You cannot turn the page of a newspaper these days without catching the latest worrying headline regarding the next thing that’s bad for you (which often conflicts with the previous day’s dire warnings!) – drink coffee / don’t touch caffeine, enjoy a glass of wine / don’t drink alcohol! Nowadays, anyone with access to the internet can find a wealth of information, but how reliable is it? Whether the issue is Bisphenol A (BPA) in baby’s bottles and children’s toys, lead in children’s drinking cups (see our Christmas blog on the dangers of heavy metals in decorative drinkware), or phthalates in cosmetic products, it is important to assess the actual science behind the headlines. It used to be bad enough with the main stream media – yes Daily Mail, we are talking about you – but little did we know that the Web, in all its glory, was on its way. Obviously, the hypochondriac tendency in us all is keen to be fed and watered, but we must strive to keep it under some sort of control.

What bibra does on a large scale (in assessing the likelihood of risk), you the consumer can do on a smaller scale. You need to understand a chemical’s toxic hazard, and to know the exposure, as it is only by considering these two factors together that you are able to attempt an assessment of risk. Here are some points to consider:

  • Validate your source. Is it reputable or just someone’s personal blog? Does the writer have any affiliation or vested interest? Do not simply accept the truth of what you read without first doing your research on its likely authenticity! If you find yourself accessing original data (e.g. on the toxicity of a chemical), is it in the peer-reviewed literature and, better still, has it been reproduced and validated? You need to determine the evidence (‘weight of evidence’) for (or against) that chemical (or exposure) having the described effect(s). Or perhaps you’re looking to use a specific pharmaceutical, in which case first look for human studies to see what effects might have been reported! And preferably, a large group (i.e. the scientists didn’t just test on themselves – The Amazing Spiderman and huge lizard-man nemesis ringing any bells?!)
  • Try to identify ‘Expert Group’ reviews drawn up by well-informed scientists who have come together to deliberate on a particular topic of interest/concern. Examples of such Expert Groups include EFSA (the European Food Safety Authority), the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the UK SACN (Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition). If you’ve identified a review from such a source, it can provide a good pointer to the key toxicity data (although sometimes different agencies reach differing conclusions on their significance)
  • Determine the level of exposure i.e. HOW is the chemical/product being used, WHERE is it being used, and in WHAT quantities? Quantification of exposure has to be the starting point of any risk assessment. In bibra risk assessments we are often asked to make worst-case assumptions, to ensure that we cover all bases. You should do the same as a user/consumer of a product. Concerns arise, and can spread like wildfire, when misinformation is given regarding the actual human exposure, or when there is a lack of information on exposure. So every time you see a story written with the sole purpose of “hyping up” the public (but disguised as “helping keep the public informed”), just be vigilant about how the reported exposures actually relate to you
  • Determine the route of exposure i.e. oral (you swallowed it), dermal (you put it on your skin), or via inhalation (you breathed it in). (For some products, notably medical devices, you may also find reference to injection routes.) Risk is a product of hazard and exposure, without one or the other there is no risk. In the words of one of our Toxicology Directors, Pete, “Fire is a hazard. We can all be sure of that. If you’re 10,000 miles away from a fire, your exposure is zero and therefore so is your risk. The closer you get to the fire, the higher your exposure will be, and therefore the higher the risk. If you stand next to a fire, you will get burnt!” We all know the lung-damaging effects of asbestos when inhaled, but it will have no such effect if you stand next to it, or even touch it (assuming you’re not disrupting the particles and breathing them in!)
  • Consider the effect(s) that you might be attributing to a particular exposure. Is it/are they commonly observed anyway? Do they arise after the exposure? Could other, concurrent, exposures be responsible? Is there a biological rationale for the incriminated compound producing the observed effect?

As well as alerting you to the various issues that might arise, we hope this helps give you a clearer path when doing your own research. It can be very easy to ‘fall down a rabbit hole’ (where, if you’re looking for something damning, you’ll eventually find it – whether it’s actually true, or not!). So the key is, to keep your eyes open (your mouth closed, and your hands gloved), be well-informed, and don’t always assume you are going to die…at least not at any time soon.


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