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“Clear and Reasonable Warning”
Presenting proper scientific research or schilling a narrative?
“There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.” --Edward Abbey
Numbers can be confusing, but numbers without proper context can be downright befuddling. In measuring anything, the unit of measurement is as important as the number itself – units are meant to anchor the mind to a useful reference point. - Doomberg
In 1986 California voters passed Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 otherwise known as Proposition 65 in response to concerns over toxic chemicals found in drinking water. Part of the objective of Prop 65 relied on a person’s right to know whether they were being exposed to such chemicals. This was to be done by providing a “clear and reasonable warning.” Right to know was and remains a staple of environmental law in the US and other industrialized nations and has easily extended the quality of life and/or saved the lives of millions of people, especially employees in certain industries who are exposed for long periods of time to harmful substances.
The entity of the state government in charge of this, California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment or OEHHA, aimed the scope more specifically at “chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.” OEHHA also requires an annual update of their list as new substances’ hazards are discovered. Anything deemed as, “naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals that are known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm. These chemicals include additives or ingredients in pesticides, common household products, food, drugs, dyes or solvents. Listed chemicals may also be used in manufacturing and construction, or they may be byproducts of chemical processes, such as motor vehicle exhaust,” is fair game for inclusion.
Nowadays, Prop 65 signs and labels are everywhere in California and increasingly on products sold outside the state thanks to 2018 reforms to the regulations under the administration of Jerry Brown Jr. (whose record is known for his environmentalism and anti-nuclear hysteria). Californians have long joked these signs and labels are everywhere, and ironically one of the stated goals of the 2018 reforms was to, “Reduce “over-warning” in which businesses provide unnecessary warnings for the content of a product, rather than exposure to a chemical.” These 2018 reforms mandate the revised warnings be affixed to far more items though which was among anybody with half a brain - a very predictable unintended consequence in terms of addressing concerns of “over-warning.” This is why people outside California see the warning on many of the products they purchase - especially online. Prop 65 warning labels - or more specifically the demands on increasing their use - have become a new bread and butter for rent-seeking law firms as well. Worth noting is that Prop 65 was apparently not written by experts in human health or the environment but instead by written by a public interest lawyer.
Aside from the Disneyland sign in the opening part of the post, here are some Prop 65 labels that are borderline ridiculous.
The scope has been extended beyond just drinking water to just near everything. OEHHA maintains and updates a long list of several hundred chemicals they deem as requiring the warning label and revise this list annually. There are, of course, other regulatory agencies who regulate some, if not many of these chemicals as well - most notably the US Federal Government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As a part of their regulations, each entity often provides a concentration of the chemical (often in parts per million, parts per billion, micrograms per milliliter, etc) and an exposure time. (This is all of course highly dependent on the chemical itself - we’re painting with a very broad brush here.) Certain chemicals are also more hazardous to certain populations such as pregnant and/or nursing women or children too.
State and Federal agencies even disagree on exposure limits for some of these substances.
In other words - it’s complicated.
Heck, even the State’s Prop 65 website has a long FAQ on whether Prop 65 warnings are required for coffee. (Spoiler alert: they do not) Yet such signs are visible in nearly every chain coffee shop in the state. For those interested in trying to make sense of whether they’re at risk from some sort of negative heath consequences from acrylamide the bugaboo substance that started the whole coffee thing feel free to try to make sense of it from any of the following websites:
Clear as mud, right?
And this is precisely one of the largest criticisms of Prop 65 warnings, barring really obvious examples such as lead, mercury, or arsenic, they’re often overused and fail to provide appropriate context for exposure to the hundreds of other chemicals the regulations demands be labeled. Neither a consumer stopping in a coffee shop for five minutes nor a full time employee of the same coffee shop is in a position with this firehose of information to determine whether they’re at risk or not to exposure of acrylamide.
A 2020 LA Times investigation (to their credit) cuts the the point, emphasis mine.
