Unpacking the idea ‘safe’

Are things either safe or unsafe?

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 You’ve probably heard of prescription drugs that were withdrawn when they eventually proved to have major, unexpected health impacts.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?

Photo credits: jma.work, ell brown


31 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Andrea on 05/30/2012 at 07:16

    You said it: the dose makes the poison. I evaluate how safe a given food/personal care product/household item is based on how frequently I’m exposed to it, and what rigorous scientific studies have found out about it. Often, the frequency of my exposure trumps the evidence because, like you and your sun block, the dose is so low that it can’t possibly matter. In my mind, it’s a question of “what will kill me first”, and I’m trying to worry less about things that are less likely to cause me harm. At the end of the day, I’m killing myself faster by worrying, right? Stress makes everything worse!!!


    • Hi Andrea,

      What a sensible approach. I ask that question, too — what will kill me first? And the answer is likely hereditary heart disease from my mom’s side or a tendency to drop dead of cancer on my dad’s. Or, you know, a car accident. I think the media really skews our risk perception and ability to worry about things in proportion to how likely they are to kill us. You’re right, stress makes everything worse!

      ‘The dose makes the poison’ is the founding principle of toxicology. It’s actually a quote from Paracelsus. There’s some indication that endocrine disruptors may prove to be an exception, but it’s a well tested principle that has a lot of validity.


  2. I don’t mean to hijack your post (it was a very sensible read). That said, you have not really engaged the notion that corporations have a long history of manipulating science (e.g., suppressing results, falsifying results, attacking results, delaying action) in order to continue to produce and sell hazardous products (e.g., asbestos, silica, benzene, lead, tobacco, radium–off the top of my head). A recent book on this topic is Doubt is Their Product. This manipulation compounds the limitations inherent in science.


    • Hi Bob,

      I think it’s very reasonable to concerned about corporate influence on media, but I don’t accept that most scientists who work for industry are necessarily corrupt or produce work that we should automatically, or even semi-automatically, discount. The actions you’re talking about are PR and policy-related, and while that stuff is the *easiest* to find online, a little digging will turn up the abstract of the original research and sometimes peer comments on it or follow up experiments by different scientists. The point behind scientific research is that the results are repeatable by different scientists. Doubt is Their Product sounds like an interesting read about media spin. It doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to find more objective information. When I’m looking into something, I try to read information from both perspectives as well as go to the original studies that are cited. Easy? Nope. Doable? Yes!

      I completely agree that science has limitations, and recognizing them helps us to make better decisions.


      • Jennifer,

        Thanks for your note.

        The book is less about media spin and more about the manipulation of science by corporations (of which media spin is a part). This includes what types of research are funded, which results are released and which are suppressed (corporate research is not as open as publicly funded research), and efforts to discredit undesirable results by re-analyzing the data in ways that are more favourable to corporate interests. This kind of funny business is invisible and is standard operating procedure (The War on Cancer is another interested volume examining this phenomenon).

        In occupational health and safety, countries often establish threshold limit values (TLVs) or Occupational exposure limits (OELs). There are about 700 of these in common usage. But there are more than 70,000 chemical substances in use. And the science that underlies the few TLVs/OELs that are available is often dated, not publicly available and frankly not credible (e.g., is based exclusively on studies of men, thereby excluding women).

        I suppose my point is that there is a pervasive and corporate-friendly spin on safety that is hard to get away from. Anyhow, didn’t mean to go all Marxist on you–thanks for the post, it was a nice read.



        • Hi Bob,

          I appreciate your perspective and agree that lack of transparency is a tremendous problem in making corporations behave more responsibly. I still think it’s possible to respond to studies critically and intelligently, and that includes acknowledging the source. I don’t weigh all studies equally, and the publicly funded ones that include experts from industry as well as academia are likely to be the ones I pay most attention to.

          You may well be right that corporate influence has done a lot to affect public understanding of safety, and I support greater transparency, better public access to research, and revisiting outdated studies. I’m very surprised there are so few established thresholds, although I find LD50 tests pretty gruesome and upsetting and hope we’ll be able to switch to more reliable and humane testing methods. I am very conflicted about animal testing.

          However…from my end of things, I see a lot of people around making decisions out of fear rather than reasonable evaluation of evidence. In many cases, there is an abundance of publicly funded, peer reviewed evidence available. That response to headlines just doesn’t make for a very scientifically literate public. And in turn, that leads to unreasonable requests from science, and unsatisfying answers, and more ideological conviction, and even less critical thinking. That worries me because it makes us more vulnerable to manipulation, including corporate PR manipulation.

