Banalising the Risk Perception of Endocrine Disruption

“Coffee is an endocrine disruptor!!! So are soybeans!!! And humus!!!”

These are claims the Risk-Monger made last week … and some people mistook my use of an image of a baby (assumedly consuming deadly doses of soy) as a legitimate attack … even coming to the defence of soy. They missed the point. It is not about the actual risk to our hormonal systems from coffee, soy and chick peas – a risk that is extremely low to the point of insignificance (except maybe for newborns). Rather, it is a communications method I would advise risk managers to enforce: what I call imposing the “banalisation of risk perception” on the endocrine disruption debate.

Many with little or no chemistry-toxicology training (ie, most people) have been made afraid of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) by mal-intended activists campaigning against chemical substances like Bisphenol A (BPA) and pesticides. Because there is so little known about how the endocrine system reacts, this uncertainty created a rich opportunity for scare-mongering, especially as it concerns highly emotional and personal issues (ie, my kit or my ability to procreate).

As the EDC chemophobia campaign evolved over two decades, other rich issues were added: breast cancer, early onset of puberty, obesity … name your societal concern and we can find a link to some scary synthetic chemical and endocrine disruption (autism, celiac disease, increased allergies … the list runs as long as EDC-Free Europe’s opportunism). If the exposure levels are so low as to make Paracelsus piss himself laughing, the opportunists would then bring in the concept of low-dose exposure or those dreaded cocktail effects. It was a game to keep scientists and NGOs busy (for the last two decades) and to keep everyone very well-funded … but a pointless game for the rest of us.

There are no facts involved here; risk perception is emotion-based stemming from cultural narratives that are now fed by the blast-furnace of social media. It is usually “unrational” (not irrational because there is often a justifiable illogic), stemming from two important variables: uncertainty and proximity. In environmental-health risks, the closer an unknown (alien) substance gets to my body, the greater the unpredictability of risk perceptions. Endocrine disruptors are about as personal as you can get, so spreading uncertainty makes for rich activist pickings with little need for evidence (as the glyphosate-cancer link started to fail, in came “glyphosate as an endocrine disruptor” to the rescue).

This all strikes old goats like me, who were active in this arena in the 1990s, as all too familiar.

Whatever happened to dioxins???

In the 1990s there was a similar outbreak of factless fear about dioxins brought on by activists (mainly from Greenpeace) during their anti-PVC campaigns. Dioxins were called the most deadly chemical known (although the full statement, actually, was: Dioxins are the most deadly chemical known to guinea pigs … for some reason it just wipes them out … but humans didn’t exhibit the same effects). The hysteria came to a head during the Belgian dioxin crisis in 1999 when chicken feed was accidentally (?) exposed to lubricants creating high levels of dioxin exposure in chickens and eggs.

The Belgian authorities started testing all food (where there’s smoke, there are dioxins), removing most products from shelves and leaving the public confused (I recall we had to go to France to do our groceries). Many Belgians lost trust in the food chain and suddenly the polluted canals around the Flemish rustbelts were teaming with amateur, but hungry, fishermen (talk about a risk-risk paradigm!). I recall a conversation with a toxicologist then who stated that, for the toxic equivalent of one cigarette, one would have to eat 20 highly infected chickens. I understand it is probably more like 200 chickens, but in any case, facts are meaningless in a time of public panic. People smoking a pack of cigarettes a day were refusing to eat chicken with a “justified illogic” (“I choose to smoke this cigarette; I did not choose to eat an infected chicken!”). After the crisis had passed, studies showed there was no increased health risk from the dioxin exposure.

So what do we think of dioxins today? Not much. If NGOs like Greenpeace can dust it off and apply some public perception shock therapy, dioxins could cause some fear, but at the moment, I would consider the issue as banal, ie, dioxins are no longer perceived as much of a health threat. Unless we are living in Beijing or Shanghai, we are exposed to fewer dioxins today than generations ago, and we are living longer. Dioxins, simply put, no longer scare people. NGOs, through their own “market research” (if fear can be considered a market) have recognised this and have moved on to more “fertile” pastures.