More than three decades into California’s right-to-know revolution, consumers today don’t know much about the health risks posed by consumer goods. It’s nearly impossible to tell whether to put down a product bearing a warning and choose one without it — either one may present a high risk, a low risk or no risk. The deepest internet dive is unlikely to surface an answer before consumers reach the checkout or finalize their order online. - LA Times via Yahoo News
Some perhaps argue that being overly conservative and perhaps to the point of paranoia about these chemicals is taking a “better safe than sorry” approach, and that’s certainly an argument worth debating but it also runs the risk of creating too much of a high noise to signal ratio. In other words, people become so bombarded with something that its novelty factor decreases and it becomes part of the background noise for some and it creates overly sensitive high amounts of paranoia and neuroticism in others.
It parallels the constant fear-mongering in bicycling advocacy , hygiene theater (especially during COVID), security theatre (post 9-11), and of course the so-called “microaggressions” , “harms” and insisting everything is “violence” as often portrayed by the Woke and green hysteric types.
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With this in mind, I present the following article released today by none other then the Corporate Press rag, The Grey Lady herself.
The New York Times are infamous for placing a biased spin on climate issues.
The headline and sub-headline are scary sounding enough, as is the small “Climate Forward” box that encourages readers to subscribe to the Grey Lady for a continuous stream of climate doom porn. Or perhaps I’m just desensitized from all the Prop 65 mongering.
Benzene is no joke though and without little doubt is ripe for needing Prop 65 warnings. (and they do exist)
Long story short, benzene is a hydrocarbon (C₆H₆) often occurring naturally with other hydrocarbons (e.g. oil and gas) and has many industrial uses. But most notably it’s used as an anti-knocking agent in lead replacing gasoline. Concerns about benzene leaking from underground storage tanks and contaminating local groundwater lead, at least in the United States, to a reduction in its use for this purpose. Benzene’s hazard to human health and the environment has long been known but these days the people most likely at highest risk of meaningful exposure are probably workers in the petrochemical industry. At least in the United States where regulation is so strict.
The article discusses a study conducted by scientists at PSE Healthy Energy who describe themselves as, “a nonprofit research institute that studies the way energy production and use impact public health and the environment.1” And according to the NY Times article, their study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Except the NY Times piece doesn’t include the study name, nor a DOI, nor a link to the study so readers are unable to confirm this.
That’s no big deal though of course since the NY Times seems to be of the opinion their readers should not engage in critical thinking by diving down such rabbit holes. We all know the NYT is and has been truthful to their readers at all times anyways.
The NY Times walks us through the study - the researchers entered 159 homes in California and collected 185 samples they deemed usable (details of this what met these criteria are most likely listed in the actual study along with hopefully some context on whether the homes had proper ventilation hoods or not). I have questions about such a small sample size by the way! For some bizarre reason, they made note of the three primary investor-owned utilities in the state who provide natural gas service to the homes - PG&E, SoCal Gas, and SDG&E. Probably unknown to the journalist who wrote this is that such a thing isn’t terribly important since the utilities source their natural gas from the same transmission lines that bring it into the state.
The presence of benzene, so the study apparently states and the journalist writes with the usual NY Times style emits as much as 60,000 cars. Here a careful reader will note the journalist stated, “gas appliances and infrastructure” yet they contradict themselves by saying the samples here collected in homes. Homes != natural gas infrastructure! Infrastructure is the natural gas transmission, storage, and distribution system.
For context on the 60,000 car parameter, the CA Energy Commission states that in 2015 there were over 15 million registered light-duty cars in the state. That’s not including medium and heavy duty vehicles such as trucks or motorcycles either. Simple math indicates 60,000 cars is a whopping 0.4%. So if anything, the NY Times sets themselves up for a pretty interesting conundrum in the narrative they’re trying to spin. Maybe it’s the cars that should be banned? (I better not give them any ideas, the anti-car movement and their hysterics are already obnoxious enough)
Benzene from cars is a less severe issue relative to other hazards now that it’s been regulated so heavily in gasoline but emissions of it are not completely zero either. For some sensible context, noting one’s exposure while in the confined space of the car itself, where someone is likely to be exposed to higher concentrations for a significant period of time which is to say very different from spilling a bit of gasoline on one’s hand or inhaling trace amounts at a filling station.