          I don’t mind if you go all Marxist on me. 🙂


  3. It was interesting to see what you listed as low risk and high risk. I am constantly evaluating things in my own life to determine whether or not it’s worth it. My motto is “everything in moderation”. We all have to find a balance between how our decisions effect us and living and enjoying life. Ice cream cone is on my low risk list and always will be!


    • Hi Lori,

      Ice cream is on my low risk list, too! 🙂 I agree that everyone’s personal risk evaluations will look different, since many of the variables (how often you do something, how you do it) are personal. I am a big fan of reviewing the evidence and making intelligent decisions.


  4. Great post! My low risk list includes eating old food – a couple of months into fieldwork I discovered I’d been eating three month old eggs with no ill effects, and since then I’ve tended to regard best before dates as something companies use to cover their backs if anyone gets sick and tries to sue and will eat anything that doesn’t smell funny or actively recoil when I’m trying to get it out of the packet.

    I also think I probably go on what I believe to be relative risks – I don’t smoke but lived with a smoker for five years (no more, he’s finally managed to quit!) and justified this by believing I was probably inhaling less pollution as a passive smoker than I was by simply breathing the air in London. This was of course something I never actually looked up figures for because I didn’t want to be wrong!

    It’s interesting that you bring up the example of wild picked mushrooms – I have Swedish friends who’ve grown up picking mushrooms all their lives. I trust them not to pick anything poisonous and have happily eaten mushroom soup that they made, but I would never in a million years trust myself to know enough to recognise a poisonous mushroom and would never pick them myself. Likewise I’m quite into wild food and would trust myself to, say, add hawthorne leaves to a salad but wouldn’t trust anyone else’s food until I was absolutely sure they knew what they were doing – one of my friend’s mums made “elderflower” cordial out of cow parsley! In this case how safe I consider something depends on how reliable I consider the person making it.

    Incidentally I read your “about” section – I did my undergrad at Durham university! When were you there?


    • Hi Jules,

      I was at Durham 2003-2004 on exchange. I wasn’t the most social person there, so even if you were there at the same time, you probably wouldn’t have met me! I think I was still in my mildly goth phase at the time and spent a lot of time wandering around the River Wear quoting Tennyson. Sometimes wearing a cloak. Yep…

      I’m interested in mushrooms and am reasonably confident of my ability to recognize the most toxic group, but there are other groups that will also kill you or cause serious damage. To date, I have not picked or eaten a wild mushroom. I would be especially cautious outside my native California, since mushrooms can look alike, and Asian immigrants have died eating mushrooms that resembled edible straw paddy mushrooms back home. However, the risk level would be much lower for an experienced mushroom hunter. I’m also interested in wild foods and probably sampled everything in my mother’s garden (including some things that I now know to be mildly to moderately toxic), though I don’t recommend it as a smart course of action. Good thing she didn’t have oleanders.


  5. Posted by EcoCatLady on 05/30/2012 at 12:22

    Another brilliant post! I am known for getting all worked up over how dangerous something is. CatMan generally has to snap me back to reality with statements like “You’re much more likely to slip and drown in your bathtub.”

    I think this is all another great example of how human beings simply aren’t logical. If something is familiar it feels safe to us – whether or not it really is. Likewise if something sounds scary, we assume it’s dangerous.

    Truth is, I do lots of dangerous things every day and never even think about it. I eat eggs with runny yokes, I sleep on a waterbed which is busy off-gassing all sorts of endocrine disrupting phthalates, I ride my bike, and do tons of other things that I’m not thinking of because I’m so used to doing them every day!

    You know, I try not to be reckless, and I, like Bob, don’t have a lot of faith in what industry tells me. But on some level I think you just have to accept that life is an inherently risky proposition, and no one gets out alive. Once you rule out truly reckless behavior, so much of the rest is simply beyond our control.

    My neighbor and I had a long talk about this topic once. Her daughter was born with a fatal heart defect and died within a few weeks. The thing is, she had gone above and beyond during her pregnancy, trying to make sure that she didn’t do anything that could possibly harm the baby. She even gave up horse back riding – which is the cornerstone of her entire being… and in the end none of it mattered. It was just beyond her control.

