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Toxicology in the Age of Twitter

By: Steve Herman
Posted: March 8, 2011, from the March 2011 issue of GCI Magazine.

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There are a few issues at the heart of consumer concerns. Household products and fragrances aren’t required to have ingredient labeling, and, for some, there is the perception that they are laden with toxic secret ingredients. Then there are those who simply think chemicals are bad and natural products are good.

They are able to believe, at a profound level, that natural products are not made from chemicals. Finally, there is the fact that some chemicals are indeed bad, but generally the effect depends on the exposure conditions. Taking the narrative to exposure rather than risk is essential to win consumer confidence.

Dosages and Signal to Noise Ratio

The basic principle underlying all toxicology is credited to Paracelsus, the Swiss-born physician/chemist credited with developing a mineral-based chemical approach to human health problems: The poisonous potential of a substance depends on its dose. Michael Jackson and his use of propofol is an example: A little bit, just 25 mg, is a sleep aid. Piling it on and combining it with benzodiazepines is deadly. Yes, the dose makes the poison.

In regards to the body’s response to an essential nutrient, too little and there is illness, too much and there is illness, possibly fatality. The right amount sustains health. No concept in safe drug use, nutrition or any chemical exposure is more important than dosage. Yet many consumers find it hard to apply this simple idea to cosmetics or perfumes.

Where can consumers turn for information? In the Age of Twitter, information is abundant, but the signal-to-noise ratio threatens the accuracy of the message. One can turn to companies, industry organizations, consumer groups and non-governmental organizations, the media, the government or the toxicologists themselves.