Survey: Experts View Toxicity Risks Differently

From baby bottles to shower curtains, iPods to lipstick, and "new car smell" to non-stick frying pans, thousands of news stories have warned the American public about the hidden dangers of toxic chemicals in everyday items. But a new survey of scientists specializing in toxicology calls into question the risks associated with many of these chemicals as they are routinely depicted in the media. Majorities of toxicologists rate most government agencies as accurately portraying chemical risks, but they rate leading environmental activist groups as overstating risks, according to the survey by George Mason University researchers.

According to survey director Robert Lichter, Ph.D.,, "This survey suggests that the public doesn't get a full and balanced picture of chemical risk." SOT Vice-President Michael Holsapple, Ph.D., adds, "Ultimately, the media and scientists share the responsibility for how chemical risks are portrayed to the public."

To view the survey online, go to http://stats.org/stories/2009/are_chemicals_killing_us.html

When asked to agree or disagree with statements about chemical safety and regulation:

  • 55 percent believe pesticides pose a significant health risk,
  • 53 percent believe chemicals cause endocrine disruption,
  • 10 percent believe organic or "natural" products are inherently safer,
  • 69 percent say chemicals do not need to be regulated according to the precautionary principle,
  • 54 percent say U.S. regulators are not doing a good job explaining chemical risks.

Despite recent controversies over the safety of commonly used chemicals, few toxicologists believe they pose a high health risk.

  • 26 percent rate sunlight as posing a high health risk,
  • 29 percent for aflatoxin, a naturally occurring fungus found in peanut butter, and
  • 35 percent for mercury.

Toxicologists overwhelmingly say that environmental activist groups overstate the health risks of chemicals. But they also say industry groups underplay the risks.

  • 96 percent say Greenpeace overstates the health risks of chemicals,
  • 80 percent say the Environmental Defense Fund overstates chemical risks,
  • 79 percent say the Environmental Working Group, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Center for Science in the Public Interest overstate the risks,
  • 57 percent say the American Chemistry Council understates chemical risks,
  • 60 percent say the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America understates chemical risks.

In contrast, majorities say that most U.S. governmental agencies accurately portray risk, with only the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (40 percent) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (47 percent) falling below a majority.

Toxicologists almost unanimously believe the media does a poor job covering basic scientific concepts and explaining risk:

  • 90 percent say media coverage of risk lacks balance and diversity,
  • 97 percent say the media doesn't distinguish good studies from bad studies,
  • 96 percent say the media doesn't distinguish correlation from causation,
  • 96 percent say the media doesn't explain that "the dose makes the poison."

This survey of toxicologists was conducted by the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) and the Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University, in cooperation with the Society of Toxicology (SOT). The data collection (survey administration) was done by Harris Interactive. The data analysis and interpretation were conducted by STATS/George Mason University researchers. The survey was administered online between Jan. 27 and March 2, 2009. The sample consists of 1,136 full members of SOT, representing a return rate of 32 percent. The initial presentation of the findings is based on the responses of 937 members, who responded to every question. The sampling error for this survey is +/- 2.4 percentage points.

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