    OK, so lest I end on a real downer note… if you’d like a hilarious look at the topic of risk, check out the movie “The Darwin Awards” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0428446/ It’s a quirky screwball comedy, but I laughed out loud through the entire film, and even now I’m chuckling about the shower scene…

    BTW – I’m totally laughing at the symbolism of the “Safe Not Sorry” book cover – a right wing wacko conservative arguing that we needed to spend billions on an anti ballistic missile program that was pretty much proven ineffective because it would somehow make us “safer.” Sorta sums up the whole argument in one fell swoop!

    Sorry to ramble… I get started and I can’t stop!
    Hugs to you and Brie,


    • Hi Cat,

      I think I like Cat Man, and I don’t even know him. 🙂 At the same time, you’re absolutely right that we’re not primarily logical beings, and maybe it’s unreasonable to expect humans to be able to make rational risk evaluations (or at least act in accordance once they have made them — notice that I continue to engage in risky behavior even after acknowledging its real risk!).

      You know, I didn’t look up the Safe Not Sorry book (tut, tut) when I snagged the picture, but how hilarious is that? I actually prefer the second photo. I feel like I’m constantly telling myself not to believe everything I think.

      Off topic, but I wonder if how we perceive risk has anything to do with gender or whether we have kids or not.


      • Posted by EcoCatLady on 05/30/2012 at 16:59

        I actually had to look up the book to see what it was about, but Phyllis Schlafly is sort of notorious for her extreme views, so I figured it couldn’t be good!

        That’s a very interesting idea about gender and parenthood and how the affect our perceptions of risk. I tend to think it has a great deal to do with what we’re exposed to on a regular basis. I know for a fact that since I’ve started driving less often, I am MUCH more aware of the fact that riding in a car is sort of like climbing into a 2 ton projectile hurtling through the air at ridiculous speeds!


        • Interesting theory! I don’t drive every day, but I do get in a car 3-4 times a week, so maybe I’m still pretty numbed. I also have this totally irrational conviction that my car has a protective bubble around it and takes care of me. There is zero evidence to back up this belief, or the feeling of safety I get when I crawl back into my car after a harrowing day out (you know, surrounded by people).

          I was thinking more that I have the luxury to ignore studies that suggest things could harm my fertility (meh), future kids (nope), present kids (none). I do notice that I’m more cautious and protective of the cat than I am of myself or Kevin. I don’t have evidence that buying her more expensive, grain free cat food will actually have a significant impact on her health. I just do it because I don’t want to risk the stuff with by-products and artificial this and that, even if I don’t have a good sense of what the risks really are.


          • Posted by EcoCatLady on 05/30/2012 at 20:13

            Oh, that’s a really good point about being more cautious in reference to the ones we care for rather than ourselves. I definitely fret over feeding my cats the “optimal diet” as if such a thing exists. Nevertheless, they get fed ridiculously expensive premium cat food with a nutritional supplement to boot!

            BTW, I meant to mention that if you haven’t yet tried it, I highly recommend fexofenadine for allergies (formerly Allegra, and formerly available by prescription only at a ridiculously expensive price.) Anyhow, it’s now available over the counter at a reasonable price and it has the fewest side effects of any antihistamine – and according to my stepmother (the allergist) it’s the only one that is truly non-drowsy. Fortunately my hay fever doesn’t strike until August!

          • Thanks for the rec! I know I tried Claritin without much success years ago, and I’d actually have to grab the bottle to be sure what I take now (literally, two or three pills a year). I was in Hawaii for the worst two weeks of my allergy season this year as well as last — May is traditionally the month of misery for me — and that worked out well. 🙂

          • Posted by Happy on 05/15/2017 at 14:38

            Is that really all there is to it because that’d be flriteagasbbng.

          • so that is pretty hard to find, so I will spell it out, Go to Settings >General Settings > Protect Comments Separately – you will find the Manage Content Protection link there.It is on this admin page that you can turn on or off the “Bookmark” feature on a page-by-page basis.Thanks,Greg

          • Beautiful post hun. It IS disappointing and yet weirdly comforting the moment you realise that you don’t need to get upset, that it won’t make any difference…and then later on when you realise it again and again.I’m still working on my head space, thanks for the inspirational words.Hope you have a good day soon xx

  6. Once, in preparation for a neutron scattering experiment, I was made to go through a safety training class. There were a lot of useful tidbits, but the main point of it (since they were going to send me into the reactor afterwards) was the principle of ALARA exposure: as low as reasonably achievable. So yes, you need to go into the reactor, but most of the time you hide behind a thick teflon-brick wall. As the denizens of the reactor would say, “Real physicists wear lead underwear”. It’s kind of like living in earthquake-prone places: you shrug and get on with life.

