When to Believe the Hype: Navigating Scary Headlines About Toxic Chemicals & Your Health

It wasn’t long ago, when environmental health advocates were trying desperately to get the media to cover new scientific research about harmful chemicals in everyday products. The tides have shifted and it’s now common place to see alarming headlines about toxic chemicals their impacts on our health.

But as average consumers of the media, how are we to know which scientific studies we should worry about and where we need to change our habits? And when are the headlines simply alarmist click bait?

It’s important to first understand that not all chemicals are bad. In fact, everything is made up of chemicals, including water, a key element for our survival. But what is of concern are harmful or toxic chemicals, which have been shown through scientific studies or consensus to be linked to harming humans, animals, or our ecosystems.

To make things easier and help you navigate this complex world of science, here are some important concepts to understand:

Scientific consensus:

This term is used when there is enough evidence (meaning decades worth of research or close to causal evidence) has shown the safety or harm from a particular chemical. This can happen based on the volume of research, or consensus can be explicit, when hundreds of scientists get together to review the existing literature and make a statement which is then published in a peer-review journal. This recently happened with the anti-bacterial chemical triclosan.

Examples: There is enough scientific consensus that formaldehyde is a “known human carcinogen”. And scientists published a paper to show consensus around the harm to human health from toxic flame retardant chemicals, used to treat household furniture.

Look at the source:

The first thing I do when I see an article on Facebook or Twitter is I look at the source. What publication is writing this article? Is it a credible news organization that has a high bar for fully investigating their stories and using science-based sources?

For example, these news organizations write credible articles about science:

  • The New York Times
  • The Atlantic
  • The Washington Post
  • L.A. Times
  • Chicago Tribune
  • San Fransisco Chronicle
  • National Public Radio… you get the idea!

Sources I do not trust:

  • Nature News
  • Food Babe
  • Dr. Mercola
  • Bloggers who do not link to primary/credible sources or overhype scientific findings [NOTE: I’m clearly pro-blogger, I am one, and I am involved in many blogger networks. This does not mean that all bloggers are full of shit, but please read and share articles from those who handle science with care.]

Non-profit organizations I trust to properly interpret environmental health science:

Chemicals vs. Toxins vs. Toxic Chemicals:

As noted above, not all “chemicals” are bad. Toxins, by definition, are naturally derived poisons such as snake venom. People often misuse the term toxin, when what they are actually trying to say is “toxic chemical” or “harmful chemical/ingredient”.

Our focus shouldn’t be on banning all chemicals, it should be on removing harmful chemicals from products we use in our homes and on our bodies every single day.

Hard to pronounce chemical names doesn’t mean they are bad for your health:

The press and blogosphere created a simple rule for finding healthier food products, if the ingredient list has something that you don’t understand, or sounds “chemically” then don’t eat the food. That “food rule” may hold true for processed foods, but it doesn’t apply to other consumer products you use in your home or on your body.

Case in point, many personal care and beauty companies use what’s called the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) to list ingredients on their website or product packaging (in fact they are supposed to if they are selling in the U.S., Canada or the European Union). To the untrained eye, these names such asbutyrospermum parkii appear to be complex, scary chemical names. When in fact asbutyrospermum parkii is simply the INCI way to list shea butter.

One study doesn’t mean something is bad for you:

If a study hasn’t been replicated or it’s the first of its kind, please take flashy headlines with a grain of salt. I have found this to be particularly true with hot button health issues like autism and allergies. But the lack of conclusive evidence, doesn’t mean there are chemicals we should ignore…which leads me to my final point.

When something *is* of concern, we must act:

I’ve outlined a lot of things you don’t need to be concerned about, but what do we do when there is enough evidence to cause concern? Well first it’s important to know that scientists conducting research on chemical hazards are conservative by nature. They don’t want their scientific studies to be misconstrued or overblown. So when there are a lot of studies that DO show harm and scientists are speaking out about chemical hazards, it means we must act.

Toxic chemicals like formaldehyde, phthalates (used in personal care products and fragrances), pesticides (known to harm the brain and cancer), bisphenol A, S and F (canned food, plastics and thermal receipt paper), flame retardants… they’ve got to go. In the cases where there is enough scientific evidence, companies must immediately researching ways to make safer products and government needs to step in where the manufacturing community is falling behind.

Case in point, these major medical institutions have created statements showing toxic chemicals in consumer products are a threat to human health. As you can see, the credibility and weight behind these organizations should not be ignored:

The approach shouldn’t be “everything is fine!” and it shouldn’t also be “everything will kill me!”. The truth of all this lies somewhere in between those to simplified statements and so I recommend finding your trusted sources and take action when needed.

In the meantime:

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3 Responses to When to Believe the Hype: Navigating Scary Headlines About Toxic Chemicals & Your Health

  1. Elizabeth August 17, 2017 at 8:06 pm #

    Hi Lindsay, great post! I follow the Food Babe though and have for years. I always felt she supported her information very well and seems to always link to sources, so I’m surprised to see she’s on your not trusted list. Can you share more about why she is not a trusted source? Perhaps I need to re-evaluate.

    • Lindsay Dahl August 21, 2017 at 11:01 am #

      Hi Elizabeth, I appreciate how she’s brought false advertising to the masses and encouraged companies to drop some harmful additives in junk food. Unfortunately, she is strong on the hype side of things and low on the “science” side of research. Sometimes she actively takes down companies without fully understanding the ingredients she is targeting, there are a few examples in this NPR article (the beer and antifreeze examples) http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/12/04/364745790/food-babe-or-fear-babe-as-activist-s-profile-grows-so-do-her-critics. I support the spirit in which she does this work, but she’s made some major missteps that have discredited not only her, but the health and wellness movement.

  2. Elizabeth August 25, 2017 at 5:56 am #

    Thanks for the reply and the link! I agree that she is strong on the hype side and I usually ignore that and try to take in the important facts of her investigations. But if she’s not always accurate on the science side, that’s a problem. Just a reminder how it’s important to do your own research and constantly look for reliable sources for your information – the point of your post. It can be so overwhelming, but not a reason to ignore the information altogether because our health cannot afford it!

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