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WARNING!!! Health Warnings May be Hazardous to Your Health!!!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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For all the benefits modern society provides, not least of which are vast improvements in public health and longevity, our advanced post-industrial technological/information age also produces risks, far too many for you and me to keep track of. We depend in part on watchdogs and advocacy groups to uncover these dangers and sound the alarm. But therein may lie one of the larger, and least realized, risks of all. In their passion to sound the alarm dramatically enough to attract the attention of the media and the policy makers, these watchdogs and advocates are contributing to excessive fear that does more harm to our health than whatever it is they’re trying to protect us from…real harm, from the stress we experience when we are afraid. Alarmism from a long list of advocacy groups has indeed made this an excessively worried, and stressed out, world.

The current example is the excessive alarm raised by The Campaign for Safe

Cosmetics about the presence of a chemical linked to cancer in a popular baby shampoo. OMG!!!!!!! CANCER!!!! AAAIIIGHH! Never mind that the level of the chemical, a preservative, is so low that the risk is tiny, if indeed there is any risk at all, a vital qualification nowhere to be found in the group’s frighteningly titled report “Baby’s Tub is Still Toxic”; “Quaternium-15 releases formaldehyde into cosmetics products. Formaldehyde is classified as a known human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The National Cancer Institute, the World Health Organization and the National Toxicology Program have all identified a possible link between formaldehyde exposure and leukemia.” The Campaign or Safe Cosmetics tells us nothing about one of the most important elements of risk…what dose causes what level of risk (the risk from infinitesimally small doses like this is usually infinitesimal or non-existent). They don’t explain another key risk factor…what period of exposure causes what level of risk (it usually takes repeated exposures to a carcinogen over time, not just once or a few times, to raise the risk). They alarmingly tell us that National Cancer Institute links formaldehyde with leukemia, but selectively omit well-established reassuring science about this risk that the NCI clearly states on its formaldehyde web page; “In 1987, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen under conditions of unusually high or prolonged exposure.” That hardly describes washing your baby’s hair a couple times a week. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics operates in the name of public health, but they fail to tell us the basics of what we need to know so we can make informed judgments about our health.

But of course such groups aren’t out there to inform us about risks as much as to sound the alarm, loudly, and warnings that include caveats don’t scare people as much, don’t generate as much dramatic news coverage (“Group Says Carcinogens Exist in Popular Baby Shampoo”, “Popular baby shampoo still contains carcinogens”, “Are baby shampoos poisoning infants”?) and don’t create the same pressures on government and companies, the way a more dramatic warning like “TOXIC TUB!!!!!” does. (And of course information that puts the risk in a less frightening light calls into question the very need for the watchdog to exist.) So in the name of protecting the public, and self-perpetuation, many advocacy groups go over the top with their alarms, leaving out information that might help us put the risk in perspective…and making us more afraid than the evidence warrants. And that is definitely bad for our health.

I found out about this shampoo issue when a Facebook friend of my wife posted her fears; “Been sick to my stomach about this all day. We’ve been bathing Sylvia in a carcinogen for the past 14 months. F%$* you, (shampoo company).” Note the ‘SICK to my stomach” part. That’s not just a figure of speech. Stress – the biological name for worry – is bad for us in all sorts of ways. Chronic stress that lasts more than a couple weeks;

- Raises our blood pressure and contributes to cardiovascular disease.

- Depresses our immune system and raises the frequency and severity of infectious disease. There is even strong evidence suggesting that stress impairs our ability to defend ourselves against or recover from cancer. (Here’s what the National Cancer Institute says about that.)

That’s right. Excessive worry about carcinogens that aren’t very likely to cause cancer may contribute to more cancer cases, and deaths, than the carcinogen itself! (Please take note of this, any advocacy group that over alarms about a possible carcinogen. YOU may be the greater risk!)

- Impairs memory, growth, fertility.

- Exacerbates digestive problems like ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.