    I’ve been thinking about that a lot in the context of (surprise, surprise) new cars, that are generally outfitted with plastic components. Plastics have taken half a century to go from the best thing since sliced bread to the devil’s excrement. Now they are implicated in all sorts of nasty and insidious long term health effects – and science seems to be turning up another problem every week. But plastics (and other petrochemical products) have become pervasive in our lives. How to deal with it? If you take it out, your cars end up being very loud, very uncomfortable, and very, very expensive: nobody would buy them.

    In the home, you would have to fight like Plastic-Free Beth: bless her, I couldn’t do what she does. So I apply the ALARA principle: I go as far down Beth’s path as I can stand. I air my car at every possible opportunity. Because as the scientific findings become available, I need to adjust the way I see the world. We all do; and eventually plastic car interiors will go the way of such things as asbestos building materials, spraying crops with DDT, and using mercury for making felt hats. It may take a while, but the truth always comes out, eventually.


    • Hi CelloMom,

      I like the ALARA principle. (Kind of a nice sounding word; I’d be willing to name a cat that.) I think the key word there for me is ‘reasonable.’ Reasonable means you have a good understanding of the risks and to what extent to avoid them. I live fairly near several major fault lines. There’s a non-zero chance that a major earthquake will seriously affect my health and home at some point, but I can’t see myself moving for that reason alone.

      It’s interesting to watch the science develop on plastics. I avoid plastic for environmental rather than personal health reasons, and since I’m not in a high risk group (not pregnant, no plans of ever becoming pregnant, no young kids), I don’t mind waiting for scientific consensus and eating the occasional BPA-lined tin of tomatoes in the meantime. Although I definitely plan to do more freezer canning of my homemade roasted tomato and garlic sauce this summer!


  7. I am finding the conversation endlessly fascinating. I think most people simply do not consider risk benefit of analysis to any of their daily choices and that is becoming a greater problem as we are inundated with both information and potentially unknown risks.

    Most people will be at statistically greater risk from driving, and while many never think about this on a daily basis, it is still a known risk. My largest problem with how we handle correlations and associations are that we just don’t have enough information to truly understand what our risk is, and yet too much information to feel good about any of it (leading to throwing of hands and such). I feel, right or wrong, that we should have the opportunity to decide for ourselves what constitutes high risk, low risk, or somewhere in between.

    DES is a case that really bothers me. I read a book that discussed the history of it, and yes included actual scientific studies, which leads me to not have a lot of confidence in the FDA, the ability of medicine to change quickly as needed, and how much we actually know as opposed to how much we think we know.

    Personally, I want to know if something is a GMO, or if something is an endocrine disruptor (those scare me), or if there is a likelihood of a bear attack in a particular campground. I like feeling like I am in control of my decisions based on all the information available. That doesn’t mean I will always choose the one with the lowest risk.

    Are we just unable to understand the true nature of risk because of media and ill-perceived notions on what science can and cannot tell us? Based on a recent article I read and a topic I have been contemplating, is that scientists do not know how to tell stories and they don’t always know how to prompt laypeople to grasp the focus and conclusion of their studies. It will be an interesting next few decades to see how-if-this changes.

    I tend to fall into extremes: I hate sunblock, I think that a cure for claustrophobia includes an ability to explore new underwater caves, I occasionally buy cosmetics that are full of chemicals I wouldn’t recommend to others, go big or go home. But I do this knowingly and try to think. Doesn’t always happen though. 😉


    • Hi Brenna,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think there are two basic components to our reactions. The first one is rational (critical, skeptical, based on evidence) — and that can be taught. We can show people how to look for good evidence, we can teach people how to ask good questions. The second is emotional, and while I can’t claim to understand the protective instinct that parents feel towards their children, I notice a little of that in my behavior towards my cat. I suspect that the latter tends to be more influential in the decisions we ultimately make, so we’re not making rational evaluations so much as going with what we think is going to keep us safer, regardless of the available evidence.

