Activists shouldn’t dictate science policy

Americans aren’t that great at science. Our recent survey found that most Americans can’t even answer basic fifth grade-level science questions. Making matters worse, activists are exploiting Americans’ lack of basic scientific knowledge to needlessly scare the public and push for misguided policy changes.

These activists are waging an outrageous war of misinformation. For instance, activist blogger Vani Hari, better known as the “Food Babe,” falsely claims that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been linked to everything from autism to allergies, despite the fact that GMOs are widely considered safe by experts such as the World Health Organization, National Academies of Science, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The scariest part? These activists’ tactics are working. A recent Pew survey found that a mere 37 percent of Americans believe that GMOs are “safe to eat.” Moreover, these misinformation campaigns have led voters to support anti-GMO ballot measures and push lawmakers to pass policies requiring GMO labeling, which serves no purpose other than to make it hard for food manufacturers to sell the same foods in states with different labeling laws.

We’ve also seen the effects of fear-based, rather than science-based, policymaking when it comes to chemical safety — and it’s not pretty.

Back in 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), giving the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to ensure that the chemicals used in commerce were safe. Unfortunately, the law hasn’t been updated since its passage, and it’s nearly impossible for the EPA to meet the law’s high standards for showing a chemical is dangerous enough to remove it from the market.

The EPA, the National Academies, and branches of the National Institutes of Health have significantly more resources to study the health effects of chemicals. But without federal regulatory action, many of the same activist groups that spread misinformation about GMOs — such as the Environmental Working Group — have convinced states to take the law into their own hands.

In California, public health activists and environmentalists duped voters into believing that cancer and birth defects lurked behind every corner. Consequently, in 1986 the electorate passed Proposition 65 — a law requiring warning labels on any products (or areas) containing chemicals that the state says could cause even one excess case of cancer in 100,000 people over a 70-year lifetime.

To earn a spot on the state’s “warning list,” a chemical doesn’t even have to be shown to cause cancer or reproductive harm in humans — just lab animals, often exposed to these chemicals at levels many times higher than normal human exposure levels. Because of this low bar, the state often lists chemicals as carcinogens or reproductive toxins that other health bodies around the globe say are perfectly safe at normal levels.

While states certainly have an interest in keeping their residents safe, many of the chemicals targeted by activists have been closely examined by global scientific bodies and determined to be safe as perfectly used. Consider: among the most common targets of activist campaigns and legislation is bisphenol-A, despite comprehensive reviews by both the FDA and European Food Safety Administration confirming it poses no health risk at current levels.

Congress could stem this tide of fear-based policymaking by finally updating TSCA, giving the EPA greater authority to review and regulate chemicals on the market. The same holds true for GMOs — a federal policy limiting the authority of states to pass anti-science GMO bills would be a welcome change.

Faux “experts” like the Food Babe shouldn’t be allowed to drive fear-based legislative policy. Instead, Congress should empower scientists to fight and win the activist-led war on science.

Dr. Joseph Perrone is the chief science officer at the Center for Accountability in Science, a project of the nonprofit Center for Organizational Research and Education.

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