threshold conception of….[fill in the blank]” I see the prevalence of people that don’t have a concept of threshold and trade-offs, even with years of human experience that should yield some sense or learning of cause(s)-effect(s). Surprisingly, this is even true of “experts” who perform technical functions in their fields but often lack the ability to mature or refine their conclusions – and especially scarce is their conception of dimensions or domains outside of their technical field when analyzing cause/effect and the threshold (or continuum) of understanding phenomena and then what should be done about that understanding. So-called experts like CNBC types talking about the economy (in narrow terms without understanding cause, effect, incentive, psychology); and another expert class with finely fitted blinders is the health bureaus (CDC, WHO, State and County bureaus) that were wrong, before they were wrong, before they were right (yet?) about SARS2/COVID-19. Science is real but in danger of being an orphan.

  4. #6 by Warren Anderson on October 23, 2020 - 10:48 am

    Reading the order I see chemicals that should be banned from consumer products. Formaldehyde is toxic and causes cancer and Quaternium releases formaldehyde as well. Formaldehyde is also a strong contact sensitizer. Older Americans have been exposed to formaldehyde and the much more horrible preservative methylisothiazolinone for years. For many older Americans exposure to even a few molecules of these chemicals results in contact allergic dermatitis and there is no reasonable threshold. Another class of chemicals for which this is true is hormone disruptors. There is no testable concentration of TCDD (dioxin) that doesn’t cause harm do developing fetuses. The reason that very toxic substances are in consumer products is for the convenience of the manufacturers who have way too much influence over the FDA. The FDA’s review process is decades behind and the reason for this is to protect the industry. Not just California but many countries where they care about people instead of industry have banned them. This is not Orwellian at all.

    As usual you take a swipe at Mathusians. The Mathusians are right. Demography is a science. Carrying capacity and other concepts related to population are important parts of the study of biology and ecology. I can’t believe that someone as smart and educated as you and especially someone who lives in California wouldn’t believe in overpopulation. Take your next vacation in Haiti and when you return, tell me that there’s no such thing as overpopulation.

    Your paragraph about DDT is baloney. The number of birds in north America has declined precipitously in recent decades and many species are threatened. Of course since there’s no such thing as human overpopulation and resulting habitat loss, this can’t be the cause.

    Then you go on to criticize renewable energy stating correctly that it will need vast amounts of land, implying that this would be worse than what we have now. Are you also a climate change denier? Of course you couldn’t consider that a smaller population would be part of the solution.

    Your paragraph about the linear no-threshold concept is ridiculous. It’s true for some things but not others. When you read things like the statement that six millirems a year is good you should be skeptical and consider that this is fake news. You could read a vast amount of other research to the contrary.

    Paracelsus’ suggestion that that substances poisonous in large doses may be curative in small ones, writing that “the dose makes the poison.” is true for some drugs like methotrexate which is a toxic chemotherapeutic agent but is effective in treating inflammatory arthritis in small doses (but with side effects that often result in cessation of treatment). But this theory is also the basis of the completely discredited pseudoscience of homeopathy in which toxic substances are diluted into such small concentrations that they have no molecules of the original substance left, with the expectation that these dilutions are effective at curing the disease that a higher concentration would cause. Maybe you don’t believe in Avogadro’s number either.

    Most of your past posts have been rational and interesting but this one reads like a right-wing disinformation from the fake news media. I’m beginning to think that you might be a victim of the cruel delusion of technological optimism – the belief that no matter what happens there will be a technology that will fix any problem. The abysmal pseudoscience of economics has similar beliefs – cornacopianism, a rising tide lifts all boats, supply side economics and the worst of all, perpetual growth.

    You are a huge science denier.

    W.A

    • #7 by richard brakeman on October 24, 2020 - 5:52 pm

      Bill, I appreciate the subjects that you introduce, opening with a conversational hypothesis followed by evidence and data without dogma and without name-calling; your conclusions and opinions quietly invite other perspectives without assuming that science is ever settled (well maybe the law of Gravity?). When a new Multidisciplinarian post arrives in my mailbox, I reach for it to read first.

    • #8 by Bill Storage on October 26, 2020 - 10:21 pm

      Hi Warren. Thanks for the reply. Are you a counter-inductionist? Malthus, and recent Malthusians like Ehrlich, have been nearly 100% wrong in their scientific predictions. So are they “right” because now it’s really time for their predictions to come true (we’ll be sorry we denied their genius)? After a long streak of heads, a tail is bound to come up, right? Glad to see you’re still reading my science denial.

      • #9 by Warren Anderson on October 27, 2020 - 10:32 am

        It would be hard for me to adequately address the questions posed by your reply. This is the subject of a vast number of books and articles. The subject of overpopulation was at one time part of mainstream discussion in America but has sadly become a taboo. Many authors have written about it but science deniers always focus on Paul Erlich because he gave a time table that was way too pessimistic. He was absolutely not 100% wrong. To think that, you would have to ignore the fact that several billion to the Earth’s eight billion people are living in extreme poverty with food insecurity. In Africa there is a famine affecting millions of people every year including this one. In our hemisphere the most overpopulated country is Haiti. The per capita GDP is $719. Two thirds of the Haitians have no formal jobs. Three quarters of the people live on less than $2 a day. Because of deforestation there is very little arable land so most Haitians would die without international food aid. Women have 3.5 children.

        Going forward things look bad. According to the Soil Conservation Service, farmers in America were producing enough food to feed one American on 1.9 acres of arable land in 1990. This includes marginally productive land like range land. Today they do it on 1.3 acres but when the population increases by hundreds of millions of Americans late in this century they will have to do it on 0.3 acres due to more mouths to feed and conversion of farmland to suburbs. Do you think that this is possible? Looking at changes in the environment like melting ice caps, sea level rise, worldwide shortages of fresh water, cutting down the rain forests and ocean acidification, I don’t see how the malthusians could be wrong. The last time there was as much C02 in the oceans as there will be late in this century, it caused the Permian-Triassic extinction in which 95% of all the species on Earth went extinct.

        Your criticism of Malthusians is negative criticism. You offer no positive solutions for the problems faced by humanity today. This leads me to wonder if you think everything is ok. If so you must be looking out your window at a different Earth than the one I see. Do you not see a world-wide ecological collapse?

        Population and the environment is the defining issue of our times. As a science writer you should study this and write about it.

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