Tag Archives: chemicals

So, what is the point of Hecht’s latest press release?

posted by Carl V Phillips

I have been asked two very good questions about this topic:  (1) Is it really fair to treat Hecht as if his new claims reflect the same type of serial anti-THR lying found in Ellen Hahn?  (2) What exactly was the research that Hecht was touting in this press release?  The two questions are closely related, and one of them can be answered.

“This is the first example of a strong oral cavity carcinogen that’s in smokeless tobacco,” said Stephen Hecht, Ph.D., who led the study. “Our results are very important in regard to the growing use of smokeless tobacco in the world, especially among younger people who think it is a safer form of tobacco than cigarettes. We now have the identity of the only known strong oral carcinogen in these products.”

The answer to (1) is right there, in “…who think it is a safer form of tobacco than cigarettes.”  Out-of-control activists like Hahn might actually know very little about the relevant science they claim to be expert about, but Hecht has been at the center of anti-tobacco politics and research for many years.  There is no possibility he has failed to learn that smokeless tobacco is indisputably a safer form of tobacco than cigarettes.  Even in the unlikely event that he believes everything else he claims, the much lower risk of smokeless would still be obvious to him.  Perhaps his lies about the epidemiology, analyzed yesterday, could be seen as merely trying to puff up the perceived importance of his unimportant research rather than primarily being an active anti-THR effort.  But that “…who think…” lie is clear and obvious evidence of anti-THR activism disguised as science, which perfectly represents Hecht’s behavior over the years.

Notice also the “first” wording.  This is clearly meant to imply something like, “up until now, we were not really worried about smokeless tobacco causing oral cancer, but now we should look into it.”  The thing is, Hecht has been claiming that smokeless tobacco causes oral cancer for over a decade, claiming that the nitrosamines he has repeatedly reported on (particularly the chemicals known as NNN and NNK) were sufficient proof of that.  He has reported lab studies of basically the same thing, over and over and over again, and whatever the study result, his conclusions remained based on his politics.  His studies never changed the fact that the actual health science shows no measurable risk of cancer.  But that evidence never stopped Hecht from claiming that each of his non-new results provided new evidence that smokeless tobacco causes a high risk of cancer.

So what did he do this time?  It is very difficult to figure out because all we have is the press release.  Issuing a press release without making a working paper available is anti-scientific behavior in itself; even if everything presented were true, we are being asked to accept someone’s asserted conclusions without knowing their basis for those conclusions.  Some commentators focus on the lack of “peer review” in press releases, but this is really a red herring (peer review in health science is almost worthless — a topic for another day).  The real problem is the lack of information that would allow a reader to assess what was done and whether the methods and the conclusions seem reasonable.  All we actually know from the press release is that Hecht subjected rats to a mega-dose of a nitrosamine called (S)-NNN, presumably in a way that does not closely resemble smokeless tobacco use, though we do not know.  Some of the rats got cancer.

That is all we know.  We do not know what Hecht meant when he called this the first identification of a strong oral carcinogen in smokeless tobacco.  Is he admitting that his claims over the last decade about the other chemicals were lies?  Or are we supposed to conclude that “strong” has some subtle meaning, such that his previous claims were based on “non-strong” carcinogens and so he was not lying then about all of his claims then, but this is somehow different so he is not lying now about “first”?

Also we do not know how many trials Hecht ran, with how many different animals, with how many different chemicals administered in different doses and different ways, before he found a single result that made for good propaganda.  Actually, chances are we will never know that, even when this ends up in a journal.  When I said that toxicology was not inherently junk science, I glossed over the fact that this “hunt the carcinogen” branch of toxicology seems to have as its primary methodology, “keep doing ever-so-slightly different things until random error produces an outlier result for one trial, and then report on that result as if it were the only experiment that was done.”  That approach definitely qualifies as junk science.

