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April 2009

The Formaldehyde Council throws down the gauntlet

Betsy Natz, executive director of The Formaldehyde Council, has just published "An Open Letter to Journalists on Behalf of the Formaldehyde Industry."

The letter takes lazy and irresponsible journos to task for uncritically reprinting the propaganda of fear entrepreneur faux green/faux health fund-raising outfits.

High on the list are Good Morning America, which seems to pride itself on running false stories, and the absurd "Campaign for Safe Cosmetics," that peddled a scare piece, perhaps most remarkable in its use of junk science, non-science, and mindless hyperbole.

Many industry trade groups talk about fighting back against malicious slander, but the Formaldehyde Council also walks the walk.

Colonoscopies gone bad at the VA

There has been a fair amount of news coverage given to the sad situation at certain VA hospitals, regarding improper disinfection of colonoscopes. Thousands of vets were notified that they might be infected with HIV or Hepatitis B or C, and several cases of infection have already be uncovered.

The official spin on this is "improper assembly" of certain components of the scopes, but there is way more to the story than that.

For one thing, a supplier of equipment used to reprocess (sterilize or disinfect) the scopes was recommending that the wrong tubing connector be used (for cleaning only), to allow automatic reprocessing of the scopes, even though the manufacturer of the scope itself said that these parts had to be cleaned manually.

Unfortunately, the correct connector looks almost identical to the wrong one. Thus, when it is time to reassemble the unit, if the wrong connector stays in place, there could be dire consequences—and apparently there have been.

The VA admits that this improper reassembly could have occurred from April 23, 2003 through Dec. 1, 2008.

Please bear in mind that the scopes and the automatic reprocessors in question are used at many facilities besides the VA. The VA story came out because someone blew the whistle. Generally speaking, there is a good deal less whistle-blowing at private facilities, so we may never know the full extent of the problem.

Perhaps, a victim of this outside the VA, who has none of the common risk factors for the diseases, but did have a recent colonoscopy, might blow his own whistle.

Read my complete HND story.

Point Break (1991) retrospective

Although flawed, this movie rapidly developed a cult following. Helmer Kathryn Bigelow aptly demonstrates that creating first-class action cinema is not limited to just the guys.

But, there is more here.

Who are the real leaders, and who are the followers? What is the price of enlightenment, and, for that matter how does one know if he really is on the path to enlightenment?

The fall of Point Break's charismatic surf guru Bodhi serves as an eerie metaphor for the drastic fall of California, but how could the writers have seen this coming at the time?

Read my retrospective.

State of Play

A winning BBC mini-series is trimmed down to feature length and Americanized in this solid paean to old school investigative journalism. The baddies are diverse, encompassing Dem congressmen, a disaffected ex-soldier, and a Blackwater-like private corporation.

Russell Crowe carries this flick with a superb perf, while Robin Wright Penn reprises her oft-done suffering wife shtick.

You won't see the twist ending coming.

Read my complete review.

Respectful Insolence explains "woo" to us

A short description of woo...

Beliefs that clearly demonstrate magical thinking, uncritical acceptance of things for which no good evidence exists. This includes, but is not limited to, psychic phenomena, ghosts, the paranormal, "energy healing," the use of "colon cleansing" and "liver cleansing" to rid oneself of "toxins," homeopathy (especially quantum homeopathy), and a wide variety of other mystical and pseudoscientific beliefs.

Woo is resistant to reason. Indeed, woo has a double standard when it comes to what it considers to be good evidence. It is very accepting of a wide variety of fuzzy, mystical ideas, but is often incredibly distrustful and skeptical of anything having to do with "conventional" science or "conventional" medicine. Woos tend to be very quick to react to defend their particular brand of woo and very unforgiving of its being questioned.

For more detail go here.  But take with many grains of salt most of the other content from Orac.

Researchers identify a gene that tracks susceptibility to lung cancer

Although breast and prostate cancer are the most frequently diagnosed, lung cancer is still the biggest killer—in both sexes. 90 percent of the cases are related to smoking, but what about the other ten percent?

Various factors have been proposed, but genetic predisposition has always been of interest, if only there were some way of determining it.

Studies of family history might not be that helpful. If many of your relatives smoked, and did get lung cancer, what does that mean to you if you don't smoke?

Now, researchers out of the University of Cincinnati have identified gene RGS17 as a likely candidate for a lung cancer susceptibility gene.

Read all about it in my latest HND piece.

Chemophobia and its victims

That's the title of my latest HND piece.

There are two classes of victims: Those who actually suffer or even die as the result of chemophobic policies—such as the millions of Africans who died of malaria, based on the senseless banning of DDT—and those otherwise well-meaning individuals whose brains get turned into mush as a result of believing all this nonsense.

British science writer A.R. Michaelis was probably the first person to use the term "chemophobia," and we discuss his work a little bit.

