Toxic Media?

A toxicologists survey by Harris Interactive on behalf of the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) and Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University, found that majorities of toxicologists rate most government agencies as accurately portraying chemical risks, but they rate the media as well as leading environmental activist groups as overstating risks.

This survey of 937 members of the Society of Toxicology (SOT) was administered online from Jan 27 to March 2.

Survey director Dr. Robert Lichter said the public doesn’t get a full and balanced picture of chemical risk and that the media and scientists ultimately share the responsibility for how chemical risks are portrayed to the public.

Here are some of the major findings of the survey:

A. Toxicologists Rate Chemical Safety and Regulation —

When asked to agree or disagree with statements about chemical safety and regulation:

  • 26% believe cosmetics pose a significant health risk
  • 33% believe food additives pose a significant health risk

  • 55% believe pesticides pose a significant health risk
  • 53% believe chemicals cause endocrine disruption

  • 10% believe organic or “natural” products are inherently safer

  • 6% believe that any exposure to a harmful chemical is unacceptable
  • 69% say chemicals do not need to be regulated according to the precautionary principle

  • 23% say the U.S. regulatory system is inferior to Europe’s

  • 54% say U.S. regulators are not doing a good job explaining chemical risks

B. Rate the Risks of Specific Chemicals –

Despite recent controversies in the news over the safety of commonlyused chemicals, few toxicologists believe they pose a high health risk.

  • 3% see Teflon as having a high degree of risk

  • 3% see genetically modified organisms as high risk

  • 9% see Bisphenol A, a component of many plastics, as high risk

  • 11% see phthalates, which make vinyl flexible, as high risk

  • 12% see high fructose corn syrup, used in soft drinks, as high risk

  • 26% rate sunlight as posing a high health risk, as do29% for aflatoxin, a naturally-occurring fungus found in peanut butter,and 35% for mercury.

C. Rate How Organizations Portray Risks –

Toxicologists overwhelmingly say that environmental activist groupsoverstate the health risks of chemicals. But they also say industrygroups underplay the risks.

  • 96% say Greenpeace overstates the health risks of chemicals

  • 80% say the Environmental Defense Fund overstates chemical risks
  • 79%say the Environmental Working Group, Natural Resources Defense Council,and Center for Science in the Public Interest overstate the risks

  • 57% say the American Chemistry Council understates chemical risks

  • 60% say the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) understates chemical risks
  • Majoritiessay that most U.S. governmental agencies accurately portray risk, withonly the EPA (40%) and the CPSC (47%) falling below a majority

D. Rate the Media Coverage –

Toxicologists almost unanimously believe the media does a poor job covering basic scientific concepts and explaining risk.

  • 90% say media coverage of risk lacks balance and diversity

  • 97% say the media doesn’t distinguish good studies from bad studies

  • 96% say the media doesn’t distinguish correlation from causation

  • 96% say the media doesn’t explain that “the dose makes the poison.”

  • Almost three out of four toxicologists believe thenews media pays too much attention to individual studies as opposed tothe overall evidence (74%), and to individual scientists as opposed tothe broader community (73%)

  • Over two out of three toxicologists (68%) believe thenews media pays too much attention to studies put out by environmentalgroups, compared to only 27% and 18% who see too much media attentionto studies by government and private sector scientists, respectively

Footnote: WebMD and Wikipedia are seen as more reliable than traditional news sources for information about chemical risks.

  • 56% say WebMD accurately portrays chemical risks

  • 45% say Wikipedia accurately portrays chemical risks

  • 15% say that leading national newspapers, news magazines, and television networks accurately portray chemical risks

  • Over 80% say that leading national newspapers, news magazines, and television networks overstate chemical risks

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