      I see this particularly in the naturalistic fallacy that inclines us to believe that something that is natural is more likely to be safe. It’s not well substantiated by evidence, but asking people to put rational thought above that instinct is a pretty tall order. I still have trouble with it. I’ve looked at the evidence and see little difference in risk between conventional cosmetics and natural ones, and yet I use natural ones. It still takes less evidence to convince me that something natural is safe than that something unnatural is dangerous. I think I’m getting closer to neutral, but it’s still a bias.

      The information overload is partially a problem with the internet, I think. Anyone can express an opinion and come up with convincing sounding points to support it, and it does get terribly confusing. I think the article on how to read science articles is a really helpful way to separate out valid information. I try to find original studies when I can, check cited sources (they really don’t always say what the second writer says they do), and email/tweet people working in the field with my questions. I find it especially interesting to watch experts in the field debate. At a certain point, however, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there may not be firm, straightforward answers, and that it’s probably not going to kill you either way. We already know about the stuff that’s statistically most likely to do us in.

      I am totally in favor of making informed decisions. They don’t have to be the same decisions I arrive at, but I want them to be made based on evidence, inquiry, and understanding rather than fear.

      Oh, and I’m with you on the whole problem of science communication. I think my blog is slowly changing focus to become more of a bridge between science and, you know, the rest of us. I’ll be interviewing some experts and inviting more scientists to engage directly with people who have questions.


      • I am looking forward to your interviews of the experts. It can be hard for just about anyone to judge what is an appropriate reaction to the science and what is emotion. We ought to look for peer-reviewed scientific studies and even then think critically because we are all human.


        • There should be some good stuff soon about GM papayas, human-driven mass extinction, and urban trees. 🙂 Maybe even cosmetic chemicals. Most scientists seem to be very happy to talk about their work to the public; they just don’t know what to do with blogs or social media.


  8. Posted by Andrea on 05/31/2012 at 05:18

    This is the first time in a while that I was the first to reply, and so I’ve found myself reading the other comments as they came in, fascinated by what everyone has to say about this topic. I’ve given it some more thought and realized something else: when I don’t have time to do a lot of research on a product, I defer to two or three sources that I trust, knowing that they’ve taken on the big task of doing that research! What I forget is that those organizations are trying to push bans, which is sometimes a very good thing (and other times, just leads to similar chemicals to be used in place of the banned ones, which gains us nothing). My point is that from the perspective of an organization trying to get the government to pass some sort of legislation, they’re pretty smart about which toxins they target. They’re probably going with something that is more likely to be addressed, which isn’t necessarily what more urgently NEEDS to be addressed. Here in Canada, BPA has been banned in baby bottles, which is a good success, but aren’t there other, far more toxic chemicals that we should target first? Actually, based on what we’ve talked about in the comments so far, what we should do is never let babies ride in cars, since that’s the most dangerous thing! 🙂


    • Hi Andrea,

      I came across this article on how to evaluate sciencey articles you read on the web and have been trying to get everyone I know to read it: http://www.doublexscience.org/2012/04/science-health-medical-news-freaking.html . I think it offers some really sound advice to try navigate these issues and think before, well, freaking out. I also appreciate its reminder that everyone involved has some sort of agenda.

      Media storms end in action, but often action based on public perception of risks rather than actual risks based on available evidence. I don’t doubt that other things are far more likely to harm babies than BPA.


  9. This is an important post- we so need to be addressing this more often.

    interestingly, i have several family friends, and have grown up around families who, regularly pick wild mushrooms. These individuals always cautioned us as children to NEVER pick mushrooms without adult guidance (although a few of my friends who were the children of these adults, did). So I grew up with a healthy respect for the dangers of eating a berry or mushroom (or plant) that I wasn’t 100% sure what it was.

    that said- these adults have had a few instances of scary and severe reactions to mushrooms that they have picked. Most recently, a man had to be airlifted to the hospital from the woods (they were out deer hunting i think) because he ate a mushroom that his friend had picked (self-professed ‘expert’ on wild mushrooms).


    • Hi EcoYogini,

      I think it’s probably a good idea to teach your kids not to put unknown plants or mushrooms in their mouth, though the risk goes way down if you stick to easily identifiable mushrooms with few or no dangerous lookalikes (puffballs, morels, chanterelles) and are accompanied by a bona fide mushroom expert. But as some people have severe reactions to mushrooms that other people eat without problems, it’s probably never entirely risk free. Life just isn’t a low risk venture to begin with.


  10. Brilliant. ‘Nuff said.


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