What sort of toxicity is associated with benzene? What sort of exposure is required to produce the toxic effects? And most importantly, how does the level of dangerous exposure compare to that in a car? There is no do doubt that breathing high levels of benzene can cause dizziness, confusion, convulsions and even death. Benzene isn’t unusual in this capacity, many organic solvents can produce such effects. While such exposures can happen after an accidental spill or in some industrial setting, they are far from what is encountered in ambient air. The greater concern is low-level exposure over a protracted period. Studies investigating workers occupationally exposed to benzene have linked such exposure to leukemia. But how extensive is this exposure? The lowest levels that have been linked to leukemia are in the range of 30-80 milligrams per cubic meter. And that is when benzene at such concentrations is inhaled every working day for years. How does this compare with daily exposure for the general population? That exposure is in the range of 3 to 40 micrograms per cubic meter, in other words a thousand times less than the minimum occupational exposure that may cause a problem. How about inside a car? As one might expect, levels can be higher than outside, as much as 560 micrograms per cubic meter have been measured. This is still a hundred times less than the minimal occupational exposure linked to leukemia. And of course people are not exposed eight hours a day. Basically then, supposed benzene toxicity in a car is a non-issue. Of course it would not be a good idea to use benzene as an after-shave lotion as was done soon after its discovery by Michael Faraday two hundred years ago. We have learned a little about toxicity since that time. The extent of exposure is very important, and that in a car is minimal.
It’s exactly this type of context that the Prop 65 Warnings and this NY Times article leave out. Sure, there are plenty of highly toxic substances but their concentration and dosage are also required to be known in order to make sense of their actual hazard. We’re instead misled with the desire to zero out everything. We’re not provided any quantities such as how much benzene is in one cubic foot of natural gas which could help us conceptualize the hazard when taking into account exposure time such as what was done in the above quote.
The NY Times sort of admits this dosage+time formula it in their quote too they write, “Long-term exposure to significant amounts of the chemical can increase the risk of blood disorders and certain cancers like leukemia.” But to add to their doom-mongering they continue, “The most prevalent of those pollutants was benzene, a highly flammable chemical that can be colorless and odorless, which makes it hard to detect when it leaks.“
While it’s true that benzene is tasteless and odorless, they’re literally telling us it’s coming into the homes via natural gas delivery. Natural gas has also odorless and tasteless but has an additive called mercaptan which gives it a rotten egg smell. The purpose of adding mercaptan is to aid in detecting leaks.
The NY Times journalist presumably thinks she has a counter to this as they’ve linked to an earlier doom piece about natural gas supposedly leaking out into homes even with valves shut off and how that will also contribute to the emissions of benzene. Properly maintained and shut-off valves and good ventilation go a long way, and the NY Times neglected these simple, uh hacks for the most part. This easier solution that doesn’t require massive central planning, reworking people’s lives, or the other fiat shenanigans draws parallels to how to fix the plastic pollution problem as described so eloquently by Handwaving Freakoutry in his piece on straws.
They also quote two supposed experts from fiat academia, footnote mine.
While the detected levels of the chemical in most of the samples were low, benzene accumulates in the body over a person’s lifetime, and health risks increase almost linearly with exposure, said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, a pediatrician and public health professor at Boston College who was not involved in the study. “There is really no safe threshold” for benzene exposure, he added2.
Outside of smoking, “most of the major sources of benzene in our lives are associated with fossil fuels,” said Rob Jackson, an earth scientist at Stanford University who did not work on the study. Those sources include motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline, and products made with petrochemicals, like plastics, rubbers and detergents.
