Activists creative fears about nontoxic plastics stretch small facts into big fantasies
Since the dawning of America’s access to online opinion, the universe of activists continues leapfrogging each other with Chicken Little predictions and funding appeals. These creative fears stretch small facts into big fantasies. Nuclear plant meltdowns, overpopulation-induced famine and irretrievable loss of the ozone layer are a few of the end-of-the-world scenarios.
Second-tier appeals create new fears of shortened life spans from trans fats, mercury in fish and other seafood, tanning beds, high-fructose corn syrup, plastic, diet soda, and titanium dioxide (found in ice cream).
Alas, life expectancy — discounting for COVID-19 and illegal drug use — has for decades been getting longer, not shorter. Science does support harm from ingesting mercury, but only if you are regularly eating whale meat. Similar reality checks can be made for many of these exaggerated threats. As one prominent activist admitted to me, “If we told the truth about actual risk levels, no one would care.”
Lately, I’ve watched a new series of threats develop. Science allows us to measure parts per billion of a variety of natural elements and manufactured substances. We know there are small but safe amounts of arsenic in your tap water, for example. We also know 100 trillion neutrinos pass through your body every second. Despite the sober and calming perspectives that balance risks of tiny amounts of anything, the activists continue raising money while speculating what happens when we breathe, eat or drink little body invaders.
One field of scientific inquiry is finding micro-occupants in our organs. Studies going back decades collected mouse brains that were exposed to super high doses of elements to determine if they were passing through the blood brain barrier. These rodents were drafted to be little Paul Reveres, informing what threats are being experienced by your hypothalamus.
It turns out science has long been engaged looking for carbon or micro-metals passing from your blood to your brain. Given the current hysteria over plastic (brought to you in part by the aluminum industry), we found a new study that suggests we can add plastic to the list.
Last week, I queried the internationally acclaimed scientist Chris DeArmitt, who has studied and published more papers on plastic than any other scientist. It turns out the exaggeration lobby has made its way into the lab. Yes, he confirmed, studies go back 20 years proving you can get small amounts of stuff to pass from blood to brain tissue.
But, as Mr. DeArmitt told me, this study used a plastic compound you won’t find in your kitchen or daily life. It was a manufactured plastic designed for this experiment (your food containers and soda bottles aren’t a threat). Second, this “discovery” was made possible, according to Mr. DeArmitt, by overdosing the mice with millions of times as much exposure in the lab as any human in the real world (or mouse, for that matter) would ever experience as a health threat.
As scary as it all sounds about items crossing the blood brain barrier, this is what many drugs are designed to do. It is a key bodily function that allows medicine to address disease. In fact, lots of micro particles from our environment are constantly being ingested into our bloodstream. Ever look at the air in a narrow band of bright sunlight? Notice the dust particles hanging there? Our air is filled with these that at one time were larger pieces of something you can’t identify.
It’s estimated more than 200 tons of cosmic dust enters our atmosphere from outer space every day. Much of it can be found in that Periodic Table of Elements you were told to memorize in high school science class. We breathe in a lot of that stuff before it hits the ground or ocean. While most of those particles are not small enough to get into our brains, this stuff is certainly not on the government food pyramid for a healthy diet.
According to Mr. DeArmitt, nontoxic plastics account for 0.001% of all the materials we are exposed to in our lives. Some of the remaining 99.999% of substances all around us are known to be toxic in larger amounts. But for some reason, those activists have decided that plastic is the threat. Maybe it’s because plastic is easier to pronounce than titanium dioxide.
• Rick Berman is president of the public relations firm RBB Strategies.