The Great Crayon Scare: An Orchestrated Panic Attack
by Jerome F. Winzig
People in the rest of the world must think Americans are rich crazy dilettantes who have nothing better to do than have panic attacks about miniscule environmental "hazards." Alar in apples. Growth hormones in milk. Irradiated meat. Contaminated grapes. The latest flurry about the supposed presence of asbestos in children's crayons is an instructive episode in what amounts to deliberately-orchestrated panic.
This latest example of fear-mongering began with a May 23 copyrighted article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The story claimed that tests conducted for the newspaper by two "government-certified laboratories" showed three major brands of crayons -- Crayola, Prang, and Rose Art -- contained asbestos."
The article went on, "Public-health experts, including pediatricians and asbestos specialists, reacted angrily and called for the immediate removal of asbestos from crayons." The story attracted national attention. The next day, a spokesperson for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said parents "may not want to let their young children play with crayons until we have some more definitive answer to give."
The flames of panic had been lit, and were not to be put out by the facts.
Binney & Smith, the company that makes Crayola crayons, had its crayons analyzed by the RJ Lee Group, an EPA-approved contract laboratory and materials testing firm which reported, "No asbestos was observed in any of the samples analyzed." Rose Art Industries had its crayons tested by ACTS Testing Labs, which concluded they did not contain asbestos. In addition, Rose Art pointed out they had quit using the talc cited in the newspaper story at least 15 months ago.
Dixon Ticonderoga, the maker of Prang crayons, had its product tested by ASTM-D4236, the U.S. government-supported agency for toxicity testing, and by the Art and Creative Materials Institute. Both reported that the talc used in the crayons was asbestos-free.
Finally, the CPCS conducted its own tests, which found only a trace amount of asbestos in two Crayola crayons and one Prang crayon, and CPCS concluded that "the amount of asbestos is so small it is scientifically insignificant." Nonetheless, "as a precaution," the CPSC asked the crayon manufacturers to reformulate their crayons within a year. On June 13, three weeks after the story first appeared, the industry capitulated. As the CPSC put it, they "quickly volunteered to reformulate" their crayons.
A review of the original story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, however, reveals a disturbing trend in the experts it quotes. The first person quoted was Dr. Philip Landrigan, who said, "It just makes no sense in the world to put a substance with the toxicity of . . . asbestos in crayons when safe alternatives exist. This is not a circumstance where you go through the rigorous toxicological and epidemiological studies. You just get it out of there."
The article identified Dr. Landrigan as a pediatrician and director of the Center for Children's Health and the Environment at Mount Sinai School of medicine in New York City. It neglected to point out that some people regard Dr. Landrigan's views as "junk science." In a Washington Times article, Michael Fumento has said of Dr. Landrigan, "to him everything makes an airtight case for a stronger federal standard to control pollution."
Judge for yourself.
Dr. Landrigan co-authored a 1994 book called "Raising Children Toxic Free: How to Keep Your Child Free from Lead, Asbestos, Pesticides, and Other Environmental Hazards," which claimed 80 to 90 percent of all cancer in humans is caused by exposure to carcinogens found in the environment. Elsewhere, Dr. Landrigan has advocated having the CPSC require labeling of sand for children's sandboxes, asserting that playground sand made from crushed quarry rock contains asbestos and should be regarded as hazardous.
He writes for the Children's Health Environmental Coalition Network's web site. In an article that appeared last year, he warned about baby pacifiers. He said they contain phthalates, a substance added to vinyl plastic to make it soft and flexible. He claims these compounds could be absorbed into a child's blood stream, where they could "reach the liver, the kidneys, the brain and other organs and cause damage."
Dr. Landrigan helped produce a 1999 report that made some unusual claims to support its conclusion that children "are uniquely vulnerable to environmental toxicants." The report asserted that infants under six months drink seven times as much water and breath twice as much air as adults, and between the ages of one to five children eat three to four times as much food as adults!
In 1998, Dr. Landrigan took issue with a Washington Post editorial that finally admitted the 1989 scare about Alar in apples -- fueled in part by Meryl Streep's appearance on the Phil Donohue show -- was "unfounded." Even though the dose of Alar required to cause cancer in mice -- but not in rats -- was the equivalent of humans drinking 4,000 gallons of apple juice per day for life, Dr. Landrigan asserted "the Alar episode was based on solid science."
Also quoted in the Seattle newspaper article was Dr. Samuel Epstein of the University of Illinois Medical Center, who said, "Childhood exposures to carcinogens are responsible for a very significant incidence of adult cancers." The article does not point out that Dr. Epstein has published a study asserting that cows treated with BGH, the growth hormone, produce milk that could cause breast and colon cancer, and has said, "with the active complicity of the FDA, the entire nation is currently being subjected to an experiment involving large-scale adulteration of an age-old dietary staple." Yet many scientists report that there are no scientifically-detectable differences between milk produced by BGH and non-BGH cows.
Dr. Barry Castleman of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health was quoted in the article as saying, "The stuff is clearly a carcinogen. There's just absolutely no reason to be exposing children needlessly to asbestos." Not pointed out was that Dr. Castleman is the author of "Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects," which can be ordered on the sister web site for "asbestos-attorney.com," where it is described as the "industry reference book detailing history of the knowledge about asbestos health hazards, and the conspiracy by the asbestos industry in concealing such hazards."
The article also quoted Dr. Michael McCann, a chemist and industrial hygienist, as saying, "Once an issue like this is raised, it's up to the industry to prove it's safe, not the other way around." Once again, the article failed to point out that Dr. McCann is the author of a couple of unusual books, "Artist Beware: The Hazards in Working with All Art and Craft Materials and the Precautions Every Artist and Photographer Should Take," and "Health Hazards Manual for Artists." He was also the co-editor of "Health Hazards in the Arts and Crafts."
In other words, the two Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporters did not exactly seek out a representative cross-section of scientific medical opinion. They did not, for example, quote Robert Goetz of the Cincinnati Drug and Poison Information Center, who took a cooler approach: "We're not particularly concerned from the point of view of a health risk to children." Goetz also sensibly pointed out that the danger of intestinal blockage from eating a crayon far outweighed any possible exposure to asbestos fibers.
This kind of biased, sensation-seeking advocacy journalism has serious consequences. Dr. Landrigan, who was quoted so prominently in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer article, spoke at a press conference last October in favor of federal legislation requiring 72 hours advance notification before pesticides are used in schools.
After the bill passed the U.S. Senate, an article in the Washington Times pointed out that "our children's health often depends on pesticide application. Children face serious health threats in schools from cockroaches, fire ants, bees, wasps, mosquitoes, poison oak and ivy, rats and mice....Cockroach feces is suspected of being a major factor in the recent epidemic of childhood asthma." The "junkscience.com" web site reports that in 1999 during an outbreak of mosquito-born disease in the New York City metropolitan area, there were five deaths and almost 40 cases of encephalitis; in nearby New Jersey there was only one confirmed case because local officials there make prudent use of pesticides.
At his inauguration in 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told the nation, "the only thing we have fear is fear itself." That sentiment certainly applies to today's intentionally-created environmental panic attacks.