America’s Newest Export: Soda Scaremongering?

The soda scare has not only jumped the shark, it has now jumped the pond. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has taken its vendetta against soda to the United Kingdom, where its “experts” claim that methylimidazole (4-MI), a substance found in caramel coloring, is linked to cancer.

We’ve heard this before, and real science still does not back up CSPI’s overblown assertions. Our friends in the UK would be wise to ignore the rhetoric coming from CSPI, lest they fall victim to this hysteria as California has done.

Unfortunately, CSPI and their allies have, needlessly, struck fear into the hearts of California legislators, who have opened up their state to nuisance lawsuits with Proposition 65, a chemical “right to know” law.

Prop 65 requires cancer warning labels on products that have chemicals “known to the State of California” to be carcinogenic or cause birth defects. That sounds nice, but in reality it’s the poster boy for the law of unintended consequences.

Dr. Joe Schwarcz, a chemistry expert from McGill University, recaps how Prop 65 has slapped a warning label on an increasing number of products without any legitimate concept of chemical exposure risks. California’s Prop 65 list now tops 800 substances. Why so many, you ask? Dr. Schwarcz explains:

Evidence for human carcinogenicity is not the criterion! If a chemical causes any sort of cancer or developmental problem in any animal, at any dose, it qualifies. So alcohol, tobacco, benzene, benzopyrene, lead and arsenic, all proven human carcinogens, are of course on the list, but so are acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin), nickel, phthalate plasticizers, laughing gas, mineral oil and phenolphthalein, the acid-base indicator that is a staple in high school chemistry labs.

Incredibly, testosterone, progesterone and estrogen, all hormones that occur naturally in human beings, also appear on the list. Dr. Schwarcz jokes, “it’s a wonder that people aren’t made to walk around with labels on their forehead.”

But all of these warnings are for naught, Dr. Schwarcz notes:

No lives have been saved by frightening people away from vacuum cleaners or airline counters or washing machines or garden hoses or flashlights. Why? Because the law is not based on exposure, it is based on content! It makes no sense to have a warning just because a substance that causes some problem at a high dose in test animals is present in a product in amounts that are so trivial that no other regulatory agency deems them to be a risk.

Sound familiar? This is a lot like the convenient omission in CSPI’s 4-MI fear-mongering: a human would have to drink 1,000 sodas a day—for life—to to have an increased risk of contracting cancer. The level of exposure is what matters, not just mere presence of trace amounts of a substance.

This is yet another thoughtful critique of the manymany problems with this ill-conceived Golden State ballot initiative that has done little to increase consumer safety, but has done much to increase costs to consumers. What Prop 65 has created are big paydays for the bounty-hunting trial lawyers’ bar and countless opportunities for CSPI and others to play the boy who cried “cancer.”


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