Also covered is the famous maxim of toxicology: The dose makes the poison, and some words on those who try to deny this.

Alarmists will identify a known toxic chemical, present in an infinitesimally small amount in some product, and then attempt to scare people as if the chemical were a deadly toxin at any concentration. Thus, we have the absurd situation whereby people are trying to "free themselves" of formaldehyde, even though it is a metabolite in all animals, is present in human breath at a median concentration of 30 parts-per-billion, and naturally occurs in fruits and vegetables.

Check out the full article.

Greenie derangement syndrome

"Greenie derangement syndrome" is something I have observed for a long time, and can be defined as a condition that often occurs when a person enters the fringe environmental movement, whereby despite previous education, training, and attitudes, he begins to lose the capacity for rational thought when considering environmental issues.

A corollary is that a person affected by this syndrome is prone to quoting sources out of context, or simply making things up, in an attempt to support his positions.

A good example is Dr. Christopher De Rosa, former director of the CDC's Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine, who stated on more than one occasion that there is no safe level of exposure to formaldehyde. Lest we blame only De Rosa, he is but one victim of the concept called the precautionary principle, which holds that if some concentration of a chemical is dangerous, than ANY concentration of that chemical—other than "zero"—must also be dangerous.

This concept is also known as the linear no-threshold (LNT) model. Here is an example, as applied to radiation exposure, where the model was first proposed:

If a particular dose of radiation is found to produce one extra case of a type of cancer in every thousand people exposed, LNT predicts that one thousandth of this dose will produce one extra case in every million people so exposed, and that one millionth of this dose will produce one extra case in every billion people exposed. This means that any given quantity of radiation will produce the same number of cancers, no matter how thinly it is spread.

Needless to say, many scientists do not buy into this line of reasoning. In the case of formaldehyde, it is especially foolish to believe in this since formaldehyde is a natural metabolite of all animals, is present in human breath at a median concentration of 30 parts-per-billion, and appears in many fruits and vegetables. Note that these are inherent concentrations, and are not affected whatsoever by environmental concentrations of formaldehyde.

If some FEMA trailers had elevated concentrations of the compound, it was due to off-gassing of newly installed items in the trailers, and lack of proper ventilation.

The point is that De Rosa and his cohort should know better, and probably DID know better, until Greenie Derangement Syndrome set in.

Another more recent example involves Bill Nye, the former "Science Guy," who boasts a mechanical engineering degree from Cornell. His derangement was covered earlier.

I have often suggested that the radical Greens cling to their beliefs as a substitute for religion. This, though, is a very easy religion to follow in that they don't really have to do anything other than hold certain politically correct positions. Of course, they can also parade about doing cool "Green" things, much as the hypocrites, who sound a trumpet before them, that they may be honored by men (Matthew 6:2).

For that matter, what would Jesus do? While there are no Gospel references to the environment as such, we do see that Jesus is not terribly concerned about material things, nor even in conserving them. Luke 5:1-11 tells of the extraordinary catch of fish that threatened to sink the boats, but right after this happened, the catch was abandoned as Peter, James, and John left to follow Jesus.

Matthew 8:28-34 tells of demons being cast into a herd of swine, and then the entire herd being forced into the sea. Matthew 26:6-13 tells of expensive perfume being poured on His head, and the disciples becoming indignant at the waste. Jesus, though, instructs them not to worry about it, and that the woman who did this had performed a good deed. Finally, He even mocks the covetous man who plans to store up all of his wealth, so that he can then pursue a life of leisure—only to die that very night (Luke 12:16-20).

Returning to the 21st century, one further aspect of the syndrome is that the more absurd the position, the more our sufferers must believe in it, presumably since that shows their sincerity and determination. Thus, "The cooler weather is caused by global warming."

Beware this syndrome. Identify it in others, and don't let it infect you.

Bill Nye the science fraud

Bill Nye the Science Guy has been around for awhile, and is currently on the Discovery Networks (Planet Green). I have never been a fan of his politically correct approach to science, but figure that anything that can get kids interested in the field is probably reason enough to ignore his bias.

Then I saw this video, from his "Stuff Happens" series.  [Editor's note:   Guess what?  This video has been removed, although the gist of its nonsense is still referenced in many blogs.  If you can find the video somewhere, please let me know.]

The first mistake is a silly rant about the formaldehyde in insulation. He claims that it can be a problem when the insulation is discarded, and then the formaldehyde can "wreak havoc" on the environment. Any scientist worth his salt should know that formaldehyde does not accumulate in the environment, because it is broken down within a few hours by sunlight and bacteria.

But, he completely loses it around 4:10 into the video when he says:

"Twenty years ago, it took twice as much formaldehyde to embalm a dead body than it does today. Why is that? Because today, we already have twice as much formaldehyde in our bodies."

Consider how stupid this statement is, and in how many ways...

