The ‘Fake News’ Problem: Health and Safety Edition

The moniker “fake news” may have entered the mainstream lexicon in 2016, but phony and misleading news stories have always been a problem—and it’s a phenomenon that doubtless will continue so long as the news media continues disguising political opinion as objective fact.

Consider the myriad alarmist news stories this past year hyping risks about chemicals.

In February a Reuters article exclaimed: “Decline in Bee Population is Putting Global Food Industry at Risk.” Like many similar stories, this article suggested that honeybees were disappearing in large part because of pesticide use, and that this would have a significant and adverse impact on food production.

However, while it is true that honeybees have certainly suffered from challenges in some regions of the world, problems are largely related to disease transmission; there’s little evidence that pesticides are a significant problem. Moreover, data kept by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization show that the number of bee hives kept globally has grown from nearly 50 million in 1961 to more than 80 million in 2013.

Professor Jamie Ellis of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida notes that, “no one believes that honey bees will disappear altogether.” It is possible that some crops, such as almonds, will be more expensive in years where when honeybee losses are high in some parts of the world. But that does not mean there will be a global food crisis! It’s worth noting that not all food depends on honeybees. Essential grains, particularly corn, rice and wheat, constitute the largest part of our diets, and these are pollinated by the wind.

Another phony claim repeated in many news stories is that consumers are at risk from food packaging that contains Bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is used to make hard, clear plastics (polycarbonate plastics) and epoxy resins that are used in food packaging, such as for lining inside steel and aluminum cans. In cans, it prevents corrosion and the development of pathogens.

In April, CBS News reported on an activist-produced study giving credence to the idea that BPA from canned food could cause all kinds of problems, from obesity to cancer.

Yet after more than five decades of use, there are no verified cases of anyone suffering ill effects from BPA exposure from consumer products. Activists focus on largely theoretical risks based on select research studies that find associations — which do not demonstrate cause and effect — between BPA and various health ailments and tests that show health effects in rodents dosed with massive amounts of BPA. However, scientific panels around the world have assessed the full body of research on BPA risks, and all find that human exposure is too low to pose a significant risk.

As University of Michigan Professor Michael P. Holsapple explains in a recent article: “Based on the conservative ‘margin of exposure’ determined by the FDA … a person would have to consume over 4,000 cans of cream of mushroom soup, over 19,000 cans of green beans or over 2,800 cans of turkey gravy per day to be vulnerable to adverse health effects associated with exposure to BPA.”

Other alarmist stories focused on microbeads in personal care products, suggesting that these small balls of plastic pose a major environmental pollution challenge. Concern has been so substantial that microbeads are being banned in personal care products in the United States starting in 2017 and will probably soon be banned in Europe and elsewhere.

Yet there’s no hard evidence these tiny plastic balls pose any danger to humans, and little, if any, evidence they have had a significant impact on wildlife in real life settings. In fact, the ban was driven by a “concern,” not demonstrated facts.

The concern is that wastewater treatment facilities might not capture microbeads washed down the drain, allowing them to enter waterways. Research studies have found that about 99 percent of microbeads from personal care products are captured at waste treatment plants and never enter waterways. “Existing treatment processes were determined to be very effective for removal of microplastic contaminants entering typical municipal WWTPs [waste water treatment plants],” according to one study.

The amount that does flow out into waterways from waste water plants is insignificant, particularly when compared to other sources of microplastics entering the environment. Banning an insignificant source of microplastics pollution won’t make much of a difference. You can read more details about microbeads in this Huffington Post article on the topic.

Whether it’s honeybees, BPA or microbeads, misleading information about chemical risks is as common and ubiquitous as is the longtime practice of “fake news.” But perhaps equally true is the quote from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: “[T]here is nothing new under the sun.”