How Government Scientists are Squandering the Public’s Trust
Who do you trust to tell you whether the products you buy are safe? Bloggers like the Food Babe who crow about “yoga mat” chemicals in bread? Or federal environmental and health regulators who review scientific research and determine which products are safe for consumers?
According to a recent ORC poll commissioned by the Center for Accountability in Science, respondents overwhelmingly placed the most faith in federal health and environmental regulatory agencies–ahead of environmental advocacy groups, university scientists, and the news media. But government agencies aren’t always good arbiters of sound science, either.
Last year, “60 Minutes” broke a shocking story: Lumber Liquidators, a discount flooring chain, was selling Chinese-manufactured laminate flooring containing the chemical formaldehyde in levels well above those allowed by law. At high levels, formaldehyde can cause irritation of the eyes, noses, and throats in many people–symptoms experienced by many of the home owners interviewed by CBS.
Based on these findings, the federal government started to take action. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal agency that regulates the sale of consumer products, took samples from the same flooring as “60 Minutes” and performed their own testing. The agency then turned the results over to the Centers for Disease Control. However, instead of confirming “60 Minutes'” warning to consumers, early last month the CDC announced the company’s flooring posed only minimum health risks.
Why the discrepancy? It turns out the CDC made a key math error, mixing up feet and meters in its calculations. After correcting the error, the agency found formaldehyde exposure from Lumber Liquidators’ flooring is three times higher than the CDC originally calculated (though the risk of cancer from the flooring remains very low). In this case, the media was right and the government was wrong.
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