The reader is not even told what (S)-NNN is, or how it differs from the NNN Hecht has been over-concluding about for years.  I could not easily find anything about it (e.g., it is not even clear whether this research represents Hecht discovering the chemical), though I am not a chemist so I might be missing something that the experts in that field could figure out.  But you know who are not experts in this entire area of chemistry?  Approximately everyone who reads the press release and the pseudo-news stories that resulted from it, who can thus be easily tricked by Hecht’s assertions.  All they came away “learning” were that Hecht and his ilk were not too worried about smokeless tobacco causing oral cancer last month, but based on this exciting new breakthrough, we should immediately take action.  More on that last aspect of the lies in the next post.

Scary scary formaldehyde

posted by Carl V Phillips with analysis from Elaine Keller and input from CASAA board

We finish up our debunking of Ellen Hahn’s project “Lie to College Students” with her claim,

In the cartridge:  Formaldehyde.  Highly toxic to all animals, including you.  Good for embalming dead bodies.  Causes cancer.

This is obviously another example of the same word games that were analyzed in previous posts, so we will not repeat those points.

The interesting thing about this point is that the chemistry studies of e-cigarettes do find that of all the contaminants, formaldehyde might be the one that is most worth trying to reduce.  Unlike the other chemicals that Hahn mentions, which are at tiny fractions of 1% of what is considered the hazardous level, formaldehyde might be in the neighborhood of 1% of what is considered hazardous level.  Of course, this “merely” 100-fold margin is hardly a cause for worry, and the quantity is similar to the exposure we get from other sources.  (There is also speculation that some of the formaldehyde measured in lab studies is from the vaper, not the vapor — the human body emits a measurable amount of this horrible scary toxic chemical.)  It is certainly a lie to say that this contamination causes cancer, as Hahn claims.

But among all of the trivial contaminants, this trivial contaminant might be worth a bit of engineering effort.  I do not know enough about the chemical engineering to know how practical or easy reducing it would be.  An honest scientist or public health advocate might say “this is unlikely to cause health problems, but it theoretically could be causing a tiny bit of needless risk, so maybe something can be done here to make these low-risk products even lower risk.”

But this is like saying, “seat belts seem to produce a bit more bruising near the clavicle compared to elsewhere when they prevent someone from getting killed in a major crash, so we might want to focus some effort to improve that part of the seat belt.”   You would have to very stupid and/or very dishonest to reason, “A bit of bruising near the clavicle?!!! OMG! Bruises can be fatal! Don’t use seat belts!”


A short post today, but we will make up for it tomorrow, when we publish 26 pages about Hahn’s lies.  Stay tuned.

Beware: e-cigarette vapor contains (gasp!) air.

posted by Carl V. Phillips

We continue Ellen Hahn week here at Anti-THR Lies (not to be confused with Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, since only one of them is about a single-minded evolutionary throwback whose actions are likely to kill hundreds of people every year if left unchecked).  We already addressed the rhetoric from her anti-e-cigarette poster, which is designed to trick people into being irrationally fearful about common chemicals.  This includes, specifically, the common (as in: found in pretty much everything in the biosphere) organic chemicals, acetone and xylene.  But how much of those chemicals is actually found in e-cigarette liquid or vapor?

The particular source that Hahn cites in her recent advocacy paper (which is the only reference in the poster and is consistent with other study results) found a concentration of less than 1/1000th of NIH’s recommended exposure limit for acetone in the air, close to 1/10,000th of the OSHA limit.  There are arguments that these limits are a bit too high, especially for some sensitive people, but not 1000 times too high.  Moreover, those US government specified limits are for someone’s average exposure throughout the day, so the exposure from vaping needs to be averaged across the entire day for comparison, making it far less than a one millionth of the exposure that is considered worrisome.   The ratios for xylene are a bit lower still.

In case Hahn simply does not understand what these numbers mean, the author of the study she cited (and thus what she implicitly claims is a sufficient source of information about this topic unambiguously concluded that these his results show there is no unexpected risk from this exposure.   So Hahn has no room to plead ignorance.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate that Hahn’s claim — that people should worry about e-cigarettes because of these two chemicals — is a blatant lie, however, is not a comparison to recommended maximum limits, but a comparison to air.  The concentrations of these chemicals in e-cigarette vapor — again, using those 2008 numbers — was only a few times higher than what is found in the outdoor air that most of us breathe.  A lot of what was measured was from the air, in other words, especially because the indoor air in a research facility might have concentrations many times as high as outdoor air.

