A rather long build up to one punchline

December 8th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in badscience, mail, scare stories | 39 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian,
Saturday December 8 2007

The Daily Mail, as you know, is engaged in a philosophical project of mythic proportions: for many years now it has diligently been sifting through all the inanimate objects in the world, soberly dividing them into the ones which either cause – or cure – cancer. The only tragedy is that one day, amongst the noise, they might genuinely be on to something, and we would simply laugh.

That day has come. They asked: “Is your lipstick giving you breast cancer?” And the answer is simple: butyl benzyl phthalate should be banned from use in the cosmetic industry. I agree with a scare story in the Daily Mail.

“Chemicals found in lipstick and nail varnish could trigger breast cancer, scientists warned yesterday.” Yes. “A study has shown that butyl benzyl phthalate, or BBP, can interfere with the healthy development of breast tissue.” I agree. “Environmental campaigners yesterday called for it to be banned in the cosmetic industry.” I agree with them too.

For just one moment, indulge my secret geeky love of materials science. Phthalates are very clever oily substances which are used as plasticisers: when you add them to something like, say PVC, which is hard, they allow the long PVC molecules to slide over each other. It’s a bit like adding water to clay.

You can tell plastic products which have phthalates in them because they have that kind of waxy, flexible texture, and a dodgy chemical smell. A drop of phthalate is the difference between a rigid 12-inch vinyl record and a figure-hugging PVC corset. Without phthalates there would be no fetish nightclubs, and none of those spongy PVC floor tiles.

They’ve also been used to make flexible plastic toys, and were banned from children’s teethers a while ago (although that was a bit of a cosmetic regulatory move, since most of your exposure is through food, because phthalates leak out of the plastic packaging; there’s a lot of them in dust, too). So what risk judgment are we endorsing here? Phthalates are all different, but some have been shown at high concentrations to have harmful effects in laboratory animals, they may block the effects of male hormones, and in one OK-ish study – the results of which have been overstated in many quarters – phthalates have also been associated with borderline effects on genital development in foetuses.

But the details of BBP in cosmetics are less interesting than the question of how we collectively manage risks: because we will always need to take risks, with every step we take down the street, and the nature of our risk exposure has changed. I cannot unanimously ban BBP from cosmetics in Europe, and reduce my risk of breast cancer, and I cannot decide unanimously to change my country’s foreign policy, to reduce my chances of being blown up on the way to work.

We employ people to make these judgments for us, imperfectly, collectively, as best they can. They are politicians, bureaucrats and scientists, not journalists, because journalists are often too eager to produce a frightening story, and sometimes that can come secondary to concerns about accuracy. In the case of this story on BBP in cosmetics, for example, the Daily Mail, in demanding a ban, seems to have missed one important element of the story: BBP is already banned for use in cosmetics, by the European Union, throughout Europe, after careful consideration, and has been for quite some time now.


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39 Responses



  1. janegoth said,

    December 8, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    “Daily Mail, in demanding a ban, seems to have missed one important element of the story: BBP is already banned for use in cosmetics, by the European Union, throughout Europe,”

    No doubt the Mail will claim that it was their campaign that made the EU do it.

  2. Weirdbeard said,

    December 8, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    janegoth said : No doubt the Mail will claim that it was their campaign that made the EU do it.

    And no doubt they’ll also claim to have a working time machine so that the ban could be implemented in the past. Wouldn’t put it past them.

    I look forward (if that’s the right phrase) to remaking the acquaintance of the Mail over Christmas. My mother reads it for some reason which I’ve never been able to fathom.

  3. Munin said,

    December 8, 2007 at 3:52 pm

    Nice article, though it suffers from an uncharacteristic shortage of reference links. Here’s a start:

    Daily mail article
    www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/health/thehealthnews.html?in_article_id=499967

  4. Ben Goldacre said,

    December 8, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    on the move, posting from phone refs later

  5. aembleton said,

    December 8, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    I doubt that the Daily Mail will report that BBP was banned by the European Union. It would be two hate figures of the Daily Mail, and they would have to decide which they disliked the most – ‘EU bans cosmetics’ or ‘Cancerous BBP is banned by the lovely EU’?