So how do we make the endocrine disruption fear campaign go the way of dioxins?

One thing is sure – trying to answer the relentless activist fabrications on EDCs by denying their claims and providing evidence to the contrary, as scientists have tried for the last two decades, only cements the perception that there must be something wrong. As long as industry continues to play the activists at their game, they will continue to lose and institutions like the European Commission will be forced to make up a series of silly EDC criteria options to make the activists go away.

An alternative I have been proposing during talks and training sessions is to impose a “banality of risk perception” on endocrine disruption. If people are to understand that coffee or soybeans are endocrine disruptors and we have been consuming them for generations, then EDCs will become banal. The uncertainty and fear will diminish with each cup of coffee we drink, and if someone tells me that a plastic or a pesticide residue might be an endocrine disruptor (on a long-term, low dose cocktail effect), our knee-jerk reaction should be: So what! This is what happened with dioxins – it became almost farcical that we were made afraid at such low levels of exposure compared to lifestyle risks.

If “So what!” becomes the common reaction, the NGO fundraising will dry up and the activists will move on to other fields of fear and uncertainty. NGOs have a corporate growth model that binds them to the same impulse as the rest of us: they follow the money!

How to communicate on the banal

The job of risk managers then is to communicate (educate) how we have been exposed to natural-based endocrine disrupting chemicals (for millennia). Perhaps include some benefits to confuse the caution, eg, “Soybeans, like coffee and chickpeas, are rich in phytoestrogens which have enormous benefits like lowered risks of osteoporosis, heart disease, breast cancer and menopausal symptoms. While they are indeed endocrine disruptors, you should not worry if you have a balanced diet.” Endocrine disruption will become banal, a non-issue … which in reality, outside of the Storm of Stupid of the last two decades, is the case.

Until now this communication of natural EDCs enforcing the banality of such exposures has not been carried out. Those close to the Risk-Monger or who have experienced one of my training sessions know that I test out my risk communications and regulatory response tools and concepts in the life-lab that Brussels has become. So when I re-blogged my “Soy is an EDC!” piece, one of the concepts I was testing was to put EDCs into a banal context by hyping up a non-issue on a natural chemical. Rather than getting it, many people came to the defence of soy (or decided to get off of eating soy … even though I acknowledged that I will continue). Soybeans don’t need to be defended (we’ll still eat them tomorrow, with coffee) – rather that case study should be used to question our impulse to deny claims. We need to get to the point that such claims are banal.

There are many ways to banalise these fears. Perhaps a campaign could be started to try to genetically modify soybeans, coffee and chickpeas to try to lower the isoflavone levels (fears often lose their impact when faced with greater fears). I am sure a benefits campaign for phytoestrogens (there are many!) could be launched with a list of beneficial foods. I think if the European Commission had spent the last five years doing risk management (eg, soybeans and coffee are safe to consume, but in moderation for children because of their endocrine disrupting properties) instead of engaging in this Age of Stupid farce with the EDC activists, they would have not had to have created their silly “Matrix of Expedience” to make the endocrine issue go away.

One thing is certain – we will never achieve the state of banality we see with dioxins if we continue to play the fear-mongers at their game.

Endocrine disruption? So what! Can I please have a non-dairy whitener with my coffee?

Image source

4 Comments Add yours

  1. JF Prouist says:

    At the end, your argument is similar to the Coffee Cup one from Bruce Ames. Why should we care about residues?
    “A cup of coffee is filled with chemicals. They’ve identified a thousand chemicals in a cup of coffee. But we only found 22 that have been tested in animal cancer tests out of this thousand. And of those, 17 are carcinogens. There are 10 milligrams of known carcinogens in a cup of coffee and that’s more carcinogens than you’re likely to get from pesticide residues for a year!”
    Please read:


    1. riskmonger says:

      Indeed JF, I have used Ames quite often (and more people should know this). Why I was shocked to see IARC give coffee a free pass last week (not on science, but on politics) – not that coffee is in any way a risk, bur rather that pesticides are much less toxic than something we consume every day (and hence should be banal!).
      But there is a business model in fear …


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