Chemophobia

posted by Carl V Phillips (with input from CASAA board)

Another classic anti-THR lie that dates back to the early days of anti-THR is the “list the chemicals” ploy.  When I first started documenting the lies, one favorite was an oft-copied list of chemicals that could be found in smokeless tobacco, along with a scary example of where else each could be found.  For example, “acetone, found in nail polish remover” or “water, found in the smallpox virus and used as a torture tool by the US government”.  The most memorable was “cadmium, found in car batteries”, which was funny because this appeared consistently in the lists, even though car batteries (unlike many rechargeable small batteries) do not use cadmium, and so any cadmium in them is — as with smokeless tobacco — a trace contaminant.

Of course, I was joking about them mentioning the water and the various nasty things it is a part of.  It illustrates the dishonest of their rhetoric:  Every relatively common chemical is a key ingredient in something nasty, and every relatively common chemical can be found in almost everything.  By “relatively common”, I mean basically any of the thousands of chemicals whose name a well-read non-chemist has ever heard.

Imagine my lack of shock when I discovered that the University of Kentucky’s Ellen J. Hahn was using this paleolithic tactic.  In the poster that we started discussing yesterday, she claims that e-cigarettes contain several specific chemicals and then tries to make that sound like it matters.  Putting off the issues of quantity and other more specific points, consider just the rhetoric:  “In the vapor: Acetone and Xylene. Nail polish remover and paint thinner?  You’re going to breathe that?”

Cute game there, never actually making a statement:  Not “you should not breathe that”, but “you are going to?”  Similarly, that first question mark might be a way of pretending to not be lying by pretending it is merely a question (sometimes known as the Fox News tactic):  “Is something that contains a tiny bit of these chemicals similar to nail polish remover and paint thinner?  No, of course not.”;  compare: “Ellen Hahn, a cannibal?  No of course not.  Or at least I confidently conclude even though I do not have definitive proof, since I am capable of sensible scientific reasoning.”

So, even though it does not actually make any health claims or recommendations, does this series of vague and weirdly punctuated words constitute a lie (or two or three)?  Absolutely.  The message is clearly intended to be, “breathing e-cigarette vapor is similar to breathing fumes from nasty solvents” or even “you would be as stupid to vape an e-cigarette as you would to huff paint thinner like a kid in a third-world slum.”  There is no honest content whatsoever in the invocation of what these chemicals are sometimes used for; this information is irrelevant, but the reader is led to assume it is meaningful and to draw the obvious conclusion about what it means.  The only reason for including those words is to mislead the reader.

Oh, and incidentally, xylene is an uncommon choice as a paint thinner.  The most commonly used paint thinner is water.  And every year, almost 400,000 people die from inhaling water.

4 responses to “Chemophobia

  1. Mentioning Fox news is a huge mistake in my opinion. Particularly when all of the other news organizations do the very same thing the author is accusing Fox of doing. Why even go there and risk upsetting half the population on an unrelated
    matter to the point of the editorial? It is going to take help from both sides of the political spectrum to win our battle and an organization like CASAA needs to stay away from any taint of political leaning.

    • Carl V Phillips

      Steve, I should clarify that I am not supporting any partisan position or suggesting that I would expect general agreement on unrelated issues. But I can see how someone might interpret it that way, so thank you for giving me a chance to clarify.

      The theme of this blog might be seen as one of anti-partisanship, in the sense of objecting to the notion that political decisions should be seen as being competing teams in some kind of game. The whole premise is that some people can see past that “my team” stuff and understand what the science and facts really are. (This unspoken premise is why it did not even occur to me that mentioning what I thought was a well-known metaphor to provide context would be seen as partisan.) I remain the eternal optimist that people can believe in the superiority of some particular position (re power politics, drug use, or whatever) and still recognize that some of what is done or said in support of that cause is not so respectable.

      That is actually a useful segue for me because I want to write about that theme here in the next few days re a dubious pro-THR claim that is making the rounds. My personal bias is to be much more concerned about dishonest claims from the side I support rather than the other side, but I will explain that later.

      This all relates to my biggest fear for the success of THR, which stems from the “my team” versus “your team” urge that is so common in our politics: People like Hahn are accepted members of Team Public Health, Team Anti-Smoking, and Team Protect Innocent Children From Evil Corporations, and there are a lot of people out there who think of those as their teams. THR advocacy will be on the losing side if we cannot figure out how to move opponents away from this sports-fan – or perhaps its gang-fight – mentality: “that person is on ‘my team’ so I will believe her and rally to her defense without worrying about the content of her claims” and “that guy criticized something someone on ‘my team’ said so I will disdain him”. Unless we can figure out how to break through those partisan tendencies – so that people are willing to think “I support organized public health efforts and anti-smoking, but the anti-THR people are full of crap” – then we are going to face tough partisan opposition.

  2. Pingback: Scary scary formaldehyde | Anti-THR Lie of the Day

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s