Chemophobia cleans up

The president of the American Council on Science and Health on how New York's governor fell for junk science.

Elizabeth Whelan

Topics Politics

To much of the world, New York probably seems like a place of high technology and unfettered capitalism, yet its governor George Pataki is keen to impose unscientific new regulations – on cleaning products. Pataki’s State of the State address last month deserves sceptical analysis.

Many Americans falsely believe we are suffering an unexplained upsurge in cancer rates – and that chemicals may be the culprit. Unfortunately, Pataki chose to reinforce that myth in his speech. He announced that by means of an Executive Order, he would require ‘all state agencies and authorities to begin using non-toxic cleaning products that are free of harmful chemicals’. He added, ‘And later this session, I will submit legislation that requires all schools in the state to do the same’.

Where in did the governor get the idea that routine use of standard cleaning materials posed a risk to health? Was he so advised by an array of prestigious New York-based physicians and scientists?

No. The governor cited as his source for the allegation that ‘chemicals’ pose a health hazard one Deirdre Imus, who he described as ‘a great New Yorker [who has raised] awareness of the hazards of chemical cleaning products’. Deirdre Imus, the wife of the talk-show host Don Imus, founded the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology, which according to its website has a mission ‘to identify, control, and ultimately prevent environmental factors that cause…pediatric cancer’.

Albany, we’ve got a problem. First, there is no evidence whatsoever that adult or childhood exposure to the household or office cleaning products on the market today pose any risk to human health – unless of course you regularly ingest them. Second, sure, some of the chemicals in the cleaners can be rightfully termed ‘potential toxins’. So is everyday table salt – if you consume an absurd quantity of it.

The dose makes the poison – but that toxicological truth is lost on both the governor and Ms Imus. (It is interesting that Ms Imus’ Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology ‘offers a full line of environmental friendly cleaning product for public facilities’. Will the state purchase ‘green supplies’ from the center? Talk about cleaning up.)

Governor Pataki was had. He did not seek scientific advice. Rather, he accepted the counsel of a radical environmental activist with no scientific credentials. The governor’s error has been largely ignored, though commentator Larry Kudlow proclaimed on MSNBC the day after the speech that the Executive Order was based on pure ‘junk science’ – and he was subsequently berated on the air by Don Imus.

Science and technology have played a central role in the ongoing decline in the rate of cancer deaths – and all other ills. It is a mistake to scapegoat science and technology in the struggle to explain and combat cancer. The governor should admit his error and rescind the Executive Order.

Elizabeth Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health, which has released the new book America’s War on ‘Carcinogens’: Reassessing the Use of Animal Tests to Predict Human Cancer Risks.

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Topics Politics


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