I never promised you topicality, but even I am embarrassed that my reaction to this article is three weeks late. In the New Republic, the versatile Sabbath-supporter Judith Shulevits summarized the danger to health that some public health experts and toxicologists see from plastics and other ever-more-widespread environmental pollutants. On the cellular, molecular, and – in general – toxicological level, her summaries are convincing. But the transition I was waiting for – from “this might be dangerous” to “these plastics can cause increased rates of this particular disease, and here’s why” – never came. Instead, I got this frustrating paragraph:
By now, you may be asking, if our health is so sensitive and if we live in a total plastic environment, why aren’t we sicker than we are? And sicker than we used to be? The answer is, we’re healthier in some ways and sicker in others. Medical adances mean we’re likelier than ever to survive our diseases, but all kinds of diseases are on the rise. Childhood cancers are up 20 percent sine 1975. Rates of kidney, thyroid, liver, and testicular cancers in adults have been steadily increasing. A woman’s risk of getting breast cancer has gone from one in ten in 1973 to one in eight today. Asthma rates doubled between 1980 and 1995, and have stayed level since. Autism-spectrum disorders have arguably increased tenfold over the past 15 years. … Obesity, of course, has been elevated to the status of an epidemic.
Of course. So what has this to do with plastics?
There are many ways to explain upticks in rates of any particular ailment: for starters, a better-informed populace and better tools for detecting disease mean more diagnoses. Other environmental stressors include Americans’ weirdly terrible eating habis, our sedentary lifestyle, and stress itself. Still, in [NIEHS director Linda] Birnbaum’s talk at the National Academy of Sciences, she declared unequivcally that data from animal studies “support a role” for environmental toxins as contributing players in a long list of ‘important human diseases.’”
That’s the only evidence we get (buried somewhere towards the end of the 4th page of a 5 page article) that environmental toxins might actually have concrete effects on the rates of real diseases that affect people, not laboratory animals or molecules. “Data from animal studies support a role.” With so many public health priorities involving billions of lives that are ended or cut short by concrete diseases, how much attention should we pay to toxicological worries for which evidence of real health effects is still lacking? Not much, I think.