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The Boy Who Cried Rodent Carcinogen;
The law requiring toxic warnings
is beyond reason.
By Henry I. Miller
Published in Los Angeles TimesAugust 4, 2002
(taken from The American Council on Science & Health website)
that "the dose makes the poison"in other words, that almost
any substance can be toxic at high levelshas been lost on Californians.
That is why, as required by a 16-year-old referendum proposition, signs outside
most commercial establishments proclaim that the state of California has determined
that patrons of these businesses may be exposed to chemicals that can cause
cancer or birth defects. Not that in the overwhelming majority of cases there's
any hint of risk greater than, say, the household cleaners in your home, but
the law requires a warning about any product that contains even tiny amounts
of a chemical that, at high doses, can cause cancer in lab animals.
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Finally, this ridiculous law is being challenged. The American
Council on Science and Health, which promotes
science as the basis for public policy, has filed a suit to illustrate the absurdity
of California's Proposition 65, as it is commonly known. The organization, taking
advantage of a provision in Proposition 65 that permits anyone to bring a "bounty
hunter" suit in the "public
interest," has filed the statutory
60-day notice with the attorney general and the defendant.
Ah, yes, the defendant: scandalous Whole
Foods Markets, which, as alleged in the
suit, has failed to warn the public about the presence of acrylamide,
a chemical found on California's list of chemicals known to cause cancer and
reproductive toxic effects. Acrylamide is present in minuscule amounts in the
organic whole-wheat bread
that is baked and sold by the defendant.
Truth to tell, the public interest here being pursued by the council is not
the protection of consumers from a cancer-causing agent or from the predations
of Whole Foods.
We know, as observed by eminent UC Berkeley toxicologists Bruce
Ames and Lois
human diet can be free of naturally occurring chemicals that are rodent carcinogens."
The company's organic whole-wheat bread is no more a health threat than is the
infinitesimal amount of radioactive potassium that is a ubiquitous constituent
of glass bottles and window panes.
Rather, the council reckons that the public interest is best served by the principle
that laws should be based on sound science and not unfounded, ideologically
driven fears. The Whole Foods Market chain is the model defendant because it
prides itself on providing the ultimate in tasty, healthful foods that contain
no synthetic chemicals. And also, I dare to hope, because it is so nauseatingly
sanctimoniousand wrongabout avoiding the fruits of new technology
such as foods from genetically improved plants.
So, although it "protects" customers from so-called Frankenfoods,
Whole Foods sells organic breads made from organic, nonbrominated, unbleached
flour that inevitably contain acrylamide,
a naturally occurring rodent carcinogen.
What most people don't realize, however, is that any kind of bread contains
naturally occurring rodent carcinogens, such as furfural.
And so do most other foods, organic or not.
Some, like edible mushrooms, Roquefort cheese and barbecued red meat, have relatively
high levels of such compounds.
Yet because the tests that measure whether a chemical is a rodent carcinogen
typically employ very high doses administered over the animals' lifetime (and
also because many animals have unique susceptibilities), the results should
not be directly extrapolated to humans.
Why bread in the test case? Why not French fries, for example, which have higher
levels of acrylamide than bread? For one thing, risk is proportional both to
the intrinsic toxicity of a harmful substance and the level of people's exposure,
and even though the level in French fries is higher than that in bread, more
people are exposed to bread (that is, more consume bread) than to French fries.
Thus the higher probable exposure from bread would make it more of a risk--if
it were a risk at all.
Proposition 65 simply ignores the reality that we
live in a sea of chemicals whose dose and potential hazard fluctuate widely.
The ubiquity of the "warning" signs about dangerous chemicals is the
legal equivalent of "the boy who cried wolf."
Henry I. Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is on the board
of directors of the American Council on Science and Health.
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