Thursday, June 20, 2013

BuzzFeed Dishes Out Some Seriously Misinformed Chemophobia - Part 1

Ahh, the internets. A delightful distraction, a humongous time sink, an amazing educational resource. Unfortunately, they are also a terrible source of misinformation if you're not careful.

I recently came across this BuzzFeed article entitled "8 Foods We Eat In The U.S. That Are Banned In Other Countries." The article lists food additives that are not prohibited by the FDA, but are prohibited by its counterpart in other locales. Among the list are such items as rBST, potassium bromate, and arsenic. For each item, we are told what the item is, what it's used for, why it's dangerous, and where it's banned.

The "science" upon which this article is based is at best misleading and at worst an outright lie. Over the course of several posts, I will deconstruct the particularly egregious errors.

Brominated Vegetable Oil
What it claims: "Bromine is a chemical used to stop CARPETS FROM CATCHING ON FIRE, so you can see why drinking it may not be the best idea."

Why it's totally bogus: This article tries to compare the effects of elemental bromine (an admittedly toxic liquid) with brominated compounds, in which a bromine atom is attached to one of the carbons in vegetable oil. This may seem like a logical comparison, but it's actually a huge fallacy. Allow me to demonstrate by analogy:

Carbon and nitrogen are, arguably, two of the four most common elements (along with hydrogen and oxygen) for our bodies. Amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) always contain multiple carbon and nitrogen atoms. But what do you get if you have a single carbon atom triple bonded to a single nitrogen atom? CYANIDE. Yup, that's right folks, that nasty poison that smells like almonds (at least according to Law and Order). You cannot judge the health effects of a compound based on its constitutive elements. They way they're bonded radically changes the way that they behave in the body.

Ok, so what about the claim that "BVO is linked to major organ system damage, birth defects, growth problems, schizophrenia, and hearing loss."? Well, if you look at the link provided, it tells us that "In 1997, doctors were stumped by the case of a man who came to the emergency room with headaches, fatigue, and a loss of muscle coordination and memory. He continued to get worse over time, and eventually he lost the ability to walk. A blood test found sky-high levels of bromide. The source? The man had been drinking between 2 and 4 liters of soda containing brominated vegetable oil every day. He needed dialysis but eventually recovered." That, is, as far as I can tell, the ONLY evidence that there might be deleterious effects from BVO's.

Let's take a look at this claim for a second. The man was drinking, and I'll put this on a second line for emphasis:


To put this in perspective, if you drank that much natural, pure, fresh squeezed orange juice, you would probably get massive diarrhea. Of course you're going to see health effects if you drink that much of pretty much anything on a regular basis. Heck, drinking too much WATER can kill you (looks like you can overdose on homeopathic remedies after all).

So what?
Someone was wrong on the internet. I wrote a post explaining why they were wrong. Who cares? (Besides me, of course; I care a lot.) Frankly, I didn't even make a very strong case the BVO's are safe, just that Ashley Perez's claims were unsubstantiated. Consider the following logical "proof":

No professional football team has ever had a perfect season.

The Chicago Bears have never had a perfect season.

Therefore, the Chicago Bears are a professional football team.

This blatant abuse of logic should make anybody cringe. Note that despite the logic being faulty, the conclusion happens to be true. But substitute "Woods Cross Wildcats" (my high-school football team) for "Chicago Bears," and the same argument suddenly supports a ridiculous conclusion. Heck, exchange "Chicago Bears" for "The sofa in my living room," and I could make a killing selling autographs. If you didn't know anything about American Football, would this kind of logic be helpful in determining whether someone/something played football professionally? Ultimately, it is important not simply to arrive at the correct conclusions, but also to arrive at them using correct principles.

Maybe BVO's are harmful. Maybe they're not. But wouldn't you like to find out, rather than simply jump in fright every time someone mentions a molecule that you've never heard of before? Chemophobia all boils down to a fear of the unknown. Not sure what something is? Treat it like it's evil, just in case. Never heard of a food additive before? It must be bad for you.