Against “Panic of the Day” Science Reporting

Tom Philpott, a food and agriculture journalist for Mother Jones, writes up a new study on arsenic in wine and beer:

For people who drink 2.5 beers for glasses of white wine per day, they found, arsenic levels were 20 percent to 30 percent higher than for non-drinkers. Gulp. Or, perhaps better: stop gulping.

Okay, let’s take a look. How were arsenic levels measured?

The arsenic levels in participants’ toenails were 0.12 micrograms per gram, on average.

Toenails, huh? And is that actually tied to blood concentrations in some meaningful way, or is it just a convenient source of measurement?

However, it is unclear what level of concentration found in toenail samples might signal an unsafe level of arsenic exposure, said study author Kathryn Cottingham, researcher at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The toenail measurements in the study served only as a way to compare levels among people, the researchers said.

The second one, then. So, to sum up: this study contains no actually useful information in terms of what foods are safe to eat. There is only a suggestion for further study. Because as the Livescience writeup says, arsenic is a naturally occurring substance which is present in practically every food in trace amounts.

Ok, I know Tom’s post is mostly tongue-in-cheek, and it’s a bit unfair to single him out. (Consider this just a road into a broader trend.) But from panicking over lead in lipstick (overblown) to jumping eagerly on a (since retracted) study showing GMO corn causes cancer, credulous reporting about “toxins,” cancer, and so forth is a terrible media habit.

Now, to be fair, Tom is a great journalist. He’s certainly no Dr. Oz. He sensed even at the start that the above-mentioned GMO study was bogus.

It’s just very easy, half listening to the news, to get the sense that everything gives you cancer, everything is riddled with heavy metals, and your children are almost certainly going to die of something prolonged and awful if you feed them anything at all. But the truth is that, though there are serious questions about America’s food supply and our health overall, there is no reason so far to panic about GMO foods, or aspartame, or vaccines, or a dozen others.

As Kevin Drum might say, we should be vigilant, but not give ourselves an ulcer over it.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at the Week. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New Republic, and the Nation. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2012 to 2014.