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A Federally Funded Witches' Brew of Dangerous Advice

Halloween is the one day of the year kids enjoy being a little spooked because it’s all just harmless fun. But what would you think about a taxpayer-sponsored effort to frighten parents 365 days a year? It may sound crazy, but the federal government funds a network of activists that spew tons of needlessly alarming information about chemical risks to children. Not only is this year-round fear fest no fun, it pushes a slew of harmful—and even dangerous—advice.

This brew of menacing blather stems from grants supposedly intended to fund academic research related to children’s environmental health. The grants should expand scientific understanding and educate the public about real health concerns, but they have become instead vehicles for political advocacy, instilling fear about chemical risks to build support for unwarranted bans and regulations.

Green groups lobby for these grant programs, from which funds are distributed to children’s environmental health centers operated by their allies at universities around the nation. Under the guise of academic objectivity, the university researchers then partner with those same left-of-center environmental advocacy groups to spread misinformation about products they don’t like—such as pesticides, plastics, and flame retardants.

The focus on children’s health provides a sympathetic backdrop. Who doesn’t want to do their very best to protect children? But the accompanying “educational materials” and “community outreach” efforts are more dangerous to children and adults than chemical risks they allege. Consider a few examples.

Many centers focus on advocating “organically grown” fruits and vegetables and make alarmist claims about food grown using pesticides. A center housed at Emory University in Atlanta, for example, distributes a flier via its website that highlights the Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen” list of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. This material is part of the green group’s annual misinformation campaign to vilify pesticides and lobby for bans and regulations. Yet organic growers use pesticides too, and organic produce is not safer or healthier than food grown with the aid of conventional pesticides. In addition, organically grown produce tends to be more expensive, so scaring people about conventional produce could simply discourage them from eating sufficient amounts of fruits and vegetables.

Equally creepy and dangerous is the advice found in a brochure produced by a children’s health center at the University of San Francisco in collaboration with the National Resources Defense Council. It calls on readers to support bans and regulations, while providing bad advice on how to avoid allegedly dangerous chemicals. For example, it advises readers: “don’t use chemical tick-and-flea collars, flea baths, or flea dips.” Yet asking people not to control these vectors is seriously dangerous advice. Fleas carry serious diseases, including typhus and the bubonic plague, while ticks can transmit Lyme disease, Babesiosis (similar to malaria), Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and many other diseases that affect both pets and humans.

The University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Integrative Research on Childhood Leukemia and the Environment (CIRCLE) hosts on its website 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 and plastics to household bug sprays. 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.” But CIRCLE’s advice is more toxic than the risks it alleges.

For example, within the presentation, CIRCLE advises people to avoid flame retardant furniture because they say it might explain increases in autism during the past several decades. Yet the increase in autism rates is related to better detection and changes in reporting methods, which has nothing to do with flame retardants. After a thorough review of the research on this topic, Eric Fombonne, M.D., of McGill University’s Department of Psychiatry explains: “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, advising people to avoid flame retardants is truly dangerous advice. The U.S. Fire Administration reports that 3,645 people died in fires in 2017, and flame retardants can play a role in reducing the very real risks associated with fires.

Fortunately, earlier this year the Environmental Protection Agency reduced funding to children’s environmental health centers, which was a good start, but watch out in this season of trickery. When these centers present their fear-laden “facts” and try to fill your goodie bag with countless regulations, look closely, because their treats will likely more resemble a bunch of worthless rocks.