At 'HuffPo' Fearmongering Is an Olympic Sport

By Jeff Stier

What is to blame for spiraling medical spending? Exposure to chemicals in food containers, of course. 
In a dazzling display of confusion between association and causation, Huffington Post environmental and public health columnist Lynne Peeples writes that:

Health care spending in the U.S. has surged more than eightfold since the 1960s. Skyrocketing in that same time: Rates of chronic disease, use of synthetic chemicals, and evidence that many of these widely used substances may be wreaking havoc on human health.

Receive news alerts

Her theory begins with three statements of fact from longtime anti-chemical crusader Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the department of preventative medicine at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

1) Chemicals are reaching people.
2) Chemicals can cause disease.
3) Diseases cost money.

All three statements are completely true, but none of them support her claim that exposure to chemicals in food containers such as bisphenol A (BPA) in canned goods are causing run-away medical spending. However, one factor that is likely to drive up medical costs is that major teaching hospitals such as the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine employ ideologically driven activists like Dr. Landrigan.

To back up her claim that chemicals are driving health costs, Peeples cites an almost comically flawed set of assumptions and calculations orchestrated by Leonardo Trasande, an associate professor of pediatrics, environmental medicine and health policy at New York University's Lagone Medical Center.

Trasande, in a study published in Health Affairs, alleges that the use of BPA in food and beverage containers "is responsible for an estimated $3 billion a year in costs associated with childhood obesity and adult heart disease." Trasande estimates that BPA is responsible for 2,404 cases of childhood obesity and 33,863 cases of newly incident coronary heart disease. From there, it's relatively simple to attribute costs and grab headlines.

To reach his conclusions, he stacks assumptions on top of computer models on top of the unproven speculation that BPA is an obesogen and causes heart disease. And, he is assuming that humans are normally exposed to dangerous levels of BPA, but data suggests we are actually exposed to very little BPA.

The idea that BPA causes obesity in children is based on a study linking higher levels of BPA in children's urine to obesity. But the authors warn against making the causal conclusions Trasande assumes. The finding that BPA is even associated with, let alone causes, obesity is also tenuous. The study was based on a single measurement of BPA in the urine of each child in the study. However, the study admits, "humans metabolize and excrete BPA relatively rapidly (half-life of 6 hours with nearly complete urinary excretion by 24 hours)."

Thus, a simpler and more rational conclusion is that obese children have higher levels of BPA in their urine because they eat more food, which is a source of BPA. BPA doesn't cause obesity; eating too much food does. 

The heart disease link is also absurd. Not only is it based on single urine samples, it doesn't even claim to find a causal relationship between BPA and heart disease.
Is the BPA we are exposed to from everyday items such as can linings dangerous? No, according to the Food and Drug Administration. On its webpage, the FDA poses the question, "Is BPA safe?" The answer is direct and precise:

Yes. Based on FDA's ongoing safety review of scientific evidence, the available information continues to support the safety of BPA for the currently approved uses in food containers and packaging. People are exposed to low levels of BPA because, like many packaging components, very small amounts of BPA may migrate from the food packaging into foods or beverages.

In January, the European Food Safety Authority released a draft scientific report reaffirming findings it made in 2002 and 2006 that "total exposure for all population groups is at most a small fraction" of the tolerable daily intake level for BPA.
If leaps of logic were an Olympic sport, Peeples, Landrigan and Trasande would bring home gold, silver and bronze medals from Sochi. However they'd probably think the medals were dangerous because they are heavy, and we all know heavy metals are toxic.

Jeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and heads its Risk Analysis Division. Follow him on Twitter @JeffaStier.

Jeff Stier
Author Archive