Since these chemicals are at only slightly higher concentrations than the air, and since someone’s total volume of vapor intake is so small, when someone takes a pull on an e-cigarette and then tops it off with a full breath, most of the acetone and xylene in their airways is from the air, not the e-cigarette.  Someone who doubles their breathing rate for a minute or two, say by walking briskly or speaking, takes in more extra acetone and xylene than they would from a vaping session.

What is more, a more recent study found that the concentration of xylene the vapor was indistinguishable from that of the air.  That is, basically all of the measured xylene was contributed by the primary ingredient of vapor (air) rather than the additional contributions from the e-cigarette itself.

If Hahn was really worried about acetone exposure, she would be trying to shut down nail salons (where it often exceeds OSHA standards for the workers, and customers and innocent passers-by are exposed) not vaping.  But, of course, she does not really care.  She is just hunting for sciency-sounding anti-THR lies.

Those evil nitrosamines

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

Continuing the analysis of the lie-filled poster about e-cigarettes that Ellen Hahn and her people have been posting around the University of Kentucky campus:

In the cartridge: Nitrosamines. Known carcinogens.

Nitrosamines, or more particularly, two chemicals in the class known as “tobacco specific nitrosamines” (TSNAs) are a favorite target of anti-THR liars.  Mostly this is focused on anti-smokeless-tobacco efforts (as in the quote from the first entry in the series), which this series will get to later.  Those claims are bad enough, but the nitrosamine claims about e-cigarettes are even more absurd.

The basis for these claims is that when the FDA was seeking to completely ban e-cigarettes in the US (which a federal judge did not let them do), the agency produced a piece of rhetoric, disguised as science, in which they analyzed e-cigarette liquid down to the technological limits of detection, and found a few molecules of TSNAs.  The presence of this trace contamination was inevitable because the medical-grade nicotine used in e-cigarettes is derived from tobacco, and the process of extracting it will pick up a tiny little bit of contamination from other molecules that are also present in the plant.

The contamination is in the parts-per-billion (ppb) range, and it has never been detected in the vapor (though inevitably there are a few molecules there, as there are most everywhere).  To put that in perspective, Western smokeless tobacco, which does not cause cancer to a measurable degree, contains TSNAs in the parts-per-million (ppm) range — that is, about a thousand times as much.

This is another version of the chemophobia ploy, with the added rhetoric of the word “carcinogen”.  The honest statement is, “in very high concentrations these chemicals have been shown to cause cancer in animals, and it is hypothesized (though far from proven) that when they are in smokeless tobacco in the 100 ppm range, they cause a small but detectable risk for cancer; modern Western smokeless tobacco is in the 10 or 1 ppm range, and any cancer risk from it is too small to be measured; the concentration in e-cigarette liquid is in the .01 ppm range.”  But, of course, most people who read this simple statement “contains carcinogens” will think that there is evidence that using this product causes a substantial risk of cancer.  That is what the liars are counting on, whether they are trying to scare people about from tobacco, foods, pesticides, or whatever.

Well, that is what the liars who want to be able to claim “I did not actually say it causes cancer” count on.  Hahn — to her credit, I have to say — was willing to lie overtly rather than playing that weasel game.  The full quote:

In the cartridge: Nitrosamines. Known carcinogens. That means it causes cancer.

There is something a bit refreshing about such an out-and-out lie.

Not so refreshing is the hypocrisy:  Recall that the TSNAs are a trace contaminant of medical-grade nicotine.  What else uses medical grade nicotine?  The pharmaceutical nicotine products — gums, patches, lozenges — that Hahn aggressively pushes smokers to use.  In fact, the level of contamination found in e-cigarettes is about the same as is found in those products, and has never been found to exceed the allowable tolerances for them.

Now that is some seriously bold lying!


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.