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CIRCLE of Misinformation Spread by Environmental Health Centers

This is the second in a series of posts regarding the Trump administration’s plan to cut Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants to children’s environmental health centers. As noted in a prior post, while presented as funding for scientific, university-based research, much of the funds simply advance junk science and environmental activism.

Today’s example focuses on the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Integrative Research on Childhood Leukemia and the Environment (CIRCLE).  The National Institutes of Health’s website links to “educational” materials published by CIRCLE that peddle a considerable amount of misleading and incomplete information about chemicals and potential health risks, coupled with calls for lobbying and activism. For example, their webpage includes the image of a house with links to each room where people can learn about “leukemia risk factors.” Yet the center fails to present a sound body of research to show that the risk factors, which include various chemicals, actually pose any significant danger. Perhaps that’s because it can’t.

The center notes as much on its own website, explaining: “In fact, because childhood leukemia is rare, it’s very unlikely that any single child exposed to these risk factors would develop leukemia. Moreover, because there are many risk factors for childhood leukemia, it is not usually possible to identify the specific cause of an individual child’s disease.” In other words, CIRCLE doesn’t have any good data, but that does not stop it from distributing misleading claims about “leukemia risk factors” in homes. And CIRCLE also steps outside its focus on leukemia to make a host of other questionable claims.

Indeed, its website also includes an unscientific and alarmist online presentation titled “Dirty Little Secrets about Household Dust,” which spreads fear about household dust without offering any data or context. This slide show warns that homes across America contain seemingly dangerous “toxic dust” composed of trace chemicals that include everything from flame retardants to phthalates (chemicals used to make soft and pliable plastics) to Bisphenol A (a chemical used to make hard clear plastics) to lead and asbestos. The nation’s kids, they suggest, face worrisome health threats from this “toxic dust” that include “asthma, eczema, cancers, as well as endocrine and neurodevelopment disorders.” What this has to do with the center’s mission to research leukemia risks is not clear, nor are the actual risks it alleges.

The slide show includes three short, embedded videos narrated by a five-year old girl named Eleanor, who highlights the many “problems” associated with “toxic dust.” In the first video, Eleanor warns “1.5 pounds of dust settles in our house each year,” and just one particle “attracts lots of toxins. Just imagine it!” In the second video she explains, “Toxic dust spreads chemicals everywhere around the house.” Designed to softly sound an alarm, the video then shows a dusty mist move around rooms as the little girl lists where one might find “toxic” chemicals, such as in the kitchen from cooking food or from toys containing phthalates or asbestos from ceilings. 

The third video offers some laughable “solutions,” such as “don’t bite your nails” and “wash your hands after using a computer.” There are plenty of good reasons to not bite your nails and wash your hands, but exposure to trace chemicals in dust at home isn’t one of them. These “recommendations” wrongly imply that computers transmit dangerous levels of trace chemicals from the computer keyboard, which is ridiculous and not backed up with any data.

It would be helpful if the “educational” slide show had focused on actual problems and their solutions rather than unproven—and highly unlikely—risks. While there’s no good body of evidence that traces of flame retardants in furniture or chemicals used to make them pose any risks in household dust, there are some limited circumstances where certain chemicals do, in fact, pose health serious risks, although these risks have nothing to do with leukemia. 

For example, lead paint, which is found in homes built before 1978 when lead was banned, can pose serious risks to children who might consume peeling paint. Fortunately, lead levels found in children’s blood have declined dramatically during past decades, which is a great success story. But lead paint remains a serious problem in poorly maintained homes where it’s peeling and children consume the flakes and dust.

But the slide show does not explain where such risks exist, the severity, or how to effectively address them. Instead it lumps all chemicals together along with suggestions like using microfiber dust cloths and vacuuming with HEPA filters. At the end of the slide show, it does suggest: “Test the lead level,” and, “Don't remove lead yourself. Hire a professional.” But not every home has lead paint, and even older homes might have lead paint that’s been painted over and isn’t a problem. Such broad-brush approaches that assume everyone is at risk can do more harm than good because they trivialize the issue and divert focus from actual high-risk situations that need remedying.

The CIRCLE presentation also fails to focus on major reasons why dust can aggravate asthmas and allergies. It’s not chemicals used to make plastics, pesticides, or flame retardants that pose significant risks. Significant risks are related to dust mites and cockroach feces that can get into the dust. In those cases, cleaning the dust, going to the doctor for allergy treatments, and eliminating cockroaches are indeed a good idea.

While ignoring those risks, CIRCLE’s presentation suggests that pesticides—products that actually can help reduce risks from cockroach allergens—are the problem. Again there’s no body of solid evidence that traces of pesticides in homes have ever posed any significant risk to children. Rather, federally funded “children’s health centers” continue to mine data and churn out junk science in an attempt to make that case with no real proof.

While failing to provide helpful advice, CIRCLE even makes dangerous suggestions, such as calling on consumers to avoid flame-resistant furniture. They claim traces of the chemicals used as flame retardants, particularly Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs), are somehow dangerous. But again, they have no hard data to prove their assertions. 

In fact, the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry’s public health statement on PBDEs notes: “Nothing definite is known about the health effects of PBDEs in people. The majority of information regarding toxicity of PBDEs and their breakdown products (metabolites) is from animal studies.” That means rodent tests are the primary “evidence” that these chemicals pose cancer risks to humans. But rodent tests, which administer very high levels of chemicals to the animals, are not particularly relevant to humans exposed to trace levels. After all, it is the dose that makes the poison. In fact, rodents also get tumors from very high doses of chemicals found naturally in healthy foods, like broccoli, carrots, and plums.

Another claim levied against these flame retardants is that they contribute to increased rates of autism, but that assertion falls apart under scrutiny. While the number of autism cases reported may have increased in recent years, there are some not-so-alarming explanations. In a review of the research on this topic, Eric Fombonne, M.D., of McGill University’s Department of Psychiatry finds: “Although it is clear that prevalence estimates have gone up over time, this increase most likely represents changes in the concepts, definitions, service availability, and awareness of autistic-spectrum disorders in both the lay and professional public.”

Meanwhile, there are documented cases of people dying in fires every year. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 3,515 people died in fires in 2016, but there are no documented cases of people getting sick or dying from trace exposures to flame retardants. And there is evidence that flame retardant chemicals prevent and/or significantly slow the spread of fires to give people more time to escape.

On the last slide, we finally get to the real point of this presentation. It provides recommendations as to what people can do to address “toxic dust.” Remedies include: “You can join groups that work for safer chemicals and pollution reduction,” and, “You can support public policies for environmental regulations and vote for political representatives who are committed to protecting families from toxic chemicals.” In other words, they want people to give money to environmental activist groups (most of which are left wing) and support liberal politicians who like to regulate for any reason, justified or not. The object here isn’t to improve science, it’s to twist and spin the science to advance a political agenda—something taxpayers should not be forced to support.