This goes, once again, back to the issue with Prop 65 and that these chemicals are apparently quite literally everywhere in some way or another. While there are a lot of highly intelligent and useful academics, there are also plenty who’ve spent way too much time in their echo-chambers in fiat academia and have no idea where the things they take for granted come from. It’s easy to assert from the Ivory Tower what people should do and how they should live.
The NY Times journalists are of course no different. Here they go
gaslighting the narrative about natural gas to electrification schemes (criticized in this piece on the San Diego Climate Action Plan). Yet they ignore all the downsides and tradeoffs of electrification such as cost to property owners and the notorious issues increasing loads on the electrical grid3.
Increasingly, environmentalists and local officials in states like California and Massachusetts have pushed to phase out gas appliances in favor of electric ones, mostly citing the emissions impact of burning fossil fuels like natural gas. Homes and buildings are directly responsible for about 13 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from gas burned in stoves, ovens, hot water heaters and furnaces.
For what it’s worth, the study itself is probably not all that bad, even though it appears PSE Healthy Energy has an activist bent to them which is going to likely encourage them to go conclusion-shopping to fit their agenda. They probably need a larger sample size and the experiments should be repeated by other researchers. This after all is part of how real science works! The New York Times though, is supposed to have journalists who can properly decipher this information for their readers.
Here they fail to do this.
As for those who do have natural gas stove in their homes and are concerned about indoor air pollutants - they are indeed an an issue - primarily in homes with older pipes which are more prone to small leakages and where poor ventilation exists.
Vaclav Smil in his book, Natural Gas: Fuel for the 21st Century dedicates a small sliver of his nearly 300 page book on natural gas states the following:
“Logue et al. (2013) found that in southern California typical gas range-generated indoor exposures to CO exceed the standards for ambient air and that hoodless cooking also causes excessive NO2 levels. Data collected as a part of the European Community Respiratory Health Survey showed no significant association between respiratory symptoms and gas cooking in males, but for females there, compared to electric cooking, symptoms suggestive of some airway obstruction (Jarvis et al., 1998). A more recent Norwegian study found that gas cooking produces higher levels of cancer-causing fumes than does electric cooking, but all recorded levels were below permissible occupational thresholds (Sjaastad, Jørgensen, and Svendsen, 2010).”
Unlike the NY Times, Smil not only went into the immense detail he’s known for but he properly cited the two studies which informed his decision. Links to those are embedded in the quote above. Smil is a straight shooter not trying to schill a narrative too.
The NY Times and the activist crowd insist on a full out replacement of natural gas everything in the home either without regard to actual cost or simply stating large amounts of fiat subsidies will be thrown at the problem. These moves are touted as both the solution to indoor air quality issues and the substances’ contribution towards climate change. (always missing of course is compared to what? - especially in the rest of the world - there are far bigger and easier fish to fry.)
If they were genuinely interested in properly informing their readers, they’d provide proper context such as in the example of what Handwaving Freakoutry did with nuclear power or what Doomberg did with natural gas. Both are examples of incredibly talented communicators. Doomberg’s opening quote in the opening of this piece summarizes part of the issue quite nicely.
Instead the NY Times continues to scramble truth and further mangle The Knowledge System with their own version of the game telephone.
The NY Times author literally plagiarized PSE’s line as their own: “Several authors of the study, including Dr. Lebel, are senior scientists at PSE Healthy Energy, a nonprofit research institute focused on the public health and climate effects of energy production.
This is misleading catastrophism. CA’s permissible exposure limits for airborne are, “The maximum time-weighed average exposure limit is 1 part of benzene vapor per million parts of air (1 ppm) for an 8-hour workday and the maximum short-term exposure limit (STEL) is 5 ppm as averaged over a 15-minute sampling period.”
New Yorkers, under the bold leadership of noble science follower Andrew Cuomo shut down their only nuclear power plant recently leading to a spike in carbon emissions and an ever greater struggle to secure reliable and clean electricity