It’s a common demand from the public to scientists: prove to us something is safe before unleashing your monster on the world. And on one hand, it’s a totally fair, reasonable request to not be treated as lab rats. I get that. I hate the idea of having big chemical corporations profiting off their creations that create long term problems for ordinary people and the environment. On the other, whether you’re talking about GMOs or synthetic chemicals, it’s a problematic request for a couple of key reasons:
- It assumes a binary between safe and unsafe without regard to exposure level or other circumstances. Just about everything can be harmful under the right (or perhaps I should say wrong?) conditions. Take water, for example. Tons of evidence that it’s generally safe to drink. However, it’s still possible to die from drinking too much water. Even small quantities of water, if inhaled, can be deadly. It’s called drowning. Microbes also love water, which is important to know if you’re into DIY personal products. Does that mean water (and do check out the dihydrogen monoxide website, if you haven’t seen it) is unsafe? Yes — if you define safe to mean that any level of risk from contact with water is unacceptable. Of course, dehydration’s not a lot of fun, either. Water is a simple example, but virtually any substance you can think of has benefits and drawbacks, conditions in which it has no harmful effects, conditions in which it does. That goes for everything from fluoride to Botox.
- It doesn’t define safe in a way that science can address. Science is good at testing for one thing at a time, under controlled and specific circumstances. Safety is not a trait that can be directly tested for. We can’t run a chemical through a gas spectrometer and have that tell us whether something is safe or not; we infer safety from the absence of observable harmful effects in a fairly wide range of applications, test subjects, and experiments. To get meaningful answers, we need to ask meaningful questions. Instead of asking, “Is BPA safe?” we need to be asking things more like, “Do low doses of endocrine disrupting substances like BPA produce harmful effects on developing human fetuses?” That’s a reasonable request for information, and it’s something scientists could design experiments around to answer.
- Scientists don’t know what they don’t know. You’ve probably heard of prescription drugs that were withdrawn when they eventually proved to have major, unexpected health impacts. It’s not that tests were necessarily done improperly; it’s that scientists didn’t know enough to ask the right questions before the issues became apparent. It’s impossible to test for lack of harmful effect for everything, at every level, in every remotely plausible circumstance. And although we mostly hear about the failures, when scientists haven’t anticipated and tested for a particular problem, there are many prescription drugs and chemicals that have gone on to establish very solid safety records and saved lives.
Science is limited in the answers it’s able to offer us. Sorry. That’s just the way it is. Sometimes the answers are inconclusive and pending further research. The scientific method can also be a bit clunky with its one variable model when it comes to looking at multiple factors and multiple exposures, which are inevitable in real life scenarios — one of the reasons we’re having such a hard time pinpointing causes for things like cancer and autism. And no, the media totally doesn’t get this. No one’s going to read a headline about inconclusive test results. It doesn’t make for an exciting story.
Instead of asking whether something is safe, I’ve begun to try (try!) to look at things on a spectrum of lower risk to higher risk and think about decisions as risk evaluations. At the lower risk end, I would include things that have 1) solid, evidence-based records of few or no harmful effects, 2) relatively few/unusual circumstances in which it produces harmful effects, and 3) statistics favoring my likelihood of emerging unscathed.
Here are some things I would consider lower risk within the parameters of my life:
- Eating spinach. Yes, spinach contains oxalic acid, which is linked to kidney stones. But as a healthy person, I’d have to eat massive amounts of it all the time to develop significant health issues, and the nutritional benefits associated with eating moderate amounts outweigh the risks.
- The preservative in my contact lens solution. Used in small quantities, well-tested, and far lower risk than putting something with microbial or fungal growth in my eyes. Definitely less risky than driving in my 10 year old glasses (time to get those replaced!).
- Cleaning Brie’s litter box. Yes, she’s had toxoplasmosis. That’s why she’s blind. (I sometimes refer to her as Toxokitty. No brownie points for sensitivity there.) No, she’s not shedding parasite eggs anymore, and no, I’m not pregnant.
- Sunblock. Something I put on only when I anticipate needing it and can’t avoid peak sun hours or don a hat. In the quantities I use it, it’s not going to have an appreciable effect on my life. The dose makes the poison.
- Taking allergy medicine. I used to pop an antihistamine daily in the month of May for allergies that otherwise left me a fatigued, sniffly, nosebleedy mess. Now I just go somewhere else on vacation. When I need an antihistamine, I still take it. There are side effects; they make my eyes dry and sometimes affect my energy levels. But I’m willing to accept that risk.
- Baking in silicone. I bought silicone muffin cup liners a few years ago when I thought they might be greener than the paper I had been using. I’ve wavered in that belief (they take ridiculous amounts of water to clean, won’t biodegrade, and involve fossil fuels), but I still use them every now and then when they make more sense than paper. I’ve read the available studies, and I use them maybe five times a year, at relatively low temperatures.
Higher risk (somewhat likely to result in grievous bodily harm, more proof of harm, or harmful under more circumstances):
- Driving or riding in a car. Hands down the most statistically dangerous thing I do on a regular basis. Car fatalities are down somewhat in recent years, but there were 32,885 in 2010. That doesn’t include injuries.
- Drinking alcohol. I seem to be mildly allergic to alcohol and don’t drink, but if you look at the chemical properties of alcohol, it fits many of the criteria we use for calling other substances poisons. There are well-established acute and long term risks associated with drinking, yet we’re much more likely to get excited about the potential toxicity of a synthetic or newer chemical.
- Eating unidentified wild mushrooms. Most mushrooms are not fatally toxic, but there are a handful that will really do a number on your liver. The chances of randomly picking an amanita to sample may not be that high, but the potential fatality is a deal breaker. For me, anyway. Maybe I’ll do a post later on how to identify an amanita mushroom.
- Breathing in silica dust. There’s a reason why silicosis is known as ‘potter’s rot.’ Silicosis is not reversible or treatable, and some of the older potters I work with tell me that their lungs, x-rayed, look somewhat like smokers’ lungs. You’d think this would get me to wear a mask, especially when I’m carving clay. Not yet. I’m being stupid like that.
- Cutting Brie’s claws. Almost inevitably ends in blood loss (mine). ‘Nuff said.
I’m surprised at how reluctant I am to put pottery on that list. A small voice in the back of my brain is protesting, “But I like pottery,” as if that influenced risk level in any way whatsoever. It also wants to add, “But clay is a natural substance,” which it is, and which also doesn’t influence risk level in any way whatsoever. Do you ever want to call your own brain a troglodyte? I do.
I haven’t done the research yet to be able to put other things I do (eat raw cookie dough, for example — I’m pretty sure my current salmonella-schmalmonella attitude is not appropriate) on the spectrum, and frankly, I still fall for naturalistic fallacy all the time. But I still want to point out that headlines don’t present information in perspective with the actual amount of risk something presents. It’s the other, ordinary stuff that’s really likely to get us: poor eating habits, lack of exercise, driving, and I think it’s helpful to keep that in mind when reading alarming headlines or studies. After all, life is one of those things in which no one gets out alive.
Do you classify things as safe or unsafe? What would persuade you that something was safe?