    I just can’t see it happening. Better to keep up the cancer scare stories for a while until people are bored, and then switch to the EU, and then to immunisation (MMR) and back to cancer.

  6. BobP said,

    December 8, 2007 at 4:41 pm

    unanimously or unilaterally?

  7. niche said,

    December 8, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    Ben, I’m shocked. PVC is just so Ann Summers, not fetish nightclub, which can only really be latex rubber or leather. Where did you get your information that fetish nightclubs would not exist without phthalates? How could you go ahead and use an example of which you obviously have no direct experience and publish something that contains rhetoric such as this with a lack of any supporting evidence based studies? It makes me wonder where else you might do this. God forbid you have done it with more serious subject matter. Stop researching and start experiencing. Latex Ben, not PVC – get it?!!

  8. Daniboy said,

    December 8, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    And it would be such a fantastic exclusive for the Daily (hate) Mail if they hadn’t run it 6 years ago…
    www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/health/womenfamily.html?in_article_id=11730&in_page_id=1799

  9. Daniboy said,

    December 8, 2007 at 5:28 pm

    Heh in fact ignore that – just the rubbish DM website giving a false date at the top of the story… Doh

  10. Daniboy said,

    December 8, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    Oh no – right first time! Can I edit posts on here?

  11. Mojo said,

    December 8, 2007 at 5:46 pm

    @Munin: “Nice article, though it suffers from an uncharacteristic shortage of reference links.”

    And guess who turned up on the Grauniad comments page to complain about that.

  12. spk76 said,

    December 8, 2007 at 6:40 pm

    Hang on – so when was this story first published in the Mail? Is BG referring to that six-year-old story, a new one or was the original article recently rehashed?

  13. suntzu said,

    December 8, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    @Munin: “Nice article, though it suffers from an uncharacteristic shortage of reference links.”

    Ironic, actually, as the research is published in an open access journal (BMC Genomics), so anyone is free to read/quote/reuse/distribute (with attribution).

    Here’s a link to the research article itself:
    www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2164/8/453/

    Also the NHS Knowledge Service has produced a nice analyis here:
    www.nhs.uk/News/2007/December/Pages/Chemicalinlipstickisriskyforrats.aspx

    [In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I am associated with BioMed Central, the publisher of the journal BMC Genomics, in which this research appears]

    Now, Ben: For your next challenge – figure out what it would take to sort out a policy at The Guardian to link to the research behind a story, on a routine basis, from the Guardian website…

  14. gadgeezer said,

    December 8, 2007 at 8:35 pm

    Daily Mail 06.12 2007 Is your lipstick giving you cancer

    The Cosmetic Toiletry & Perfumery Assocation issued a good rebuttal to the Daily Mail story.

    WEN called for the banning of phthalates in 2005.

    The 80% stuff referred to on CiF is from:

    A study by WEN, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and Health Care Without Harm – Pretty Nasty (250k pdf) found phthalates in nearly 80% of products tested. None of these had phthalates listed on the label.
    (Pretty Nasty – Phthalates in European Cosmetic Products; 2002)

  15. Ben Goldacre said,

    December 8, 2007 at 8:45 pm

    back home on laptop, links version up now. i’m very very very pleased indeed to see that people are so interested in links to the original article. as i’ve written on many occasions, i think all papers should reference every original journal article they talk about, i always do it here where poss.

    the WEN thing was a fair while ago, and looked phthalates, remember there are lots of different types of phthalates, with different properties and risks, BBP is just one of many types.

  16. Twm said,

    December 9, 2007 at 12:28 am

    Interesting article Ben. The perception of our chemical world is so very negatively portrayed.
    At a molecular level, phthalates are really cool. PVC, vinyl, ohhahhh.
    Looking around my room, there is a huge amount of plastics, bendy wires, casing, remote buttons. Man’s manipulation and creation of new materials is awesome.
    And It’s reasuing that we are finding which of the many combinations of atoms have a bad effect on us in our daily lives.

    Greenpeace have a pamphlet on the iphone, which is critical of the use of PVC and phthalates.
    I didn’t realise that phthalates were banned in kids toys in the EU – hmmm my friend’s baby always sticks phones and ipods in his mouth.