- Increases the likelihood of clinical depression and Type 2 diabetes.

(For much richer and more entertaining detail on the health effects of stress, read Robert Sapolsky’s classic “Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers”. You’ll laugh, and learn.)

Frightened, worried, scared, concerned. Whatever word you want to use, biologically it equates to stress. Which would be pretty minor if it were just this one case. But of course what The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has done is just one tiny example of a pervasive trend in our modern worried world. Add this frightening alert to so many dramatized warnings about carcinogens, and to the hundreds of “Be Afraid. Be VERY Afraid!” excessive alerts about dozens of chemicals, and the endless excessive alerts about any kind of radiation, and about genetically modified food, and on and on. And those are just the environmental bogeymen. Throw in excessive alarms about child abduction, and terrorism, and vaccines, all magnified in the 24/7 “He Who Screams Loudest Wins” new media age, and you have the insidious gnawing constant undercurrent of stress captured in political scientist Aaron Wildavsky’s observation in 1979; “How extraordinary! The richest, longest lived, best protected, most resourceful civilization, with the highest degree of insight into its own technology, is on its way to becoming the most frightened.”

Watchdogs are necessary. Alerts are good. And many of the risks we are alerted to are real, or at least the evidence is strong enough that they might be real and we should take note. But over-the-top alarmism to advance an agenda that dramatizes the peril at the expense of a fair assessment of the actual danger is dangerous all by itself. So for all those dedicated and passionate people who say they want to help keep us safe, if you are really honest about wanting to protect public health, here’s a warning to put on the wall in your office;


David Ropeik About the Author: David Ropeik is an Instructor at the Harvard Extension School and author of 'How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts'. Follow on Twitter @dropeik.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 3 Comments

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  1. 1. DSchoon 12:41 pm 11/14/2011

    So true! Fear-based advocacy groups have been springing up everywhere and they are causing more harm than good. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are premiere examples of these bad actors. The truth no longer matters to them. These groups ignore the scientific facts and twist their misinformation into fearful distortion which is used to frighten people out of their money (which they call “donation”). They also specialize in using this misinformation to pressure well-meaning politicians into supporting their silly, misguided causes.

    Fear-mongering groups like the EWG are the real danger! Never give them money and ignore any group that uses fear as their weapon of choice. That’s the best way to deal with these deceivers.

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  2. 2. csigirl2 5:54 pm 11/15/2011

    So, NOT true! This is the problem with so much industry funded “research.” They want you to believe that you only need to be concerned about the doses that will kill you. It’s like saying, oh don’t worry if you just got your leg run over by a car, it’s not like it killed you!

    It has been shown that low levels of exposure to some chemicals over a long time can do just as much damage as short exposure at high levels. This is how BPA was shown to be a hormone disruptor and problematic especially for children.

    So Mr. Ropeik, maybe the issue of this toxic stress wouldn’t be a problem if manufacturers just took the responsibility to just not use unsafe chemicals in their products. Then we could all go shopping free from fear and stress.

    And @DSchoon, I won’t make any assumptions about your political affiliation, but I will ask, what exactly do you call the tactic used by the GOP for the last decade to keep us fighting wars overseas? Oh right, fear-mongering. We have been living in fear for many years now, fear of our neighbors, fear of losing our homes, fear of losing our jobs, fear of being bullied. Fear, fear, fear.

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  3. 3. chubbee 9:29 am 11/20/2011

    I would personally place the majority of blame for this type of fear mongering on the media.
    Instead of researching and then reporting the facts, they seem more interseted in grabbing our attention in the most dramatic way possible, regardless of the subject.
    As my fellow science readers have seen time and again, when some minor finding is blown out of proportion, souly for the sake of getting us to sit thru the entire news cast just to be disappointed by some vague uninformative 30 second report.
    Watch the movie “Bowling for Columbine” for an interesting, and in my opinion, compelling take on violence in this country vs other countries and the media’s role.

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