How to Diss A Book Without Reading It

by Carl Cranor

July 19, 2011

When you write a book, particularly one that has something to do with matters political, you have to expect criticism. So when I wrote Legally Poisoned: How the Law Puts Us at Risk from Toxicants (Harvard, 2011), I fully expected it to take a shot or two – not just from some of my colleagues in academia, but also from allies of the chemical industry.

In fact, since this book isn’t exactly my first rodeo, I’ve grown accustomed to reviewers who sometimes misstate some of the specifics of what I’ve written or mangle an idea or two. But they’re usually mistakes made in good faith, or at least that’s been my impression.

So it came as a surprise to me to read the review of Legally Poisoned written by Henry Miller, M.S., M.D., of the Hoover Institution and adjunct fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Miller’s got a long history of working to defend potential hazards from regulation, including formerly as a trustee for the corporate funded American Council on Science and Health, so it’s no surprise he didn’t care for my book. What surprised me was that his review suggests that he didn’t bother to read much of it before attacking it.

Legally Poisoned is based on recent research into the developmental origins of disease, and it addresses risks posed to developing children by human-created chemicals. Some of those chemicals have already caused harm; others appear to pose serious risks. But disturbingly, we know very little about the nature of the toxicity for the vast majority, because we have insufficient research on their toxicity and how dangerous they might or might not be.

That’s the basis of the book. In reviewing it, Miller got a number of things wrong. But one very big thing stands out, because it betrays his bias.

A key point I make in the book – and not just once or twice – is that we do not have toxicology data for many of the chemicals currently in commerce in the United States. This is a disturbing fact, but it’s not a new one. Any honest scientist who has followed the debate over the years knows it. Miller apparently does not. He asserts in his review that “Chemicals are tested” -- which they aren’t. He then tries to portray me as an alarmist for reporting what is widely known. 

I’ll leave the reader to judge whether I’m an alarmist, but on the factual matter of whether all industrial chemicals are required to be tested, he’s just wrong. A chemical substance, not a pesticide, pharmaceutical or new food additive, proposed for manufacture under the Toxic Substances Control Act must only have, “all available data on chemical identity, production volume, by-products, use, environmental release, disposal practices, and human exposures.” No toxicity data is required. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but the vast majority of industrial chemicals enter commerce without any toxicity data, because it is not legally required.

The law says that if a company has toxicity data on a substance, it must submit it. If it does not have it, there is nothing to report. This invites companies not to conduct toxicity tests, although companies probably do some testing that may or may not be reported. For this reason, the great majority of the 80,000 chemicals in commerce lack toxicity data, although some voluntary efforts have sought to improve this.

Leading developmental toxicologists call for premarket toxicity testing of industrial chemicals so children are at lesser risk. National Academy of Sciences committees echo this. Legally Poisoned concurs. Until this occurs our children are essentially serving as haphazard guinea pigs for contaminants.

Another telling point that Miller gets wrong has to do with the “precautionary principle,” the regulatory notion sometimes characterized as “better safe than sorry.” As applied to chemicals, it essentially means that we shouldn’t allow chemicals in commerce if we don’t have data to know whether they are safe or not. Miller says Legally Poisoned advocates an extreme version of the "precautionary principle," which he then criticizes (writes Miller of the principle: “It posits that all new products, technologies or activities should be prohibited or withdrawn from the market or at least smothered by regulation until there is incontrovertible proof of their safety.”) But the book has only three references to the precautionary principle, all in notes directing the reader to an article on DES. The book did not use this phrase nor did it adopt the interpretation Miller attributes to it. Legally Poisoned does argue that present laws for the vast majority of industrial chemicals are reckless toward the public’s health; if avoiding recklessness is precautionary, so be it.

Finally, Dr. Miller notices a factual premise in Legally Poisoned: The Centers for Disease Control has found to date that U.S. citizens are contaminated by many of 212 industrial chemicals for which the CDC has reliable detection protocols. First, he suggests this is of no particular consequence, then he treats it as the main point.

Readers might be interested in its implications that are spelled out in the book. Pregnant women, children developing in utero, and supposedly “pristine” newborns are contaminated with up to 200 industrial chemicals. Some substances may be toxicologically innocent, but many are known carcinogens, reproductive toxicants, neurotoxicants, and immunotoxicants.

Also, contamination of developing children is not innocent. Scientists have found numerous substances that are hazardous to them. Their concentrations need not be high for toxicity; a number have no known safe level; some harm at a few parts per million or billion.

The neurotoxicants lead, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), some pesticides, arsenic, and toluene can contribute to autism, learning dysfunctions, behavioral problems, and Parkinson’s disease. The developing brain has one chance to develop properly with few or no opportunities to correct toxicity-caused mistakes.

Immunotoxicants, such as bisphenol A (BPA), diethylstilbestrol (DES), lead, Valium, and PCBs, can prevent the immune system from developing the right balance of disease-fighting cells. This can lead to childhood immuno-deficiencies and possibly foreshadow a lifetime of poorly functioning immune responses.

Phthalates, pesticides, and other hormonal mimics can inhibit or damage male reproductive tracts and their sperm, leading researchers write that males are being “feminized.” Synthetic estrogens have obviously harmed women.

Cancers have been triggered by in utero or early life exposures to diethylstilbestrol, DDT, radiation, and trihalomethanes. Scientists trace childhood leukemias to chromosomal translocations that occur in the womb, setting the stage for a second "hit" after birth leading to cancers. Was Dr. Miller unfamiliar with this research? It’s right there in the book.

I don’t know whether Dr. Miller actually read the book, whether he perhaps staffed it out to someone who didn’t do their homework very well, or whether he just perused it looking for things to attack. Whatever the explanation, he does nobody any service by misstating some of the most important points in the book. I’m prepared for criticism, even ill-informed criticism. But it’s another thing altogether to be in wanton disregard of the law, recent science and the book’s text.

Thank you for this excellent review. As a person with multiple chemical sensitivity, I'm no stranger to the malicious campaigns of Miller and his brethren in the ACSH. It's bad enough to have a disease that is poorly understood, but to have these people actively campaigning against the understanding and even the very recognition of its existence is unconscionably evil.
— brain fan
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Also from Carl Cranor

Carl F. Cranor is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside and a participating faculty member in Environmental Toxicology. 

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