    Do I trust healthboards and commities to monitor and introduce legitlation to ban substances that show strong evidence of harm to humans/environment? Yes given enough time and evidence.
    Do I think they might make mistakes occasionally.
    yup.

    Do i expect the press to expose corruption, ineptitude or bias in these descision bodies. Absolutely.

    Greepeace pdf here:
    www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/international/press/reports/iPhones-hazardous-chemicals.pdf

  17. ayupmeduck said,

    December 9, 2007 at 8:36 am

    If you need a link for the EU ban – table Page 5, not just BBP is banned:
    ec.europa.eu/health/ph_risk/committees/04_sccp/docs/sccp_o_106.pdf

    And what is the link between The Mail and The Daily Telegraph (Autralia)?

    www.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/story/0,22049,22885276-5006007,00.html?from=public_rss

  18. Dean Morrison said,

    December 9, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    As for Twm’s mates baby sticking an iphone in it’s mouth – the EU has issued guidance on what is a ‘mouthable’ toy…

    tinyurl.com/2ozvuc

    ……….

    The EU have recently introduced far reaching legislation (REACH) that puts a greater onus on manufacturers to test the toxicity of new materials before they introduce them to new products. This was watered down to some extent – but there has been a significant switch in the burden of proof: now those who profit from the introduction of novel materials have to first demonstrate they are safe.

    ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/reach/reach_intro.htm

    www.chemicalreaction.org/

  19. David Mingay said,

    December 9, 2007 at 6:26 pm

    #19: “what is the link between The Mail and The Daily Telegraph (Autralia)?”

    They’re both part of the same enormous international industrial conglomerate, the Daily Mail and General Trust

    www.dmgt.co.uk/

  20. Harlequin said,

    December 9, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    Has the corporate sector reacted to this story? I tried www.senseaboutscience.org.uk but it doesn’t rate a mention.

  21. Martin said,

    December 10, 2007 at 4:44 am

    There’s a story in the West Australian today (www.thewest.com.au/default.aspx?MenuID=158&ContentID=50275) regarding the successful campaign to reduce skin cancer (known as Slip, Slap, Slop). OK, according to everyone (and presumably the Daily Mail) the sun causes cancer.

    However, the “anti-ageing specialist” claims that too little sun is now putting us at risk of osteoporosis, diabetes, heart disease and breast and colorectal cancer. So too little sun also causes cancer.

    How’s the Daily Mail going to handle this?

  22. SirTainleyBarking said,

    December 10, 2007 at 9:38 am

    The CTPA has reacted to it, so that covers the Cosmetics and Toiletries industry in the UK. They are frankly fed up with the Daily Fail, so they don’t want to give them any oxygen of publicity if they don’t need to.

  23. Maarten Van Hemelen said,

    December 10, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    It is indeed so that too much sun can cause cancers of the skin (although the sun is not the only factor, most cancers, if not all, really have a number of causes). But too little sun isn’t healthy either. We need sunlight, without it we are prone to osteoporosis, and maybe other conditions, but osteoporosis is the only one I know.

    What is more interesting: rubbing sun lotion on your skin is not proven to prevent those cancers of the skin. There is a correlation between sunburn and those cancers, sun lotions prevent sunburn, the assumption is wrongly made that sun lotions will protect you from getting cancers of the skin. Tsss.

  24. Ministry said,

    December 10, 2007 at 6:53 pm

    niche (Comment no.8): I’m not sure that’s strictly true: I doubt a typical fetish club would turn someone away wearing PVC.

    If you were seriously commenting on journalists’ tendency to make throwaway remarks about subjects they don’t fully understand, you could have a point.
    Careful, Dr. G – you’d rightfully complain if an arts graduate did the same on a science/health topic!

  25. Twm said,

    December 10, 2007 at 11:35 pm

    Dean Morrison. Thanks for the links.

    I guess the problem is that acute toxicity in individuals, animals or a isolated ecosystem is much easier to prove than statistical problems like increase in cancers after many years of exposure.
    However, if acute or long term problems are made known, I wonder where the balance of power is in getting the substance removed.

    Certainly you would expect large companies to be more active in removing components which had bad reporting in the media even if the real risk is that much less.