First of all, formaldehyde does not build up in our bodies, but exists at a steady state concentration of 1 to 2 parts-per-million in the blood. It is a normal metabolite of all animals, and this concentration has nothing to do with environmental pollution.

Embalming fluid contains anywhere from 5 to 29 percent formaldehyde. This content is referred to as "index," thus a 25-index fluid would have 25 percent formaldehyde. Please note that 5 percent formaldehyde is 50,000 parts-per-million, and a 25-index solution would be 250,000 parts-per-million. Do you really think that the amount of formaldehyde in the blood is going to affect this? What if the amount in our blood did double? We would still be off by a factor of more than 10,000!

Of course, even if we WERE walking around with these incredibly high and toxic levels in our blood, it wouldn't matter, since the embalming process REMOVES blood before the fluid is injected.

But, let's say that the laws and procedures were changed so that the blood could stay inside. Is Nye suggesting that the mortician first run a formaldehyde assay to determine how much fluid he doesn't have to add?

This is far more than a simple mistake. His quote compounds multiple errors, and on its face is absurd in its suggestion that we are already walking around half-embalmed.

Remember that someone had to write the script, someone had to produce the show, and presumably many people had to watch it being filmed before it was broadcast.

How sad that this nonsense was picked up by multiple blogs, or that anyone listens to a single thing this grifter has to say.

Bisphenol A and endocrine disruptors

Lots of people are reacting to the baby bottle (and nipple) scare. You see, many of these products contain Bisphenol A (BPA), another highly used industrial chemical that has been shown to... not do much of anything, based on non-repeatable studies in rodents, with no stated endpoint.

An "endpoint" is some form of morbidity or mortality that one is tracking in toxicology. For example, studied endpoints of cigarette smoking are lung cancer and heart disease. Endpoints can also be trivial, but these are usually not stated. For example, staying out in the sun too long for one day might produce a sunburn, but this is a temporary effect. Skin cancer would be a more rational endpoint.

Some endpoints could refer to changes in an organ, but even this is only meaningful if there is a health effect. An endpoint of tongue piercing might be permanent physical change to the tongue, but if there is no health effect, that stated endpoint is trivial.

Thus, Frederick vom Saal has found (but no one has ever been able to duplicate the results) small and likely trivial changes in mouse prostates from BPA exposure in utero, but killed the mice before any health effect could be determined.

The scare tactic for BPA is to call it an endocrine disruptor, but then so are dozens of other compounds, including many in food—and some of these are far more potent. My HND piece discusses this and mentions the case of DES, a potent disruptor that was given to five million pregnant women, and the results were observed.

It should be mentioned that mice are VERY poor indicators of what happens in humans. Indeed, mice are not even predictive of rats, and sometimes not even predictive of other strains of mice. vom Saal did not like my article, and sent me a rather terse e-mail, to which he attached three articles:

Apparently you do not know how to conduct a literature search. The alternate hypothesis is that you know your comments about my research are false.

I replied as follows:

Dear Prof. vom Saal-

Thank you for your e-mail, and for sending me those references. Here are my comments...

1.    The Sheehan reference supplies no data, as it is merely an editorial. As I recall, Sheehan is also the fellow who stood in for you at a conference in which you did not show up, to defend your findings. This, of course, is highly unusual, and hardly makes him an impartial observer.

2.    The Gupta paper has been widely criticized by NTP [National Toxicology program]

3.    The Timms paper (in which you are also an author) has no dose response data. I'm not sure why you are citing your own paper as independent verification of your work.

4.    It does not seem to bother you that numerous GLP [good laboratory practice--ed.] studies could not replicate your work. Further, I am told that the animal lines used in your studies were destroyed, which to me--frankly--seems a bit suspect.

5.    Furthermore, I don't believe that you have ever demonstrated a health effect on the animals related to the prostate development. Did they get cancer, were they unable to urinate efficiently? What exactly was the endpoint? Surely, you do not believe that simply showing an effect on an organ (that can't be replicated) is of any particular interest in itself?

6.    Finally, it must be said that mice are not humans. Heck, mice aren't even rats, and many findings in these animals don't even predict what will happen in other rodents, or sometimes even in other strains of the same animal. Why did you not comment on the effects of phytoestrogens? Is it because you can't get people to be scared of soybeans?

Apparently, you do not know how to do science. An alternative hypothesis is that you are simply a hack who has found a meal-ticket with chemical findings producing supposedly scary results, playing this to a hallelujah chorus of "enlightened" anti-chemical industry fanatics.

Nice try.

Best regards,

Michael D. Shaw

Copies of our e-mail exchange leaked out before this blog posting, and I heard from a number of folks who agreed with my take on vom Saal, whom they felt has been protected by largess and typical scientific collegiality. Largess and collegiality can be admirable, but not when they aid and abet poor science, that has already had an effect on public policy.