Kate Dailey is the health and lifestyle editor for Newsweek.com. She blogs at The Human Condition.
This week, we're looking at how worried people should be about exposure to toxic chemicals. Here’s the reality: there are chemicals everywhere, so trying to avoid them completely may be futile. For instance: A recent study found questionable levels of pesticides in frozen foods, while another noted that canned goods were at high risk for BPA exposure. An all-organic diet has been shown to reduce exposure to pesticides; eating only organic vegetables will also minimize the risk of BPA and other chemical exposure (unless you cook or store them in damaged Teflon, or certain plastic containers). Even if you could go all organic all the time, using only environmentally sound storage and cooking devices, doing so can be expensive — not to mention impractical ... and paying a premium for food that doesn't kill you seems unjust. In some cases the risks associated with chemical exposure are not as great as the alternative.
So the question is not, "should we avoid chemicals?", but rather how to figure out which chemicals in particular we should avoid — the bigger question is how relative that risk is to the alternatives. With more and more research coming out every month, bringing more data and information about chemical risk, it can be overwhelming. In an effort to make sense of all this information, I contacted the Society for Risk Assessment at Harvard University, which directed me towards a great document they produced to help consumers deal with the myriad of information available. Here are some highlights:
Get past the presentation and to the facts. Consider that your perception of information can depend on whether it is presented as positive (half-full) or negative (half-empty). Flipping the statements and looking for alternative ways to state them might change your perception. For example, if you hear about a small number of people being affected, remember that this means a large number are not affected, and vice versa. When the facts seem confusing, keep in mind that you might have been given false or incomplete information or you may have misunderstood the information given.
Understand how this information fits in with other evidence. Some sources generally strive to provide unbiased coverage, while others may be intentionally biased. Consider how many sides of the story you hear and whether your source tells you about all of the possibilities, and the weight of the evidence. Remember that extensive coverage of a story can be misleading if it does not reflect the amount of evidence that supports the claim.
It’s also important to keep in mind that all the information available to the consumer is often still an incomplete picture. The FDA, for instance, decided in January that it was better for parents to feed their children formula from cans that contained BPA then to risk malnutrition.
The good news about the ubiquity of chemicals in our environment, and the lack of compelling data about the risks? It lets us off the hook, in a sense. Yes, you should keep an eye on the research (something that we try to do for you at The Human Condition blog), and yes, you should pressure companies and the government to ensure that food and products we use aren't harmful. But the basic principal should be to make the choices you know to be healthy: Five servings of fruits and vegetables, the less processed the better. There’s a good rule of thumb that you should try to eat food that have as many pronounceable ingredients on the back as possible. That’s sound nutritional and environmental advice, cutting down on both potential chemicals like food dyes and preservatives and nutritious bad guys like sodium and processed fats.
Sticking to basic healthy habits above all else will put you in better stead and guarantee better health, much more so than playing an environmental "guessing game" about chemicals that are poorly understood and hard to avoid.