Ignore the Carolers of Doom

Commentary, Climate, Kenneth P. Green

The end of the year features a variety of excesses: people eat too much yummy food, drink too many intoxicating beverages, engage in unseemly displays of lawn, home, and garden kitsch, and in general, try to relax and celebrate the end of a tough year and the promise of a better one. And as the holiday season brings out the carolers of joy, love, and celebration, these days they also summon the carolers of doom, to tell you why you should not have a good time.

The newest doom-carol could be “buy thee not that plastic gewgaw,” as once again the forces of plastiphobia have resurrected worries about an obscure, and often mispronounced and misunderstood groups of chemicals called phthalates (“thall-eights”). Pthalates are chemical “plasticizers,” that is, they render what would otherwise be stiff and rigid plastics into flexible and formable plastics. In other words, they make plastics plasticy. 

Back in October, CTV published an article warning us to watch out for the dreaded “everywhere” chemicals based on a new study (well, a rehashed older study, really) “Phthalates and attributable mortaility: a population-based longitudinal cohort study and cost analysis,” published in the Journal Environmental Pollution, (October 12, 2021). The CBC, not to be outdone, warns about the risks of exposure to phthalates, in consumer goods available for sale this holiday season, including, among other things, a jacket for toddlers, a plastic purse, a transparent tote bag, and, critically, a “children’s dress featuring Elsa from the movie Frozen.” Of course, the fact that “None [of these products] exceeded Health Canada’s limits” on exposure to phthalates is mentioned as an afterthought, as is the reality that to face any risk, children would have had to eat the products, rather than wear them. 

The author of the “new” study on phthalates channels his inner Raymond Chandler, when talking to the New York Post, saying “These chemicals have a rap sheet and the fact of the matter is that when you look at the entire body of evidence, it provides a haunting pattern of concern.” Dr. Trasande goes on, stating, “…we already know phthalates mess with the male sex hormone, testosterone, which is a predictor of adult cardiovascular disease. And we already know that these exposures can contribute to multiple conditions associated with mortality, such as obesity and diabetes.”

But what’s inside the new phthalate scare study of 2021? Not much. As I explain in this article for Reason Foundation, the Trasande study suggests that people exposed to phthalates over a decade ago had a slightly higher risk of death (from some unspecified cause), than people who were not exposed. But the risk demonstrated is trivial, correlation-based, and the study population was not representative of the overall population. The Trasande study suggested elevated risks of 10-12 percent for the exposed compared to the non-exposed, but as the US CDC explains, this type of risk ratio is not particularly worrisome unless it’s over 10 times as high for the exposed vs. non-exposed. Yes, you read that right. Ten times as high. And Trasande is talking about an elevation of 10 to 20 percent.

So, this holiday season, people should ignore the plastiphobic doom-sayers, and enjoy themselves. It’s been a rough two years, so if you want to drink a plastic cupful of eggnog, you carried home from the grocery store in a plastic bag, you can enjoy it (responsibly!) without worrying about death by plastic.


Ken Green is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. www.fcpp.org

Photo by Nicole Michalou from Pexels.