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Chemical Health Scares

By Michael Hilton

Through the years, numerous public health scares have been introduced based on preliminary findings or unconfirmed studies. The media is usually quick to report these findings because they are news that usually affects a large segment of their viewing audience. The old segway, "Stay tuned after this commercial break for news that a common food item may be causing cancer" is just too much for many newscasters and viewers to resist. Those media scares that turned out to be false include:

  • The Alar apple scare a chemical used to ripen apples and suggested to cause cancer. Who can resist a Meryl Streep suggesting this chemical could cause childhood cancer. It was later found that cancer may be caused if a child ate 10,000 to 15,000 apples per day over a period of several years, but a lower dose would present no health effects.
  • The coffee drinking/pancreatic cancer scare of 1981 caused shockwaves in offices throughout the U.S. A study examining alcohol consumption and smoking with pancreatic cancer found a statistically significant connection between those people who drank two or more cups of coffee per day with the incidence of pancreatic cancer. The connection was later proved to be a statistical aberration and no such link existed. A current coffee study suggests that coffee drinkers (and red wine drinkers) have a reduced risk of heart disease because of the high content of antioxidants.
  • The electromagnetic field scare of the 1970s suggested their was a correlation between living near power lines and childhood cancer. While never confirmed, this fear was later transferred to electric blanket usage by expectant mothers. This unfounded fear caused special labeling to be placed on electric blankets warning of this possibility. Eleven years later the connection between electric blankets and childhood cancers were found to be false.
  • Cell Phone Usage Currently, we have been exposed to warnings that cell phone usage may be responsible for an increased incidence of brain tumors. It is now known that the explosive growth in cell phone usage has nothing to do with an increased brain tumor risk. In fact, the chance of dying in a car crash while using a cell phone or eating McDonald's fries is several thousand times higher than any risk associated with brain tumors.
  • "Amalgam Dental Fillings (1990) -- A "60 Minutes" report on "Poisons in the Mouth?" featured the testimony of a young woman with multiple sclerosis who claimed that her illness disappeared after her silver fillings (or amalgam, a tightly bound mixture of silver, copper, tin, mercury and zinc) were removed. Both the American Dental Association and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society condemned the television program and cautioned consumers against the removal of fillings. In 1993, the U.S. Public Health Service concluded that amalgam dental fillings did not contribute to disease, immune disorders or birth defects. The ADA and the World Health Organization supported these findings." How many people still believe that their fillings may be producing health effects?
  • The Red M&M candy scare of 1976 -- That's right, remember how red m&m's were removed from the color mix during the 1970s because red dyes were thought to cause cancer? This was one of the few incidences when the media opted, several years later, to announce that m&m candies would be returning the red color to the product mix when the original story was found to be false.

Also, remember how every teenage boy of the fifties tried to slip aspirin into the Coke of their teenage dates because of the amorous effects reported by its use....and what about those green m&ms and the aphrodisiac effects they supposedly caused? I also remember that the Rock group Van Halen required that all colors of M&M's be removed from the back stage party mix with the exception of green M&M's in tribute to this singular act of stupidity.

I remember an aunt buying up a supermarkets supply of saccharine after it was suggested in 1977 that it would be pulled off the market because of lab mice cancer results. I believe we now store some of that same saccharine in our fallout shelter that we built for the 2000 Millennium crash, which by the way, never happened either.

A Thanksgiving without Cranberries -- In 1957, aminotriazole, a weed killer, was used on cranberries. It was later found that the FDA had not approved its use on cranberries and cranberry growers withheld shipment of cranberries treated with the weed killer. Later, US Food and Drug administration officials found that lab rats contracted thyroid cancer when exposed to this chemical in high doses (equivalent to a human ingesting 15,000 pound of cranberries every day for several years. Two years later in 1959, a shipment of cranberries were found to have trace amounts of this chemical and the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare advised all cranberry buyers to avoid purchasing cranberries. It was later found that turnips naturally produce about 100 times the amount of aminotriazole as the treated cranberries. This was the first example of a public health scare in relation to low dose cancer risk exposure to certain chemicals.

Numerous other health scares have been propagated by the media including the carpet chemical emission scare of 1992. A "Street Stories" report on the death of lab mice after exposure to heated carpet samples created a media feeding frenzy nationwide. The story was reported nationwide by every major newspaper, magazine, and TV network. To encounter a subject that touched every person's life in America was too enticing for the media to exercise restraint.

Rosalyn Anderson, an independent researcher, had taken carpet samples and heated them to 140 degrees in a fish aquarium, which was the source of this scare. Mice were fitted with restraint collars around their necks and placed inside a confined tube to monitor changes in breathing rate when exposed to the superheated carpet samples. Each mouse was placed inside the chamber and exposed to the heated carpet samples four times. After the initial exposure, several mice died. Dr. Anderson attributed the cause of death to chemical emissions from the carpet, even though no autopsies were performed.

