- - Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Environmentalists have opened a new front in their long-running war against man-made chemicals. The latest battle is over antibacterial hand soaps, which have long been used to fight germs and stop the spread of bacteria in hospitals, in schools and in the home.

The campaign to get government to regulate these soaps is working. After the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently proposed a rule that would implement a stricter burden of proof on the safety and efficacy of antibacterial hand and body soaps that are used in health care settings. This followed a similar 2013 rule targeting consumer antibacterial soaps.

As usual in battles over man-made chemicals, environmentalists have been skillful in getting their message out through the media. But the reality is that much of the coverage on such chemicals has little in common with what the scientific experts really think. Not only are many journalists predisposed to mistrust industry, but the scientists who are most willing to spend the time and effort to educate reporters are often those seeking a wide audience for their own social concerns. In fact, one study concluded that media coverage of environmental health issues far more closely resembled the attitudes of environmental activists than those of scientific researchers.

The same study found that, over 20 years of news coverage, man-made chemicals were cited as a cause of cancer nearly twice as many times as tobacco and far more than any other substance. For example, a recent Newsweek article carries the provocative headline: “Is Cancer Lurking in Your Toothpaste (and Your Soap and Your Lipstick?)” After reading this article, it would be hard to come to any other conclusion. The lead quote comes from a Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer, followed by comments from several scientists who echo her concerns. But how does the public know whether the scientists and studies that are cited in such news articles accurately represent expert opinion?

When it comes to antibacterial soaps, the expert thinking is clear on a chemical that environmentalists have zeroed in on — triclosan. In 2009, the polling firm Harris Interactive surveyed 937 members of the Society of Toxicology, the professional association of scientists who study the adverse health effects of chemicals. When asked to rate the health risks attributable to a variety of chemicals, only 4 percent rated triclosan as a major health risk. That placed it below corn syrup, nanomaterials (or extremely small materials), and aflatoxin, a naturally occurring substance found in ordinary peanut butter.

Not surprisingly, the same poll shows toxicologists don’t have a high regard for news stories about their work. Ninety percent found news coverage lacking in balance and diverse views, 97 percent complained that journalists couldn’t distinguish good from bad studies, and 87 percent agreed that news of chemical risk was unbalanced. When presented with a list of major media outlets such as The New York Times and the broadcast networks, they rated every one as overstating the health risks of chemicals.

Another means of identifying scientific consensus is the statistical tool of meta-analysis. This technique combines the results of all studies that address a particular research question, which helps provide more robust conclusions. One such analysis on the effectiveness of antimicrobial soaps was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Food Protection in 2011. After reviewing 25 published studies, the researchers concluded that “antimicrobial soap is consistently and statistically always more effective than non-antimicrobial soap.”

The campaign against antibacterial soaps is rooted in environmental activists’ aim of protecting consumers from “dangerous” chemicals. But eliminating or heavily restricting their use in health care settings could have the opposite effect by increasing infections and the spread of bacteria, with adverse consequences not only to individual patients but to the health care system as a whole.

Rather than being swayed by one-sided news stories or activist rhetoric, the FDA should base its regulatory agenda on the actual science.

S. Robert S. Lichter is professor of communication at George Mason University, where he directs the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

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