    Trans fats are currently being willingly withdrawn from food products from the main producers, coinciding with increased media linkage to obesity and heart disease and also better labelling of “hydrogenated fats”.

    But they are hardly toxic. So i suspect that the media whore chemicals which get the most attention (especially when babies are involved) will get removed with priority by companies themselves based on fear of declining sales.

    The problem with bad chemical reporting is that the energy may be spent removing the wrong chemicals because of percieved pressure rather than science.

    (Lipids are pretty cool at a molecular level also, it’s amazing what a few kinks in a fatty acid tail can do to the consistency of your spread or the chewy ness of your marsbar)

  26. SirTainleyBarking said,

    December 11, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    @Twm
    “Certainly you would expect large companies to be more active in removing components which had bad reporting in the media even if the real risk is that much less”

    Happens all the time. The Phthalates thing is seriously old news these days, and very few if any mainstream cosmetic products contain them these days.

    The latest thing is of course Parabens. They are being formulated out certainly from ingredients as we speak. Every rep with a product to sell these days always makes a point of “Paraben free”.

    Cosmetics like food is big business, so is effected by the consumers perceptions and desires. We’re all after customer cash, and you don’t get that by your product being left on the shelf, no matter what the rights and wrongs of the science involved

  27. catcubed said,

    December 12, 2007 at 12:54 am

    @niche a simple web search for “pvc fetish” shows you’re way off base.

  28. Robert Carnegie said,

    December 12, 2007 at 3:04 am

    By the way, I found some new playmates who may or may not be scientists, regarding vitamin D and sunshine, cancer, autism, etc. Started on the forums and not really setting it on fire, here > www.badscience.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=3815

  29. Dead Badger said,

    December 13, 2007 at 9:44 am

    Anyone else pleasantly surprised to see that the online version of the Mail article actually had a link to the original research?

    Actually, I think “pleasantly surprised” is a bit of an understatement.

  30. Maarten Van Hemelen said,

    December 13, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    I know this is off-topic, but I’d like to ask if it is normal that activation of a forum account takes several days? Sorry for disturbing the discussion.

  31. Maarten Van Hemelen said,

    December 13, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    By the way, what’s with the Daily Mail? I live in Belgium, so British newspapers aren’t really a speciality of mine, but I have long thought it was something of a quality newspaper, as opposed to gutter press like the Sun. It seems I was wrong then?

  32. spk76 said,

    December 13, 2007 at 6:41 pm

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daily_Mail#Support_for_Nazism_and_Fascism
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daily_Mail#Editorial_stance
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daily_Mail#Common_satirical_target

  33. jodyaberdein said,

    December 13, 2007 at 8:03 pm

    As per usual I post tangentially to the main point, but never mind:

    www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/worldnews.html?in_article_id=501316&in_page_id=1811&ito=1490

    vs

    scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2007/12/simon_caldwell_is_a_liar.php

    J

  34. Maarten Van Hemelen said,

    December 13, 2007 at 9:06 pm

    Ah. I see… I feel kinda stupid now… We have newspapers of that kind as well. I never read them though,except for when I’m abroad in a country like Italy (I could read a good English or French paper, but Italian isn’t really doable) as they are the only ones you can get, being as popular as they are…

  35. ernesto said,

    December 20, 2007 at 4:17 am

    “I cannot unanimously ban BBP from cosmetics in Europe, and reduce my risk of breast cancer, and I cannot decide unanimously to change my country’s foreign policy, to reduce my chances of being blown up on the way to work.
    Course you can, Ben. Anyone can unanimously do anything they wish to do. Doesn’t necessarily have an effect, though.
    Perhaps you meant ‘unilaterally’?
    But then, much as I admire a lot of what you write to challenge the world of superstition, there’s nothing like seeing a smartarse take a tumble to add to the gaiety of nations!

  36. groovemeister said,

    December 20, 2007 at 8:06 pm

    So…

    The Pope is saying that we shouldn’t be believing things that are ‘dubious idealogy’, and is in favour of hardcore evidence?

    Might have to step down as being the Pope then. Can’t see him believing in God.

  37. groovemeister said,

    December 20, 2007 at 8:11 pm

    Oops, wrong story. :/

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