The following is from Forbes.com (February 20, 2014)
By RICHARD BERMAN
Soda, pop, coke. There are a lot of different names for fizzy, sugary drinks, depending on where you are. But the phrase “cancer-causing” might become universally applied.
According to Consumer Reports, some soda has tested for high levels of a chemical “known” to cause cancer. But it turns out that what’s “known” might not be relevant at all. To understand why, look at the strange but pervasive California law behind the soda scare.
In 1986, California voters passed Proposition 65, which requires a warning label for products with chemicals “known to the state to cause cancer or birth defects.” That sounds reasonable enough, but the law has turned into a gold mine for activists and lawyers exploiting our suspicion of funny-sounding chemicals.
California’s regulatory bar is set so low that the label law applies to any product containing a chemical with a 1 in 100,000 chance of causing cancer in a person exposed to the product over 70 years—resulting in an enormous (and growing) list of nearly 900 chemicals.
One of those chemicals is 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), a chemical found in the caramel colouring of some sodas. California listed 4-MEI under Prop 65 in 2012, generating the recent scare about the safety of fizzy drinks.
But this instance shows the silliness of California’s law. 4-MEI caused cancer in research when given in ultra-high doses to lab mice. How high? A human would have to drink the equivalent of over 1,000 sodas a day to consume enough 4-MEI to be of concern, according to a Vanderbilt University biochemist.
If you drink that many sodas a day, you’ll have far more immediate health problems than cancer. And the chemical even was associated with a protective effect on rats.
There’s an even bigger flaw with California’s chemical policy: Prop 65 is enforceable by private citizens and their attorneys. That’s why California now has a full-blown “bounty hunter” racket, shaking down businesses that “might” expose customers to frowned-upon chemicals, used in or on swimming pools, roofs, gardens, and businesses that had furniture or painted walls.
Between 2000 and 2010, businesses paid $142 million in Prop 65 settlements, according to the Federalist Society. That sum includes $89 million in attorney fees. It’s easy to see the upside for opportunistic lawyers.
Remarkably, the label craze has actually spread during California’s litigation bonanza. There are now warning labels in coffee shops and parking lots and on fishing rods and Christmas lights. The warnings are so prevalent that they’re likely to be ignored or even ridiculed.
It’s time to take a step back from the noise. If there’s one thing the average Joe should understand about chemicals, it’s this: Despite their occasionally unpronounceable names, and despite their seeming ubiquity, they’re generally safe. University of California-Berkeley expert Bruce Ames writes that “about 99.9 percent of the chemicals humans ingest are natural.”
You won’t hear that from the typical pro-organic food group, however. The Environmental Working Group, for example, puts out an annual “Dirty Dozen” report drumming up alarm about pesticides applied to produce.
It’s one thing to appeal to consumer choice when touting organic food. It’s another to play falsely upon our chemical fears. In reality, as Ames and his colleagues have found, “99.99 percent (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves.” In other words, the synthetic chemicals used on most farms make up a tiny fraction of the total.
What’s more, organic farmers can use pesticides such as rotenone and pyrethrum, which are derived naturally. And natural chemicals can cause cancer in laboratory rat tests.
Our exposure to most chemicals is so small in general that we aren’t likely to be affected negatively. Chances are, in reasonable quantities, the food we consume every day isn’t giving us the kind of heartburn and high blood pressure caused by the endless warning labels and activist scare campaigns on display in California.
Richard Berman is the executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom.