Well, as you can see from the graphic, my blast against the "Eight Toxic Foods" stuff picked up a lot of attention over the weekend, which I'm glad to see. A lot of this came from it being handed around Facebook, but Fark, Reddit, Popular Science's website and others all brought in plenty of traffic as well.
I've had a lot of requests for more articles like that one, but they'll be an occasional feature around here. There's certainly enough material to fill a blog that whacks away at things like the original BuzzFeed piece, and there are quite a few bloggers who've made that their turf. I don't really want to make it my daily diet, though - for one thing, there is just so much craziness out there that you start to wonder - rather quickly - if you'll ever see the end of it. I'm not sure if I can stand reading it day after day, either, just as I'm not sure that I could go on day after day writing about things that drive me crazy. But I definitely plan to keep on taking shots every so often at prominent stuff that mangles chemistry and/or drug research as part of its argument. In this latest case, it was the roaring success of the BuzzFeed piece coupled with its chirpy, confident, and bizarrely wrong takes on chemistry and toxicology that set me off.
I spent the weekend, by the way, being called a paid shill for Monsanto, DuPont, and all the other evil monied interests. It made a refreshing change from being called a paid shill for Big Pharma. Going straight to that accusation, by the way (or using it as if that's all that needs to be done) does not say a lot for the people who advance it. There's not much persuasive force behind "I don't like this, therefore the only reason anyone could be advocating it is that they've been paid to do so". What's also interesting is how some of these people act as if this is some newly discovered counterattack, that no one in the history of argument has ever thought of accusing an opponent of bad faith. What else has someone like this not come across, or not bothered to notice?
There's also a strain of Manicheanism running through a lot of the more worked-up responses: Good vs. Evil, 100% one way or or 100% the other. If I don't think that potassium bromate in flour is that big a deal, then I must think that chemical waste drums should be poured into lakes. If I don't think that 2 ppb arsenic in chicken is killing us, then I must want to feed spoonfuls of the pure stuff to infants. And so on.
Not so. As it turns out, the flour we use at home for baking (King Arthur) is not bromated, although I didn't pick it for that reason. Not being a professional baker, I doubt if I could notice a difference one way or another due to the bromate. And while (true to my Arkansas roots) I do drink a Mountain Dew every so often, I really do think that drinking gallons of the stuff day after day would be a very bad idea. The brominated vegetable oil would not be the first of your worries, but (as the medical literature shows) it could indeed catch up with some people.
There is such a thing as overloading the body's clearance mechanisms (as any medicinal chemist is well aware), and that level is different with every substance. Some things get blasted out of the body so quickly by the liver and the kidneys that you never even notice them, even at rather high doses. Others (acetaminophen is the classic example) are cleared out well under normal conditions, but can be real trouble if the usual mechanism is impaired by something else. And others (such as some radioactive isotopes, say) are actively accumulated in the body as well as being cleared from it, and therefore can have extremely low tolerance levels indeed. Every case is different; every case needs its own data and its own decision.
I am planning a follow-up post, though, based on one of the reasonable counterarguments that's come up: why are some of these ingredients banned in other countries? What reasons are behind those regulatory decisions, and why did the FDA come to different conclusions? That's worth going into details about, and I will.