Thank you very much for the invitation to address the group.
I direct McGill University's Office for Science and Society, which is a rather unique enterprise in Canada, and probably in the world. It's the first time any major university--depending on which ranking you look at in the world, we're anywhere from number 12 to 17--has said that our job is not over the moment our students leave our gates; that today there is tremendous hunger out there for scientific information, and if the hunger is not fulfilled in a proper, reliable, scientific fashion, then people will end up listening to whoever is standing on the tallest soapbox yelling the loudest, usually the charlatans.
Our goal, then, is to demystify science for the public, to make sure that we separate sense from nonsense, and to foster critical thinking. If all that works, we thus try to keep them out of the clutches of charlatans.
Through my office and through my radio shows and TV appearances, I think I have my finger on the pulse of the public. What I detect is a tremendous amount of worry out there. People are worried about microwave ovens, they're worried about cell phones, they're worried about asbestos, and they're worried about formaldehyde. It depends on which day; every day there seems to be some new worry that arises.
The word “chemical”, unfortunately, rears its head, and it has become a dirty word. In the popular press, it's almost always preceded by a pejorative adjective--“dangerous”, “toxic”, or “poisonous”. There isn't the public realization that everything in the world is made of chemicals. They're not good or bad. They don't make decisions. We make decisions.
The chemical world is tremendously complex. Since the end of the Second World War, we've introduced some 80,000 synthetic chemicals into the marketplace to go along with the hundreds of thousands of naturally occurring compounds.
The human body makes no distinction between synthetic and natural in the way that we detoxify these substances. Therefore, there should be no need to make any distinction on any kind of label about synthetic or natural toxins.
The word “carcinogen” is a very loaded word, and it's a very frightening word for most people. They don't realize what it really means. Technically, the definition of a carcinogen is that it is a substance that in any animal, in any dose, causes any sort of cancer. It does not mean that is known to be a human carcinogen.
Formaldehyde is listed as a carcinogen. Indeed, there are studies that show that people who are exposed to high levels of formaldehyde in the occupational environment are more prone to certain cancers. This has no bearing on the trace amounts of formaldehyde that may be used as a preservative in a shampoo.
Our allegiance through my office is solely to the scientific method and to peer-reviewed literature. We take no funding from any interest whatsoever. It is totally funded by the university. To me personally, it really makes no difference whether BPA is banned or not, or castigated, or made into an angel. The only thing I want is to abide by the scientific method.
I'll just point out a few curiosities. Much of what we know about toxicology comes from animal studies--mostly rodents, mostly rats. Well, the fact is that the human, with a few exceptions of course, is not a giant rat. It is very difficult to extrapolate. But the public doesn't really appreciate the fact that something that has been called a carcinogen in a rat has a completely different effect in humans. That notion will be lost if something is just labelled as a carcinogen.
Why would we then not label apples as being carcinogenic? They contain formaldehyde, naturally occurring, in fact in higher doses than one would find in most cosmetics.
Take the coinage that we use. Nickel is on a group one list as a carcinogen. When we handle a nickel, the surface is oxidized. It's nickel oxide. That's a carcinogen.
Why do we not label sunshine as a carcinogen? Because we use reason. The dosages are important. The exposure is important. That always has to be taken into account.
I think one very important way to look at all of these issues is to take a look and see what the real experts say about this. It should all be ruled by science, not by emotion.
Take a look at toxicologists, for example. A survey was recently done by an American society of toxicologists. Close to a thousand of them were surveyed and asked about such things as BPA and phthalates. Ten percent of these guys said they think BPA is a real risk, and about the same percentage said that phthalates are a real risk. Twelve percent thought that high-fructose corn syrup is a real risk. And these are the people who really do know what they are talking about.
Unfortunately, information in real scientific terms is very difficult to acquire. Toxicology is a tremendously complex subject. It's very difficult to translate that information to the public, but unfortunately it's pretty easy to scare the public. There's a whole industry out there today that scares the public.
I want to finish up by giving you an example, because I think it is very, very important to take into account the effect that warnings have on people in terms of physical health. A study was done very recently with a group of students. They were told that a cylinder contained air that was mixed with an environmental toxin that can trigger headaches and nausea.
The students were divided into two groups. Half of them were asked to inhale this air. Well, of course, it was bogus; there was nothing in the cylinder except air. But as you can imagine, the ones who inhaled it started to develop the symptoms, whereas the others did not. In a subsequent experiment, when the students were shown a subject who had inhaled this air and developed nausea, they themselves developed it as well, even though they were inhaling just ordinary air.
If that isn't frightening enough, the ultimate case is that of a gentleman who was diagnosed with liver cancer and was told that he had three months left to live. Indeed, he died within that period of time of bizarre symptoms. He became very, very sick. Upon autopsy, they learned that he didn't have cancer at all. It was a misdiagnosis, which of course is very pertinent today, because yesterday we heard about all the problems in Quebec with pathological misdiagnosis.
This is why this is so important: because the mind has a fantastic effect on the body. Before we start labelling things as carcinogens in consumer products that have not been shown to cause cancer in humans--and if they have, of course, they should not be on the market--we have to take into account the effect they may have.
As one final idea, we test urine, and you hear all of these studies about chemicals being present in the urine; you drink from a plastic bottle and you find BPA in the urine. This is meaningless unless the levels can be linked to some knowledge about what those levels actually mean. If you drink a cup of coffee--