Once the scientific community was given the opportunity to evaluate Dr. Anderson's findings, they were unable to repeat her findings. In an attempt to understand her findings, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the Environmental Safety Commission and two other independent labs participated with Anderson labs in a round robin study. Neither EPA, CPSC or the independent labs were able to reproduce Anderson's findings. In the round robin study, Anderson found a 25% death rate for the carpet samples and a 25% death rate using a "blind" empty chamber. Other products, such as cheese, were tested using the same questionable protocols and similar results were found. Imagine, cheese can kill mice? There goes another childhood belief, but I would not want to initiate another false health scare. Cheeseheads everywhere would be up in arms.

It was later suggested that after the initial 60 minute exposure to the superheated air, the mice were none too pleased to be returned to the superheated, difficult to breath, environment for repeated exposures and struggled to escape. Autopsies suggested that the mice may have died from broken necks from the tight restraint collars in their struggle.

Of Mice and Men

These follow-up findings were never reported by the media, and as a result, a number of high profile lawsuits were initiated. A number of claimants came forward stating that they had suffered allergy or "flu-like" symptoms following the installation of new carpet. In some instances involving office carpet installations, a number of building occupants reported these "allergy-like" symptoms. In many of these cases, 15%-18% of the facilities occupants reported some type of allergy-like complaint. Nationally, approximately 15% of the populations suffers from routine allergies, so it difficult to distinguish between normal allergies and exposure to some chemical pollutant. However, the Anderson findings, even though they were impossible to validate, and the media reporting of these findings, provided a diagnosis for these commonly occurring health complaints and provided a scientific court witness to testify to the connection.

Unfortunately for those filing suit, the Daubert vs. Merrill Dow Supreme Court ruling stipulated what could and could not be introduced in the way of scientific evidence in lawsuits. To be introduced, the evidence must have been repeated, replicated, or duplicated by other labs. Since the Anderson labs results could not be replicated by any other lab, the findings were ruled to be yet another instance of "junk science" and Dr. Anderson was not allowed to testify as an expert witness. In these cases, the judges ruled “Dr. Anderson’s testing fails to rise to the level of acceptable scientific testing. The courts rendered that her testing protocols were so poor and unreliable that the results were wholly without value. This ruling was never reported by the media and a number of lawsuits continued to filed and in each instance Dr. Anderson's findings were excluded. Eventually, since this was the only basis for a suit, attorney's stopped wasting their time with litigation of this issue. Of the dozens of cases filed, the carpet industry was able to successfully defend each case. Yet, the media continues to publish articles, which revisit this issue even though it has long been proven to be untrue. Many of these "new" media articles use old news accounts of this episode, as a basis for their research. Since the media never capitulated or admitted that the original findings were false, these diligent reporters have been duped by their own follow-up failures.

Some good did evolve from this issue though. In 1993, the carpet industry initiated a voluntary chemical emission testing program for new carpet. This was the first program of its kind. When it was first initiated, very little was known about the chemical emissions of common consumer products, so the fact that carpet emitted chemicals came as a surprise to many and there was no comparison data to establish whether these emissions were high or low. After other consumer products were evaluated, the emissions from carpet were found to be extremely low. The levels were found to be hundreds of times below any known level where health effects could be expected.

For details on this program contact the Carpet and Rug Institute at 800-882-8846 or visit their website. If you are evaluating whether carpet is appropriate for your family consider the following facts that are typically miscommunicated.

  1. Carpet DOES NOT CONTAIN formaldehyde and has not contained formaldehyde since 1982 when formaldehyde was suggested as a possible carcinogen. The carpet industry continues to test for formaldehyde to ensure that it does not find its way into carpet production through upstream suppliers.
  2. Carpet has never been confirmed to produce any health effects as communicated by some media articles. Carpet has been used in homes, schools, hospitals, and offices for more than 40 years without incident.
  3. The synthetic latex used in carpet is different from the natural latex that is known to produce health effects in medical workers. If you are sensitive to natural latex, you should experience no health effects as a result of synthetic latex.
  4. Carpet chemical emissions are very low compared to other common consumer products typically found in the home and hundreds of times less than those levels known to produce health effects.
  5. Even at the low levels at which carpet emits chemicals, those chemicals are typically non detectable 2-3 days following carpet installation.
  6. Carpet Cleaning does not cause Kawasaki Syndrome as suggested by some media articles.

About the Author
Michael Hilton was the original creator of Carpet Buyers Handbook. Having owned and operated a carpet wholesale company, Hilton has a vast knowledge about all-things carpet related as well as other types of flooring.

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